Burning Church

In the early hours of Friday, 28th May 1943, All Saints Church, standing by the Thames in Old Isleworth, was destroyed by fire. The alarm was given at 2.30am by Miss Burrage who lived next door and again by Mr. McDonald, the publican of the “London Apprentice”. Against the darkness of the wartime black-out the glow of the huge fire could be seen for miles.

Very little of the church remained after the blaze. Altar, chancel, organ, stained glass windows, hymnals, all had gone. Only the old church tower, built about 1399, survived along with its bells. Stand in the church tower today and look up and you can still see the charred timbers underneath the bell chamber.

NFS in action

The following day, Saturday 29th March 1943, another church caught fire, the Broadway Baptist in Hounslow. Fortunately that fire was extinguished before any real damage could be done. That same afternoon the Mission Hall in Wellington Road North also caught fire. Again the fire was quickly extinguished. The police were immediately suspicious and church officials were quietly advised to check and secure their premises.

Three days later, on the afternoon of Tuesday 1st of June 1943, the Parish Church of Hounslow (Holy Trinity) was completely destroyed by fire. Shortly after 5.00pm smoke was reported to be issuing from the church. The National Fire Service were called but by the time they arrived the entire building was alight. Breaking down the door, which had been locked on police advice, the salvage crews, guided by the Vicar, Rev. B.G Chandler, were able to enter the church and save the church records and registers. The Vicar retrieved the Blessed Sacrament. The Sanctuary, Memorial Chapel, the organ and the roof were completely destroyed. The police noted that an attempt had been made to open the church safe. The Vicar, Rev. Chandler, was resolute. “We are not going to be defeated,” he said.

The following day, Wednesday 2nd June, priests found two boys inside St. Edmunds R.C Church in Nelson Road, Whitton. Not satisfied with their answers the ministers called the police who soon discovered that the church alms boxes had been broken open. The two boys, one 12 and the other 13, were taken to Twickenham police station where they were charged with maliciously setting fires and theft of 3/5d in coppers, 1/- in silver and 12 boxes of matches, total value 5/11d. The two boys were remanded on bail.

Brentford Magistrates Court

They were brought before Brentford Bench on Monday 21st June 1943. It was noted that both boys had been up before this bench on previous occasions – the older boy in 1940 for stealing a bicycle and the younger in 1940 for simple larceny and in 1941 for stealing vegetables.

The teenagers gave detailed statements from which it appeared that they only set fire to the churches out of spite and only if they found no money to steal. They told the chairman Mr. A. J. Chard J.P, how easy it was to break into churches and how easy it was to burn them down. At the Mission Hall they set fire to the curtains. At Broadway Baptist Church they set eight separate fires. At Holy Trinity it was five. The older boy also confessed to burning down a haystack in a coal yard a year earlier.

Holy Trinity

The younger boy’s family were at a complete loss as to why their son was behaving so badly. His mother said that all her children had been raised in the same strict manner and they had all proved themselves, married or in the Forces, one as a sailor and the other as a sergeant pilot instructor.

Mr Chard asked the older boy’s father if he had ever administered corporal punishment…

“Yes, too many times.”

“And it has not been effective?”

“At the time, yes” replied the father.

One member of the Bench, Mrs Lloyd Lane, said that these days corporal punishment was often deplored but there was no doubt that it could be very effective.

The two boys, one 12 and the other 13, were committed to approved schools. The Chairman, Mr Chard, said…

“The Bench has carefully considered all the details and hope that it has come to the right decision. We recommend to the Home Office that the two lads should go to separate schools and that the schools should be of the strictest kind; further, that they should be kept there for the full period of three years.”

All Saints Church

And here the story of the two fire starters fades out. The boys did their time and went back to their families and society. The two burned-out churches, All Saints in Old Isleworth and Holy Trinity in Hounslow, were rebuilt. The names of the two lads were never widely known and those who do know aren’t saying. I recently met a woman who said that one of the boys was her uncle but she wouldn’t tell me his name or if he was still alive. Her only comment was “They were young and stupid and it was all a long, long time ago” – 70 years ago to this week to be precise.

These appalling church-burnings bring forcibly home to us the problem of child crime which has been on the increase in this country for many years. It is quite clear that something is fundamentally wrong with our society, which, as it were, reduces the resistance of our children to wrong-doing….

Until we make society into a real fellowship of men, run for the benefit of all on equal terms and until we give a constructive outlet for the abundant energies of youth, we are unlikely to get rid of child crime.

JAMES HEMMINGS – a letter in the Brentford Chronicle, Saturday 26th June 1943

— from Martyn Day