At the junction of Drummond Road and Southwark Park Road, the railway bridge is set at a slight angle to the road requiring traffic to slow and take the bends with care. The main bridge is a Victorian brick construction with the western side expanded with a modern steel construction. On either side of the roadway, the pedestrian routes are separate paved arches mostly of the same brickwork. This bridge carries much rail traffic to and from Kent and south-east London into London Bridge station and beyond. The bridge is known as the John Bull Arch after a pub which used to stand close by the western side. It is famous for the John Bull Arch disaster which destroyed both the bridge, any rail links in or out of London and many local properties during the 1944 blitz.
When the Blitz began in 1940, the Luftwaffe were determined to destroy the key industrial sites of London and to put the fear of God into the population. On 7 September 1940, the first day of the Blitz, the Surrey Docks (now what we know as Rotherhithe, Canada Water and Surrey Quays) were badly hit, set ablaze by incendiary munitions aimed at the huge stockpiles of timber and other flamable goods; the fires essentially put out of practical action the whole docks for much of the following year. John Bull Arch was hit on 8 December 1940 with many people killed and injured. The whole area of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe faced continual ariel bombing for most of the following two years. However when the Nazis changed their tactics in 1944 and deployed their newly perfected V-2 rockets, SE16 was in for a even more deadly time.
Whilst the V-1 flying bomb had started to arrive in Bermondsey in June 1944, the V-2 rocket – the world’s first long-range ballistic missile – only began to arrive in September 1944. The first V-2 in Bermondsey arrived at 08:40 on 26 October and proved a direct hit to the John Bull Arch. Due to the lack of sufficient bomb shelters in the residential area of Bermondsey. both pedestrian arches had by this time been blocked up and were kitted out with bunk beds for local people to shelter when the air-raid siren sounded. Up to 400 people sheltered there overnight through the worst of the Blitz but the new rockets gave no warning of their arrival. They carried a huge explosive payload compared with the previous bombs delivered by aircraft but were silent until the very last moments. Eight people were killed by the October V-2 and the John Bull Pub destroyed; a further nineteen people were taken to St Olaves Hospital in Lower Road and more than 100 injured. 23 properties were destroyed and 150 seriously damaged.
A second and still more destructive V-2 fell on almost precisely the same spot at 10:55 on 5 November 1944, only ten days later. This time the temporary railway bridge was completely collapsed bringing the lines down on the roadway. In the area, 123 shops and homes were deemed unfit for habitation and 14 shops demolished following the blast but luckily only 3 people died and 16 were seriously injured in the explosion. The devastation of this central part of The Blue was a key reason for the post-war redesign and development of the entire area, giving us the Southwark Park Road we know today.
Photo of John Bull Arch today at the top is copyright John A King (Flickr); used with permission and grateful thanks. Last photo of the arch destroyed is from the John Harvard Library, Southwark’s local history collection.