A life-long Londoner could walk past hundreds of these fences, and never know they were looking at Second World War stretchers. ‘When you know what details to look for, they are fascinating,’ says Mary-Ann Ochota, historian and writer of this Discovering Britain viewpoint. The stretchers’ particular shape gives them away. Each rectangular panel has four curved feet that would have allowed the stretcher to be raised off the ground when horizontal. The frame is steel, about the thickness of a wrist, with a thin mesh welded on top. This Kennington ‘set’ is painted black, ‘but many of the original stretchers were green,’ says Ochota. ‘If you look carefully you might see the colour where the paint is chipping. You might even spot some railings where the mesh has been slightly deformed – possibly caused by the hips and shoulders of the casualties they carried.’
During the war, the Air Raid Precaution organisation designed and created around 600,000 stretchers to be used across the country during the height of the Blitz. After the war ended and the city needed to rebuild, the steel panels were put to good use by the Greater London Authority. ‘All the extra steel would have been useful,’ says Rosie Shaw of the Stretcher Railing Society, ‘especially because much of London’s fencing had been removed as part of the war effort, with the idea of melting it down for munitions. Though the sacrificed iron was never used, the stretchers could fill the gaps left behind.’
London’s stretcher-railings now have their own society, which Shaw founded last year. The group uses a website and Instagram account to encourage Londoners to map the fences (the number and location of them all remains a mystery) and to campaign for their preservation. ‘A lot of them are vulnerable,’ Shaw explains, ‘often they are removed when council housing is regenerated and people don’t know what they are.’ Since setting up the society, she says Londoners have come forward from all over the capital with stories about the other ways they were used: ‘Some were gates or even swing sets.’ The society hopes to persuade councils to get the remaining fences listed. In fact, the Kennington stretchers are now protected at a local level.
Once residents know about them, the railings often gain new fans. ‘The stretchers are a very tangible link to the people of London who lived through this dark episode of history,’ says Ochota. There is a pluckiness about them too. They point to the recovery effort and the make-do attitude of the wartime generation. Though more rare now, they have become a poignant part of south London’s identity.
This was published in the November 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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