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When the Fireweed Flowers

C Eliot Hodgkin, ‘The Haberdashers’ Hall, 8th May 1945’, tempera on panel, © IWM, Art.IWM ART LD 5311.

June is the month when rosebay willow herb comes into flower, growing from derelict buildings, on wasteland and railway embankments across the UK. During the Second World War and in the following years, its spires of magenta flowers were common to see amidst the ruins and cleared bomb sites, hence the name it was given at the time – fireweed.

Yet to flower in this painting of May 1945, the fireweed is depicted at the very forefront of the remains of Haberdashers’ Hall, Staining Lane, which was destroyed during one of the worst night raids of the Blitz on the 28/29 December 1940.

The bombing of London from the summer of 1940 until March 1945 resulted in the destruction of thousands of houses and many public buildings, opening up land in what had been densely urbanised areas. In the City of London, parts of which were decimated as a result of the Blitz, open ground was to be seen for first time since the Great Fire of London, 1666.

Surveys undertaken during the war reveal how quickly the rubble was colonized by plant life, insects and birds. Like the yellow flowering Oxford Ragwort, also depicted in the painting, fireweed flourished as it favours soil that has been subjected to heat. Recorded in 1944 as growing on 90% of London’s ruins, fireweed was described by naturalist R S R Fitter (The New Naturalist. London’s Natural History’, 1945), as the “pioneer colonist of the bombed sites”. It brought with it the elephant hawk-moth whose larvae feed on the leaves. Birds never before seen in London such as black redstarts were to be found nesting in crannies of ruined buildings created by the bombing, whilst wheatears whose preferred habitat is a rocky terrain inhabited the rubble too.

Bomb sites were also put to productive use as allotments, whilst just down the road from IWM, the local police kept pigs on a cleared site on St George’s Road where a block of flats now stand.

Although of significance, the flora and fauna of bombed sites and indeed Hodgkin’s rendition of plant covered remains, perhaps understood in isolation sidestep the harsh reality of the loss of home and destruction of known environments.

Haberdashers Hall, painted in the tradition of the romantic ruin is a far cry from the destroyed building pictured below, photographed, stark and bleak in the snow, a few weeks after its destruction.

Haberdashers Hall, on the corner of Staining Lane and Maiden Lane (now Gresham Street), 1941, © IWM MOI 077894.

Whereas photographs such as the panorama of the ruined Arcadia Road and Latham Street, Poplar, taken in 1941, reveal the raw decimation and annihilation of terraced streets; and suggesting the loss of lives which was the civilian experience for many living in London during the bombing campaigns from 1940 – 1945.

Arcadia Road /Latham Road, Poplar, 1941, detail of a panorama of four photographs, © IWM, MOI 152685.

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