In August 1914 five squads of Special Constables – 282 men in all – were recruited as volunteers to help the ordinary police maintain order in Wimbledon following the start of World War One.
With street patrols both day and night, they were responsible for guarding all locations considered vulnerable, keeping an eye out for enemy aliens, ensuring orderly queues for food, and supporting the emergency services.
In due course, they also had an important role during enemy air raids.
In fact, Wimbledon’s experience of those during the First World War could not have been more different from the next war a quarter century later.
Whereas in the early 1940s, over 12,000 Wimbledon houses were damaged, around 2000 people made homeless, 1071 injured and 150 civilians killed by German air attacks, only a single air raid bomb actually hit Wimbledon in World War One and that was in the King’s College School playing field where it failed to explode.
Nevertheless, when the first German air attacks on London came in 1915 using Zeppelin airships there was inevitable shock and at the height of the campaign some serious damage and casualties in other areas.
With Wimbledon regarded as being outside the danger zone, the Town Clerk produced a poster on behalf of the Mayor telling the public to keep calm and remain in the vicinity rather than fleeing the borough.
This probably helped avoid too much panic in the streets. However, schools were ordered to keep their pupils under lock and key during the air raids after anxious parents began arriving to take their children away, just in case the buildings were hit. The authorities felt that exploding shrapnel in the streets could pose a much greater threat to the youngsters than damage to buildings.
Special Constables were given responsibility for observing and reporting enemy air movements as well as fires, and when the Wimbledon Borough Surveyor eventually sanctioned expenditure of £1000 on a number of buildings suitable for public shelters, they became responsible for supervising these and preserving order whenever air raid alarms were heard.
On every occasion, around three-quarters of the entire Special Constable force would report for duty, always risking exposure in the streets to bursting shrapnel although never actually suffering any casualties.
Wimbledon’s good fortune allowed them to be despatched to other districts in support of the Metropolitan police where bombs were actually causing destruction. There they guarded wrecked buildings and maintained order.
The air raid alarms always prompted a range of necessary precautions when sounded. The fire brigade and gangs of workmen would immediately assemble at the Council depot in Queen’s Road in readiness for shoring up buildings, cutting off streets and so on should the worst happen.
Building materials such as sand and timber were prepared at various locations for rapid repair work and teams of doctors and ambulances were organised. Some Special Constables had medical training too and carried out many emergency duties particularly during air raids when vulnerable members of the public suffered particular stress.
There may not have been any local bomb sites but Special Constables also supported fire-fighters at a recorded 275 fires in the Wimbledon area. These included major conflagrations at the SOS Company works in Durnsford Road, at Wimbledon High School for Girls where nearly the entire squad was involved for 24 hours, and at the Grain and Hay Stores and stables in the High Street. One Special Constable won an award for risking his life to rescue horses from the burning stables, another was recognised for stopping bolting horses from overturning a vehicle containing wounded soldiers.
This article is the third in a five-part series as The Wimbledon Society and the Wimbledon Guardian mark the centenary of the First World War, published each Friday throughout July and the beginning of August.
Next week: The Thimble that saved thousands of servicemen
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.