What's the secret behind these South London street railings?

To find the answer we need to look back to the early years of the Second World War. From 7 September 1940 London was heavily bombed during a 9-month bombing campaign known as the Blitz. Across the city, Air Raid Protection (ARP) wardens were tasked with helping people reach air raid shelters, responding to injured citizens and tackling fires. Officials also had grave fears that the Nazis would use poison gas, resulting in huge numbers of contaminated casualties. 

Stretchers being used during the Blitz © Stretcher Railing Society

So more than 600,000 steel stretchers were made for the ARP wardens to use. They were a simple design. Shaped poles created four ‘feet’ for the stretcher to sit on, and a steel mesh in between that the casualty could be laid on. The all-steel design meant that if a dreaded gas attack did happen, the stretchers could be disinfected and reused quickly and easily.

When the war ended the stretchers weren’t melted down or scrapped. Instead they were 'upcycled'.

At the start of the war, many of the capital’s housing estates had their railings removed to help provide metal for making weapons and machinery. After the war ended in 1945, someone had a bright idea about how to replace them: surplus ARP stretchers could be turned into fence panels.

Housing estates across south and east London were given these stretcher railings – you can still spot them in Peckham, Brixton, Deptford, Hackney and Lambeth. These railings are now painted black but many of the ARP stretchers were originally green. See if you can spot any places where the paint has chipped away, revealing the original colour underneath (please don’t chip the paint yourself, it’ll damage the railings). You might even spot some railings where the mesh has been slightly deformed – possibly caused by the hips and shoulders of the casualties the stretcher once carried!

In recent years lots of these railings have been removed as estates have decided to replace their rusting, funny-shaped fences. A group of local historians are now hoping to make sure the  survivors are maintained and protected. The fences are important parts of architectural history in the distinctive housing estates they’re found in. 

Viewpoint written by Mary-Ann Ochota - author of Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape 

Kennington’s Wartime History

In nearby Kennington Park, a grid of air raid shelter trenches were dug during the war for locals to hide in. The earth walls were reinforced with timber and sandbags, and the corrugated iron roof was covered with a layer of soil. 

WW2 Memorial in Kennington Park © Mary-Ann Ochota

On the evening of 15 October 1940, the park took a direct hit from a 50lb bomb. Rescue workers – including ARP wardens with their trusty stretchers – spent hours digging out the wounded and the dead.

No official record of the number of deaths was ever announced - it was thought to be bad for morale, Historians now believe 104 people lost their lives but only forty-eight bodies were recovered for burial. The rest were so badly destroyed, they remain in the park. A memorial now honours them all.

The sweet stretch

Railings outside Shrewsbury House in Oval © Mary-Ann Ochota

Kennington viewpoint

Shrewsbury House is one of many urban estates built in the interwar years between 1918 and 1939. Look carefully at the fence surrounding the block. There’s a low brick wall, with pillars every few metres. In between these are panels of black painted metal fencing.

Look closely at the metal panels. See if you can spot kinks at both ends of the poles, framing rectangles of wire mesh. These funny-shaped railings had a former life. 

Not many people know about it – but the clues are right in front of us. Join anthropologist and author Mary-Ann Ochota to unravel the mystery...

What's the secret behind these South London street railings? Click to reveal the answer


Shrewsbury House, Kennington Oval, A202 (continuation of Harleyford Street), Kennington, London SE11

Grid reference:

TQ 30857 77753

Keep an eye out for:

Similar railings outside other South London estates - including in Peckham, Brixton, and on our fascinating walk around Deptford 

Find out more:

For a map of the railing sites and to find out more visit The Stretcher Railing Society.

Kennington viewpoint credits

Thanks to Mary-Ann Ochota for writing the viewpoint. Mary-Ann is a broadcaster, anthropologist and the author of Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape

“…you can see the ghostly shapes...of people who have been dead for decades by their imprint lives on in the streetscape” - Benny O’Looney, Stretcher Railing Society