Historian Keith Foster examines the 100-year-old story of a Zeppelin bombing victim
A century ago the residents of Walthamstow and Leyton took their turn to suffer from bombs dropped by Zeppelin airships during the First World War.
The night of 23rd/24th September 1916 was the eighth time the Germans had inflicted an air-raid on London, and the third time they had flown over East London. This time there were believed to be eight civilian deaths resulting from the bombs they dropped in the Lea Bridge Road and Bakers Arms areas of Leyton.
The attacks, usually under cover of the darkest nights with no moon, followed a pattern whereby the Zeppelin crews watched for the flashing light of London’s trams as they passed along the otherwise darkened streets. This gave the crews a good expectation that by dropping their bombs in the direction of the flashes, they would be close to populated areas. Such indiscriminate actions obviously showed their orders did not specify that targets needed to be purely military ones.
On this night a bus driver, 25-year-old William Webb, was returning to the garage in Leyton Green, then part of the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC). He would have had every reason to then believe he would be enjoying his home comforts at 699 Lea Bridge Road where he lived, a mere five minutes away. He never made that short journey, for soon after parking up his empty bus he was struck by the flying shrapnel of an exploding bomb dropped from the unseen airship above.
Little more is known, mainly due to wartime newspaper censorship, and also because no staff records have survived for preservation at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. At least it is possible to purchase a copy of his death certificate, and this informs us that the cause of death was “laceration of brain” caused by the bomb fragments.
Research I’ve undertaken is now being released to ensure William Webb receives a prominent place in local history for the first time. Although driver Webb is recorded as an “air raid victim” on the war memorial at Leyton bus garage, it was only by determined efforts that I was able to locate Webb’s grave, together with its evocative inscription in a densely wooded area of a local cemetery in nearby Chingford.
With the help of museum assistant Gary Staines, two old photos cut from an unknown magazine were discovered, and they help to illustrate the funeral procession, led by a floral bus with the uniformed men and women of the bus company. Sadly what has so far proved impossible to trace, has been the cine film of the procession later advertised in the local newspaper as a feature at a cinema the week after the funeral.
It has been deduced from the account of the funeral that William Webb was a single man, and lived at home with his parents. The death certificate shows a brother, Mr A Webb, who was the informant on registration of the death. However, this has not proved useful in tracing any living relatives.
William Webb was one of dozens of victims of East London air raids in the First World War, however it is important that we don’t just remember the numbers killed but the stories of the lives behind them.