In the aftermath of the bombing of Chelsea Old Church, on 16 April 1941, my wartime diarist June S. wrote that she “met Alec McTavish working with the demolition party. They had just found two more men standing on their heads — one, old Barton, who I had been looking for that morning with his son. Spent evening re-equipping ambulances and ‘picketing’ [recruiting for the ambulance service] in the street. Slept in my tin hat.”
Five firewatchers, including 63-year-old Albert William Barton, had been killed the night before when a high explosive bomb fell on the church. Alec was among the many who were involved in retrieving bodies and making the site safe.
Art student Alexander Stuart MacTavish had been medically rejected from the army (a childhood illness had affected his heart). The son of a Penrith doctor, he was 21 and working in Chelsea when he married Jackie Ffrench after a three-week romance. Not long afterwards, he left London for North Africa, where he became involved in ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association) stage-managing the stars who came out to entertain the troops. Jackie gave birth to a son in 1942.
After the war, Alec returned to London and became an actor, using the stage name Michael Shannon (the photo is a publicity shot). Sadly, the marriage to Jackie did not last and in 1952 he went to Canada, and worked as an advertising copy writer. He married twice more and had two children. He died in 1985.
At the beginning of April, June wrote, “Alec not well. Rather black depression descended. Alec’s father rang up. Poor children [they were 4 years younger than June], how mad they are. A. can’t live much longer like that.” It is not possible to say what this means or whether the war provoked Alec’s depression. He did not tell his children much about his war work or indeed his first marriage and son.
One thing stands out for me – that this type of civil defence duty, digging out bodies and body parts, and making safe perilous buildings in circumstances of extreme danger was at least as strenuous and traumatic as any military service.