We finish where it all started, with the lady that made this whole project possible, my Great Aunt, Winifred Alexandra Wootton. This is the 34th and final biography of all the 34 firemen and firewomen who tragically lost their lives on that fateful night of April 20th 1941. Here is Aunt Win’s story.
Killed in the Line of Duty……….
Winifred Alexandra Wootton was born on 10th October 1901 in Edmonton in London, she was the second of 9 children born to William Tom Wootton and Emily Dodd Butterworth. The Wootton family were an extremely large family, even for these times, Winifred also had a further 6 half brothers and sisters from her father’s first marriage to Elizabeth Ellen Compton, who sadly died in 1898. Like many large families living in the East End of London at that time, life was tough, keeping a large family fed and watered was not easy. Add into the mix cramped conditions, lack of money and employment, these were certainly tough times to grow up in.
(The Wootton Sisters, Win is back row standing on the right)
In 1911 the Wootton family are living at 6, Bentley Terrace in Poplar, London, the family having moved from their home in Tottenham to Poplar in the East End of London, Seven of their children were still at home and Win’s Father, William Tom Wootton’s occupation was a Stained Glass Lead Glazier. William Tom was working away from home as a Lead Glazier for weeks at a time, which must have put a considerable strain on Emily, with so many children to manage. Young girls grew up fast in those days, being expected to literally bring up and care for their younger siblings.
(Class: RG14; Piece: 1701)
Win was always ‘the favourite’ of the family, she was kind and generous and would do anything for anyone. All the girls would come to Win to share their problems. A problem shared is a problem halved as the saying goes. Like many of that generation, Win used to make all her own dresses and she had a fondness for hats. Many of the sisters would have had to make do with ‘hand-me-downs’ from their older sisters, the luxury of something ‘new’ wasn’t a privilege that the Wootton family were afforded.
Winifred and her family are still living at 6, Bentley Terrace, Poplar in London at the time the 1921 Census was taken. Winifred is recorded as a Biscuit packer with Sprats of London and living at home are both her parents, William and Emily along with seven of her siblings. Sisters Emily and Margaret were both employed by the same confectioners, far Famed Biscuits and Margaret was to later join them working there. Ronald was working as an errand boy and Ena, Phyllis, Edward (my grandfather) and Constance were all in full time education.
(Winifred Wootton 1921 Census)
(Winifred Wootton 1921 Census Address)
Prior to joining the Fire Service, Win worked in the Far Famed Cake Company with her sisters Phyllis and Connie. The Far Famed Biscuit Company was a large employer of people in the East End area, employing over 300 people and had been in existence since 1881. Win also worked for Spratt’s Dog Biscuit Factory which was once the largest pet food factory in the world! The Spratt’s Warehouses in the London Docklands was one of the first residential warehouse conversions in London.
(Typical Workers in a Cake Factory)
(Spratt’s Warehouse as it is today)
Win Married Aubrey Eric Peters on 15th October 1925 at Poplar in London. They had three children, Edwina Rose Winifred Peters, born on 8th June 1926 at Commercial Road Maternity Hospital, Audrey Barbara Winifred Peters, born on 24th September 1929 at Commercial Road Maternity Hospital and Roy Eric Arthur Peters born on 19th May 1931.
Aubrey was initially a general labourer and before moving to Oxford, he worked at St Andrews Hospital where he cleaned out cylinders. He was well educated at school, but there were few jobs available. The family moved permanently to Oxford after Win died, and he did administration for the war office. The children had already been evacuated to Oxford because of the War.
The family lived in Bentley Terrace for a number of years as confirmed by the Electoral Registers and by the time of the 1939 Register, Win and Aubrey are living at 122 Canton Street, Poplar, London. Win’s occupation is listed as unpaid domestic duties, but she is also listed as a Full-time member of the London Auxiliary Fire Service as was her husband Aubrey. The children are not listed here because by this time they were safe and sound in the Oxfordshire Countryside, having been evacuated because of the war.
(The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1939 Register; Reference: RG 101/450G)
Win’s younger Brother Edward was also in the Fire Service, initially like his Sister he volunteered to join the AFS before qualifying as a full-time Fireman. Prior to the start of the War, the British Government took the decision to make all men over the age of eighteen undertake basic military training. Certain roles were deemed essential and were therefore not part of the army reserve call up, so conscious of ‘doing their bit’, Win and her brother Edward signed up with the newly formed Auxiliary Fire Service instead (AFS). Prior to the start of WW2 the Government recognised the fact that the threat of War was imminent and that they were poorly prepared for a second World War. The Government acted swiftly with the Fire Brigade Act of July 1938 which demanded the recruitment of an auxiliary fire service as part of the country’s Civil Defence Force. As the nation’s capital, London was a natural prime target. Dockland warehouses packed with highly combustible oils, grain and timber were clearly a risk and the narrow maze of streets would provide an easy path for the fire. It was obvious that a large number of firefighters would be needed to prevent London becoming little more than a smoking ruin.
The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was formed in January 1938 and fire stations were set up in schools, garages and factories. Some of those who were unable to join the armed forces instead served with the AFS, at the time, the formation of the Auxiliary Fire Service was one of most critical decisions that the Government made pre-war. By 1939 about 28, 000 men and women had joined the AFS and regular firefighters, who had been trained as instructors, put the new recruits through 60 hours intensive training. Originally recruits like Win were unpaid volunteers, but eventually the men were paid £3 per week, women received £2 per week, with youths under 18 and messengers earning £1 per week. At first recruits endured poor accommodation, inadequate conditions and were dubbed “£3-a-week war dodgers” by the public who thought they were choosing an easy life. Once the Blitz started, attitudes towards the volunteers quickly changed and they received the recognition they deserved. The Fire-fighters were transformed into heroes and Winston Churchill described them as ‘heroes with grimy faces’. As the war and in particular the Blitz continued, in May 1941 the Home Secretary announced that the regional fire brigades and the AFS would be merged and their name changed to The National Fire Service. This standardised the equipment and approach to dealing with fires across the whole country.
(Winifred Peters 3rd from the left with her Serving Fireman Brother Edward, far right)
(Winifred Alexandra Peters)
Like so many of those firefighters who died at the Old Palace School, Win’s story is one of heartbreak, devastation and loss. A family starting out on their journey together, full of hope and excited for the future, a future that was so cruelly taken away on that tragic night in April 1941. We can never know what the loved ones would have felt at such a devastating loss, we can only imagine what this would have been like from our own experiences. Life can deal the cruelest of blows and change lives forever and that loss never goes away. The Peters and Wootton families, like so many others were families torn apart from the ravages of war.
We also know from oral testimony that during the events of the Old Palace School Bombing, Win’s engagement ring was crushed in the explosion and it was reconstructed by the family and passed to her eldest daughter Edwina.
(UK, WWII Civilian Deaths, 1939-1945)
Exactly two weeks after my Great Aunt, Winifred Alexandra Peters died at the Old Palace School, my own Mother was born and in memory of her Aunt, she was Christened Winifred Alexandra Wootton.
Aunt Win was buried at the City of London Cemetery, in East London, on 25th April 1941, details below:
Like all of the firefighters killed that night, if you just change one piece of the puzzle, you get a whole different picture and a completely different outcome.
This brings to an end my research into the lives of all the 34 firefighters who died that night in April 1941 at the hands of the German Luftwaffe. We have come full circle, what started out first as a piece of research into the life of my Great Aunt and how she lost her life, has culminated in this website and several years of research into the lives of all 34 firefighters.
Once again I would like to thank all the researchers who have assisted me with this project and I would like to also thank all the families of the firefighters who have kindly allowed me to tell their stories and who have helped me to share pictures and stories about their loved ones. I hope this website is a fitting tribute to the ultimate sacrifice they all made in defence of our Country.
My Family History website can be found here:
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