Eighty one years today, on 14 September 1940, the air raid shelter of the swanky Savoy hotel was taken over by working class families from east London.
The workers had a name for the wartime experience of the rich: the Ritzkreig. During the London Blitz of 1940, the rich crowded into hotels where there was opulence to be enjoyed, and whose deep reinforced basements allowed luxurious shelters from the German bombs.
The east end of London was on fire. For the poor, conditions could not have been more different from those enjoyed by the patrons of the Savoy, the Ritz and other top class hotels. One of the few deep shelters available at Tilbury was built for 1,600 people and was holding 10,000. Stepney people started to line up at midday to get a place. There were an estimated 200,000 safe shelter places available in London, but most were closed at night.
The stations of London’s underground railway system, the Tube, would have provided sanctuary. But they too were locked at night.
Phil Piratin, one of the organisers of the invasion of the Savoy describes what happened on 14 September.
“We gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”
I’ve used this event in the novel I’m working on, Boundarising. The protagonist, Sol, and his companion, Greta, arrive at the Savoy hotel in late 1944, just after the D-day landings. The Germans are launching V1 rockets at London, so the pair take to the Savoy’s cellar:
“This is a paradise,” I said. “Not at all what I thought air-raid shelters were like.”
She laughed. “That’s what the good folk of east London thought four years ago, at the height of the Blitz, when they broke in here.”
“Why did they do that?”
She put her finger to her lips and glanced about her in a pantomime of secrecy. “To highlight the lack of shelters for the poor. The Communist Party declared that” and here she quoted “‘what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for the Stepney workers and their families.’”
The way she described it made me feel she was sympathetic to the trespassers.
She laughed, “ The management tried to get them out, but there was an air raid on, and they couldn’t very well turn children out into the streets under the bombs. The waiters were having the time of their lives, and gave them tea and buttered bread. The normal price was two shillings and sixpence. The raiders agreed to pay tuppence.”
“Are you a Communist, Greta?”
“Heavens, no. But I do like fairness. A few days later, the government agreed to open the Tube stations at night as air raid shelters. So, that was fair.”