Firefighters and police commemorate Auxiliary Fire Service personnel at Rathbone Street

A small memorial ceremony took place in Rathbone Street last week to mark 80 years to the day since firefighters from the Auxillary Fire Service were killed in a night of intense bombing during World War 2. The ceremony also paid tribute to the bravery of one of the survivors who acted quickly to save other lives at the site.

Fire chief and police chief standing side by side by plaque.
London Fire Brigade borough commander Rodney Vitalis and detective chief superintendent Stephen Clayman at the site of the former Auxillary Fire Station in Rathbone Street. Photo: London Fire Brigade and Metropolitan Police.

Around midnight on 18 September 1940, Soho’s AFS substation at Jackson’s Garage, 7-9 Rathbone Street was directly hit by a bomb, partly demolishing the building and killing civilians, as well as seven members of the AFS.

Auxiliary fireman Alfred George Abrahart, auxiliary fireman Arthur Batchelor, leading auxiliary fireman Jack Bathie, leading auxiliary fireman George Bowen, auxiliary fireman Robert William George, auxiliary fireman Benjamin Mansbridge, and auxiliary fireman Myer Wand all died.

Historic photo showing bombed building in 1940.
The fire station at Jackson’s Garage in 1940 after the bombing. Photo: London Fire Brigade archive.

“Remembering and recognising our history is incredibly important to us,” said London Fire Brigade borough commander Rodney Vitalis who took part in the ceremony at Rathbone Street in Fitzrovia on Friday 18 September.

“For our firefighters, who now work at Soho Fire Station 80 years on, the bravery of those who preceded us is inspiring and it’s an honour that we are able to celebrate their memories by arranging a plaque which will be placed at the site of the substation.”

Metropolitan Police detective chief superintendent Stephen Clayman, borough commander of the East London area, attended the ceremony and is the great nephew of fireman Myer Wand who was among those who died on that night.

He described the events of that night in 1940: “The building, which was in use as a fire sub-station, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb. The floors above collapsed as the vehicles and the garage petrol store, also above, crashed into the basement creating a huge ball of fire.

“My great-uncle, Myer Wand, his colleagues and a number of civilians were very seriously injured and died as a result of their injuries.

“Remarkably the building itself still stands today and the placement of the plaque is a poignant reminder of the Blitz and the impact on London and other cities, along with the toll it must have taken on those who lived through it.

“I am extremely proud to follow in my great-uncle’s footsteps and protect Londoners by working in our emergency services.”

Photo of building as it is today.
The former AFS substation at Jackson’s Garage, Rathbone Street as it is today. Photo: Fitzrovia News.

The plaque, which is due to be officially unveiled at a later date, will also honour Harry Errington, an AFS firefighter who rescued others from the building.

That night Errington and his colleagues John Hollingshead and John Terry were asleep. The blast from the bomb blew Errington across the basement and trapped his colleagues with debris.

As a fire raged Errington protected himself with a blanket and managed to release Hollingshead and carried him up a narrow stone staircase that was partially blocked with debris, then across a courtyard and through an adjoining building and into the street. He then returned to the burning building to rescue Terry.

He was later awarded a George Cross for his actions on that night — one of only two firefighters in London to have received this honour. He died in London on 15 December 2004. A replica of his George Cross is displayed on the wall at Soho Fire Station.

Both Wand and Errington were born in London to Polish-Jewish immigrants who had escaped the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe.

Wand lived with his wife and son at 14 John’s Place, Clark Street, Stepney. His parents lived at 71 Imperial Avenue, Stoke Newington.

Errington was the son of Soloman and Bella Ehrengott (nee Carp) who were from Lublin. They had arrived in the UK in 1908 and went to live in Poland Street in Soho. They Anglicised their name to Errington when Harry was born. He went to the Westminster Jewish Free School in Hanway Place, and lived and worked in the West End the whole of his life, including a great number of years living at Bedford Court Mansions on Bedford Avenue — only a short walk from Rathbone Street.

“Like so many immigrant communities, they have contributed to London life, culture and prosperity,” said Clayman.

Paul Ganjou adds:

Harry Errington and sister Frieda lived in Bedford Court Mansions for at least as long as my family, I believe, so probably the 1940s. (The Ganjou family lived in the block from the ’40s and I from the 50’s to 1998, with only a few years absent!)

Harry knew a lot of people in the Mansions and was particularly friendly with Jimmy Nervo of Crazy Gang fame who was once a resident, as was his Crazy Gang partner, Teddy Knox. Teddy’s wife Clarice Mayne also lived here, the music hall actress and singer who popularised the big hit ‘Josh-uah’ (‘nicer than lemon squash-uah’: see her on Youtube!) and she performed many times at the Hippodrome and London Palladium. BCM was very popular with show-business people because of its proximity to all the West End Theatres including the famous Holborn Empire, which was bombed during the Second World War.

The entire Ganjou family lived in 3 flats in the same D block as Harry. Along with the comedy sand-dancers Wilson, Kepple and Betty, the Ganjou Bros and Juanita were the best-known ’speciality’ acts of the era. In 1954 they performed at The Prince of Wales Theatre along with 2 young comedians, Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill: they became good friends and hosted a 30th Birthday party for Benny on the 4th floor of D block, with Harry and Frieda in attendance!

In his prime, Harry ran a firm of high-end Savile Row tailors – Errington and Whyte — and was also a basketball coach! As a schoolboy. I played basketball several times at the old Polytechnic in Regent Street where he helped train the English team, I believe! He had a famous photo taken and published with the tallest team member — well over 7ft tall — when Harry himself was very small for basket-ball, only 5’ 8″.

I only once recall Harry talking about his time as a Fire Fighter during the war, but it certainly registered that he had won the George Cross, the highest civilian award for gallantry and bravery: but like many such people, perhaps, he did not regard himself as a hero, just someone who did his job to the best of his ability. Harry Errington was an unassuming, charming and affable gentleman who was always interested in his local area and always popular with his fellow residents.