Bomb survivor tells his story

Hoe Street bomb survivor John Spears outside the shop where his grandmother was buried alive in 1944
Bomb survivor John Spears outside the shop where his grandmother was buried alive in 1944

75 years after being blown out his pram by a Second World War bomb, John Spears speaks to James Cracknell

John Spears has an unusually early first memory.

In August 1944, one month shy of his second birthday, John recalls seeing several buildings going up in flames after a bomb had been dropped in the middle of Walthamstow town centre. Moments earlier, the force from the bomb had lifted him out of his pram.

John was a survivor of the infamous Hoe Street bomb blast which claimed 22 lives and injured 144 others. After reading an article in the Echo to commemorate the 75th anniversary John got in touch with me to reveal that he had witnessed it himself.

“I remember the burning buildings,” John recalled. “My mother later told me I was blown out of my pram.”

John was living with his family in Rectory Road, having been born in Church Hill. His grandparents ran a greengrocers in Walthamstow High Street, near the junction with Hoe Street, and sold fruit and veg from a stall directly outside the shop.

The V1 ‘flying bomb’ hit this junction shortly before 10am on Wednesday 16th August 1944. John’s mother Rose worked at her parents’ greengrocers and was on her way to the shop with John in his pram when the bomb hit.

“She was coming down Church Hill. I was blown into someone’s front garden, I assume my mother was blown off her feet as well. She gathered me up and could see what had happened – her first thought was for her mother and father.

“I only had bruises, nothing else. She dropped me at a friend’s house and rushed down the hill but the road was already taped off, they wouldn’t let her through.”

Rose had an anxious wait to find out whether her parents were alive or dead. It wasn’t until four hours later that she discovered what had happened.

“My grandfather had run out of apples on the stall,” said John. “He went through the shop to the yard at the back to pick up another box of apples.

“There were two or three customers on the stall when he left it – they were all killed.

“My grandmother was just inside the shop. She got blown through a mirror and was buried under several tonnes of cabbages and whatever else. My grandfather wasn’t hurt but he couldn’t get out of the yard and my grandmother was buried.

“They spent four hours digging her out. Unbelievably, she only had cuts and bruises.”

John’s grandparents Ernest and Lillian were incredibly lucky to survive the bombing unscathed, but their shop was badly damaged like so many others in the area. The shops on the corner of Hoe Street had to be demolished and on the other side only clothing store Burton’s was left standing. But Ernest and Lillian managed to repair their shop and continued to run it for another 23 years.

“My grandfather had fought through the First World War so he wasn’t that bothered by the bomb, but my grandmother was very badly shaken. They got the shop back open within a year and kept running it until about 1968.”

John, now aged 77 and living in Leyton, says this is the first time he’s told his story of the Hoe Street bomb in as much detail for several decades. When there was a memorial service for the 75th anniversary in August, he didn’t even know about it.

“It has never really troubled me, I’ve not had nightmares or anything like that. My children know about it but it’s not a story I tell often.”