Patsie Duggan & The Dead End Kids

The Dead End Kids lost members during the Blitz of London.

The Dead End Kids lost members during the Blitz of London.

For the first 12 months of World War 2, thousands of evacuees came through Liverpool Street Station.

For the first 12 months of World War 2, thousands of evacuees came through Liverpool Street Station.

The Dove commemorates the civilians of East London who perished during the Blitz. One in ten of the dead were children.

The Dove commemorates the civilians of East London who perished during the Blitz. One in ten of the dead were children.

 

The ‘Dead End Kids’ of the London Blitz
Ian Parson

In 1939 when the evacuation of London was in full flow, nobody stopped to consider that the children being sent away would quickly pine for the big city they knew and loved. Within weeks a homesick handful returned to the capital. The handful quickly turned into a trickle that soon became a flood.

Before the Blitz of London actually started, evacuees, or to give them their proper title, ‘unattended children’, were returning to Liverpool Street Station at a rate of two and a half thousand every week. They missed the East End, the hustle and bustle of the big city. So many who chose to come back to London were able to because from September 1939 to September 1940, whilst officially at war, it still didn’t really feel like war.

Then came 7 September 1940 and 600 enemy bombers were spotted heading straight for London. And the evacuees who shouldn’t have been anywhere near the capital couldn’t leave now. When the bombers were directly overhead, thousands of children were in London who shouldn’t have been!

All around the Docks, in Whitechapel, Limehouse, Shadwell, Poplar, and Wapping, thousands of displaced evacuees waited, no doubt nervously. They were suddenly well aware the home they loved so much was surrounding the prize target. The Blitz of London began at 4 o’clock that afternoon. It may not have felt like war before but it certainly did now, and it would for the foreseeable future!

The urban youngsters who only a few months before had been tucked away, in England’s green, pleasant and safe land, were as it turned out, brave way beyond their years, These heroes had a name. They were the ‘Dead End Kids’ and they were the brain child of 17 year old Patsie Duggan. Patsie was the son of a Poplar bin man. An Eastender to the tips of his toes. Not old enough to enlist but determined to do his bit for the war effort. Soon he had organised a gang of willing volunteers. Including his 13 year old sister Maureen. She was not the youngest member. Patsie took recruits as young as ten. They equipped themselves with an assortment of tools, buckets of sand, rope and axes. Then night after night, raid after raid, under extreme conditions, they were out there. Scouring the area for people in distress. Each hoping to perform the most daring rescue this time round. With no adults to supervise them, the game very quickly got seriously out of hand.

During the Blitz the Dead End Kids were responsible for a series of life saving missions. On one really bad night, as reported in the London Fire Journal, an eye witness describes,

‘They rushed up the stairs, ready it seemed to eat fires!’ The same witness then described them as ‘emerging from the building, some of them with their tatty clothes smouldering.’

They became known as unofficial fire-fighters across the East End. But it was a dangerous game.

During the Blitz children accounted for one in ten deaths, and unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, two of Patsie’s group were killed on duty. Ronnie Ayres and Bert Eden died together on a night when Patsie himself was also badly injured. They were steadily putting out incendiary bombs before the flames could spread. They weren’t taking safety precautions. Three heavy bombs fell without warning, coming down the other side of a wall to where Ronnie and Bert were furiously working away. They died instantly, killed by the falling wall. Ronnie had wanted to join the RAF but had been too young. After his death, Frank Lewey, Mayor of Stepney related two stories. One from an Italian who said the night before his death Ronnie had put out a fire started in his cafe by an incendiary. Then a local pensioner recalled Ronnie carrying her from her burning house all the way to the nearest shelter, still in her armchair. Some members specialized: Shamus O’Brien could climb at speed, Shamus was only ten years old but he was brave and he was dependable.

On another night warehouses were blazing furiously on the docks. Flames were reaching eighty feet into the sky. The kids disappeared en masse into the inferno. The only public record of that evening says ‘They did incredible things that night!’ On one particularly bad night Ronnie Ayres and his team were credited with saving 30 horses from a burning building. On another occasion a group of kids rescued 230 people from a damaged shelter and led them through the falling bombs, getting all 230 to safety.

Before the Blitz was over they came to the attention of the powers that be. However whilst at Downing Street, one of the Kids ‘broke wind’ in front of the assembled dignitaries. On being reprimanded he responded loudly with ‘Why don’t you just shut your ears mister?’

Their public thanks was quietly but quickly shelved. The little press coverage they had begun to receive dried up and then stopped completely. They returned home and carried on saving lives just for the fun of it.

By Ian Parson on behalf of the Whitechapel Society — Published by HistoryPress in 2014

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