British Architect Will Alsop once told me of his plans for a television show called “Where the Bombs Dropped”. His plans were to document the buildings that sprung up on the sites created by German bombing raids on London during WWII. Anyone can put together their own episode of the program in their mind during a casual wander through certain areas of London. That large 1950s housing estate that sits awkwardly against a tidy row of Victorian Houses? That’s where a bomb dropped.
The Second World War is firmly imprinted on the physical and psychological fabric of Britain, but relatively few people realize just how literally a handful of public housing estates in the city are defined by physical remnants of the war.
On Atkins Road, halfway between Clapham and Brixton Hill, a housing estate is ringed by a fence made from WWII stretchers. The so-called “stretcher fences” come up often when London’s “historical oddities” are discussed. They seemed almost too odd to be anything but urban legend until I came across one just a short walk from home during my London years. The most notable thing about them is that they make such good fences you have to know what you’re looking at to realize the fence is anything but a normal, functional fence. But here, stretching along Atkins Road, were well over a hundred WWII stretchers, welded end to end to form the border of the housing estate.
The stretchers themselves have a story. They were invented in 1939 as a replacement for the usual wood and canvas stretcher. The new all-metal design, different from the previous cotton and wood construction, would allow them to be easily decontaminated after a gas attack, which was expected to be launched on London at some point. They were used by the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service, a wartime ambulance unit operated mostly by women whose specific mission was to remove the wounded after bombing raids.
When the war ended, there were so many in surplus that they were repurposed as fencing for many of the housing estates built on former bomb sites. They’ve lasted well for nearly 80 year-old repurposed items, and can be seen in a few other locations in London such on Peckham Road, Camberwell, near the cricket grounds in Kennington, at the Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney, and a few other locations.
A publication issued by the London Borough of Hackney documents the use of stretchers for fencing, and also reveals that they weren’t the only WWII material to be reused in post-war reconstruction. “The shortage of building materials at this time required a great deal of improvisation and re-cycling of materials,” the report notes. “The steel reinforcement for the floor slab was cut from Anderson air raid shelters and the aggregate from the crushed remains of other types of air raid shelter.”
The ease with which the stretchers and their mesh beds serve their repurposed function as fences makes it understandable that so many Londoners and residents of the housing estates aren’t aware of the story of the fencing material. But running my hand along the top railing of the stretcher fence, along the long poles at the side of the wire mesh, dipping with the legs that were meant to keep someone’s body off the ground, their previous function becomes so visceral. An almost haunting realization of their original purpose. Perhaps more people know of their history than let on; for some, it is easier to just think of the hundreds of stretchers meant for bodies as nothing more than a fence.