The Tontine Street Air Raid, 25 May 1917
Tontine Street in Folkestone has had its ups and downs over the years. Many local people will be unaware of its lofty origins as an upmarket Victorian shopping thoroughfare, and more familiar with its gradual decline to deprived urban street. Today it’s on the up again and a key location at the heart of the Creative Quarter.
A century ago, while the Great War raged on, Tontine Street was a bustling hive of enterprise, lined with colourful shopfronts, street vendors and shoppers. And on Friday 25 May 1917 it became the site of the First World War’s largest single incident of civilian casualties outside of London.
This devastating event has been largely forgotten since then except by a handful of local historians, artists and the families of those involved. As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the Tontine Street Air Raid, it is time to remember.
A New Kind of War
WW1 was a new kind of war in many ways, not least because of the long-range German Gotha planes and the threat they brought to normal people, miles from the frontline. At the end of May 1917, Tontine Street was packed with local people shopping for the long Bank Holiday weekend. It was payday and there were rumours of a prized potato delivery at Stokes Brothers greengrocery. Late into the day, mums, children and workers thronged the street in the warm spring sunshine.
Just like today, the locals were accustomed to the sounds of the army training so paid no attention to bombs heard in the distance. At 6.22pm, without any warning, a single bomb fell outside Stokes Brothers, opposite Gosnold Brothers Drapery.
Horror at Home
The injuries, deaths and aftermath were horrific. Ten men, 28 women and 25 children were killed and more than 100 injured on Tontine Street that evening. Greengrocer William Stokes and his youngest son Arthur were among the dead. Frederick Stokes died from his injuries a year later.
Gotha planes returning from an aborted daylight bomb raid on London (the first ever) had decided to shed their load on the Folkestone area. At Shorncliffe, 18 servicemen were killed and there was substantial damage to Central Station; but it was Tontine Street that took the brunt.
The change in German plans had not been detected by the air raid warning system and with no anti-aircraft guns to protect the town, the people hadn’t stood a chance. The English Channel could no longer keep the war at bay, and the community was in complete shock. Many suffered long-lasting emotional, mental and physical problems after the bombing.
To allay public fears following the tragedy, the Mayor set up the Air Raid Relief Fund which helped to install anti-aircraft guns, sirens and shelters in the town.
A Poignant Tribute
Margate artist Roy Eastland has been intensely moved by the Tontine Street bombing and for a number of years has worked on a piece called “They looked like silver birds. The sun was shining on them…“ – the title based on quotes from eyewitnesses at the time. This series of detailed images (small silverpoint portraits with handwritten text) tells the stories of the people who were there, and includes poignant personal detail. Roy continues to work on these drawings.
100 Year Memorial Service
To raise awareness of this tragic moment in Folkestone’s history and to remember those who were lost, Frederick Stoke’s great granddaughter, Margaret Care, and local historian Martin Easdown, author of A Glint in the Sky, are organising a memorial event.
The centenary of the Tontine Street bomb will be marked at 5pm on Thursday 25 May 2017 at the Methodist Church, Sandgate Road, Folkestone with a memorial service. It will be followed by the unveiling at 6.22pm in Christchurch Memorial Gardens of a plaque listing the names of the 81 killed on Tontine Street and the surrounding area.
Refreshments will be available in the Methodist Church from 2pm on the day, where information about the raid will be on display. Margaret and Martin welcome any stories and details that relatives of the families affected would like to share.