Many believe that the First World War never came to British soil – but from May 1915 there were several raids directed at London in what has become known as the ‘First Blitz’.
Unfortunately for its residents, Hertfordshire was on the flight path from the North Sea to the capital and there were a few isolated incidents in which the county came under attack from Zeppelin airships.
One of these was the Essendon Bombing on September 3, 1916 – which was a result of the Cuffley Air Crash, when a Schutte-Lanz airshop (a wooden airship lighter than a Zeppelin) was successfully attacked while carrying out a bombing raid over London. A separate airship saw the flames and wanted to escape quickly, so headed north and jettisoned the bomb load over Essendon where searchlights had been stationed.
In one of the houses that was destroyed, two daughters of the village blacksmith were killed. The eldest was Frances Bamford, a 26-year-old telephonist serving the St Albans Telephone District. Her younger sister Eleanor, 12, suffered leg injuries and later died.
Many women telephone operators during the First World War were commended and decorated for their bravery in keeping communications going during bombing raids by enemy planes and airships, some receiving OBEs for their service.
The London Telephone Service, one of BT’s predecessors, also issued its own special award to telephonists formed a volunteer skeleton crew that continued to operate London’s telephone exchanges during Zeppelin raids.
This was a vital function as it enabled the telephone service to continue unhindered at the times when it was most needed. Around 75% of GPO telephonists volunteered for these duties.
An obituary in staff magazine Telegraph & Telephone Journal paid tribute to Frances and her work ethic.
“Miss Bamford was of a very cheerful and lovable disposition, took the greatest interest in the working of her local exchange and had the regard of all her subscribers,” it read.
“It is worthy perhaps of a special mention that just before she met with her death she had expressed her intention of going to her exchange in order to render a willing assistant during the temporary pressure which she felt would be thrown on the resident staff.”