Westminster City Hall


By Andrew Yeo

Built in Portland Stone between 1890-1891 by Robert Walker to replace an earlier vestry hall, Westminster City Hall on St Martin’s Place WC2 was the nerve centre of the borough's civil defence response during the London Blitz.

The City of Westminster ARP Report Centre - St Marylebone had its own control centre at the Town Hall on Marylebone Road NW1 - operated in City Hall's basement and ground floor and was a hive of activity. Led by the borough's ARP Contoller (the Town Clerk) and a ten-member executive committee, the Centre reported to ARP Group Centre, Regional ARP Headquarters and the Home Office War Room at the Millbank Rotunda at Monck Street SW1.

The Report Centre's primary responsibility was to co-ordinate all incoming in/out ARP messages, deploy rescue teams and vehicles across the borough and request re-inforcements when required. Run by a Civil Defence Manager (Officer-in-Charge), the Centre's ground floor Control Room was manned around the clock by telephonists, messengers, medical staff, engineers, rescue and decontamination officials. They were supported by banks of telephones and overlooked by maps of London. The Control Room was linked to two Reserve Centres (in the basement of Buckingham Palace Road Library and at Berkeley Square W1) and to four ARP Holding Depots across Westminster. Incoming bomb incident reports were received and dispensed swiftly to the Police, the Fire Service, Utility teams (responsible for coal gas, electricity, water, telephone and sewage mains repair), public transport and to Civil Defence officers during daylight and night air raids.

The Report Centre notified the Police of new incidents and the position of unexploded bombs. The Fire Service was called for assistance and informed of damage to water supplies. Civil Defence officials were responsible for sending ambulances, Light and Heavy Rescue crews, mortuary vans and mobile canteens - in so-called 'flying columns' - as well as the setting up of static and mobile Aid Posts and poison gas precaution services.

The Centre's Control Room handled hundreds of incoming telephone calls reporting incidents from ARP posts across Westminster. Centre staff recorded the details on paper message forms (at a rate of 400 messages per hour on an average day, increasing to 3,000 per hour during the heaviest night raids). These messages were organised by an 'in/out' system. In-Messages were colour-coded red whilst Out-Messages were coded black-and-white.

When raids occurred ARP post wardens phoned in Express Reports to the Control Room, alerting it to location and number of casualties. In-telephonists took down the message, made four copies, logged it in and passed it on for plotting on a Control Map. The Officer-in-Charge decided on the relevant response. Out-telephonists then rang Westminster's four ARP Holding Depots and ambulance stations to deploy the flying columns of emergency vehicles and rescue teams. If telephone communications to the Report Centre or between ARP posts were disrupted by bombing, messages were delivered by ARP runner.

The messages were tracked by telephonist initials and serial numbers and captured key incident information such as location, ARP post origin, date, time of ocurrence, type/s of bomb involved and action required. It was a critical system which kept the civil defence response in London flowing during the city's fight for survival in 1940-1945.

Finally, the Report Centre kept ARP Group & Regional Headquarters informed of operations and the repair work being carried out at particular sites. They also gathered vital information relating to road blockages or anything else that might impede Civil Defence and troop movements.

The intensity of German bombing across Westminster served only to underscore the importance of the Report Centre. Two incidents concerning the Centre are worth special mention – the first a matter of trivia, the second far more serious.

On the night of 6 November 1940 a high explosive bomb fell in Duncannon Street beside St-Martin’s-in-the-Fields, yards from City Hall. While only superficial harm was done to the stone side of the beautiful Anglican church, a woman was killed underground while sheltering. She was identified only by the collar on her cat. The cat itself escaped unharmed, and was adopted by the Report Centre as its mascot. The rotund feline, purported to be the largest cat in London, found its second home in the Special Action Officer’s letter basket, where its excess size often overflowed. The Report Centre staff believed that the cat knew when the siren would sound; many claimed it would snuggle itself in the letter basket some minutes before the air-raid messages came through.

Christmas celebrations were muted in 1940-1941. On 29 December an oil bomb hit the rear of City Hall, setting fire to the Council Chamber on the first floor (just above the Report Centre Control Room). A mass of flames engulfed the Council Chamber and complete darkness reigned in the Control Room. High explosive bombs falling in the vicinity had damaged the local water mains and council staff were unable to extinguish the main blaze. Instead, staff "concentrated on keeping small fires out" (Control Centre Report, December 1940). The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) arrived but faced similar difficulties obtaining water. The fire raging one floor above the Control Room - responsible for the whole of the borough's defences - continued for another four hours. By then, water from fire hoses had also flowed down the stairs, into the basement. The water-level reached knee-high. Fortunately, the Control Room itself was untouched by fire or water (it was situated a few feet higher than the rising water). Although the main switchboard was partially put out of order by the flooding, direct lines continued to work throughout the night. Despite these events workers in the Report Centre still had the stomach for a celebration, and a Christmas dinner involving rum, whisky, and turkey sandwiches was enjoyed.

After extensive damage the building was repaired in September 1942 and remained in use until the 1960s. Today, a branch of the National Westminster Bank occupies the former premises of City Hall and the Report Centre. The imposing stone facade of the building recalls its long civic heritage. The original Westminster Council portcullis coat of arms at the building's St Martin's Place entrance still proclaims: 'Custodi Civitatem Domine' ('Guard the City, O Lord'). 

Photo:Receiving and sending messages, Westminster City Hall

Receiving and sending messages, Westminster City Hall

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Civil Defence volunteers, Westminster

Civil Defence volunteers, Westminster

Copyright Westminster City Archive Centre

Photo:The Queen visits Westminster City Hall

The Queen visits Westminster City Hall

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St-Martin's-in-the-Fields Bomb Report, November 1940

St-Martin's-in-the-Fields Bomb Report, November 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:City Hall Bomb Report, December 1940

City Hall Bomb Report, December 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Repair and maintenance works report, September 1942

Repair and maintenance works report, September 1942

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Rubber stamps used at the Report Centre

Rubber stamps used at the Report Centre

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:City of Westminster commemorative plaque

City of Westminster commemorative plaque

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Former Westminster City Hall and Report Centre, St Martin's Place WC2

Former Westminster City Hall and Report Centre, St Martin's Place WC2

Andrew Yeo

Photo:Bomb Map: Westminster City Hall

Bomb Map: Westminster City Hall

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Former site of Report Centre, Westminster City Hall

This page was added by Andrew Yeo on 18/04/2012.

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