Friday November 10, 2017

The fight to save a hidden part of Britain's war history

A fence in London, England, made from stretchers from the Second World War.

A fence in London, England, made from stretchers from the Second World War. (Stretcher Railing Society)

Listen 3:26

On London streets, the remains of Second World War stretchers have been hiding in plain sight — and have been for decades.

They're now fences surrounding some of London's estates, as the Air Raid Precautions' metal stretchers were repurposed to replace fencing lost in the war.

These stretchers make otherwise innocuous buildings part of the historical fabric of the city, and have led conservationists to push for their preservation and identification.

    

Lost in the city's architecture 

"A set [of railings] in London near East Dulwich started to be removed and it spurred us into action," architectural conservationist Rosie Shaw, founder of the Stretcher Railing Society, tells Day 6.

Decades of rust and damage led the local council to initially decide to remove the railings from the East Dulwich Estate on Dog Kennel Hill.

Stetchers in use during WWII

A woman shakes the hand of her rescuer, an officer with an Air Raid Precautions team, as she is carried away on a stretcher following a German bombing raid on London in October 1940. (Getty Images)

"We have removed fencing where it was in a very poor state due to extensive rusting and disintegration, but have preserved four of the fences outside Badminton House," Councillor Mark Williams told the Southwark News in August.

He noted that Badminton House, a nearby estate, had kept some of its existing railings and aimed to maintain them.

The Southwark Council governs a London borough that contains many of the stretcher railings, according to the Stretcher Railing Society. 

    

Preserving pieces of history

Along with Shaw, architect Benny O'Looney created a website for the society to ensure the railings would be preserved in the future.

"I think for my generation, our grandparents and great-uncles that are slowly passing away — there's a very strong sense that that connection to the wartime past is disappearing, and these are physical reminders of the people in the war," Shaw explains.

railings

A fence made from Second World War stretchers in south London, spotted by the Stretcher Railing Society. (Stretcher Railing Society)

The stretcher fencing is usually black in colour, with steel railings around the edge and steel mesh in the middle.

A telltale giveaway as to whether a fence was built out of one of the wartime stretchers is that you can see curved handles along the railings that would have originally been used to carry the stretchers along.

    

Surplus stretchers

The stretchers were made of metal because officials at the time feared gas attacks by the Germans would make it necessary to frequently wipe them down. That never ended up happening, but the roughly 600,000 stretchers were still often used to carry the bodies of wounded soldiers.

"There's a strong sense that connection to the wartime past is disappearing, and these are physical reminders of the people in the war." - Rosie Shaw, founder of the Stretcher Railing Society

An abundance of stretchers were produced, however, and after the war a huge surplus remained, so they were put to use rebuilding parts of the city. The metal structures were used across Britain, but most prominently in south and east London.

railing stretcher

A stretcher railing can be identified by a curved bar along the fence that was originally used as a handle to carry the stretcher. (Stretcher Railing Society/Instagram)

"When … someone told me about them, I think was slightly taken aback and I think it was more of a human connection to them, really," Shaw says.

"To look at the volunteers who were using them and the lives that were saved [or] maybe lost on them ... I think that's why so many people have responded to them in the way that they have."

The Stretcher Railing Society has had some success recently as the Southwark Council has decided to begin cataloguing the locations of all the railings.

According to the Southwark News, the council also plans to help protect the railings with a new planning regulation that would flag any instance of a developer wanting to work on a property that features such railings.

Shaw has hope that English Heritage, a registered charity which manages historic sites across England, will be able to use that list as a jumping-off point for a larger London-wide list to ensure the remaining stretcher railings continue to exist.


To hear the full conversation with Rosie Shaw, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.