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.