The hidden wartime history of London’s fences

Stretcher fences at a London housing estate. Image: The Stretcher Railing Society.

Inspired by Ed Jefferson’s recent look at London’s bollards, I decided to explore another aspect of our history that has worked itself into the fabric of the city: fences. You probably don’t pay much attention to fences as you’re going about your day-to-day life, unless maybe you've lost your headphones, which is completely fair enough. By and large, they’re a markedly uninteresting part of the street furniture. Yet the ones wrapped around some of London’s estates hold a special historic interest.

During the Blitz, as Nazi planes tried nightly to flatten London, 600,000 all-metal stretchers were made. Intended for the Air Raid Protection (ARP) officers, they were used to carry the injured and dying to safety through the city’s ruined streets. They were made with a wire mesh stretched between two poles with kinks that allowed them to be rested a few inches above the ground. The choice of material allowed for their easy cleaning, should the Luftwaffe employ ever-feared poisonous gas.

After the war, unlike all the suddenly relatively obsolete weaponry that ended up in the bin, the ARP stretchers found another function. Following a rather bizarre campaign to rip down all of London’s railings and apparently dump them in the Thames Estuary during the war, there were holes in the city that needed filling. The stretchers proved the perfect fit.

The London County Council (LCC) was the main body of local governance for the capital in the post-war period. They repurposed the stretchers, welding them together so they acted as railings for many estates across London. While these stretcher fences were once commonplace across the city, they’re now mostly found south of the river. But with the odd stretcher used for private houses, it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled wherever you are. Or, if you don't have the time to wander the streets of London in hope of spotting such a fence, The Stretcher Railing Society have helpfully begun putting together a map of their locations.

So south Londoners can take pride in knowing that their railings might have transported a dead body during the war. But time has taken its toll, and through neglect and a lack of central interest in preserving this quirky feature of the city’s history, the stretcher railings are gradually being removed. The sad truth is that replacement is cheaper than conservation. In the Dulwich East Estate on Dog Kennel Hill, these railings were recently ripped out and binned despite their noble pedigree.

Fear not though, The Stretcher Railing Society has been launched with the express aim of preserving this part of London’s history. The group may be fantastically niche, and probably chaired by someone like Bill Bryson, but its campaign is having an effect. Lambeth Council already have added two sets of stretcher fences to their local heritage list, with a promise to add more as they’re mapped. So if your phone battery dies and you find yourself out looking at fences, do let know the Society know if you chance across an ARP stretcher fence, because you might just help save a part of London’s history.


 

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.