The Mysterious Photograph

When I went to Ampleforth Abbey and College last week to show the monks and teachers the photographs my Uncle Ian Ian's School Picture

took during his short life, there was one that nobody recognized. It shows the roof of a church damaged by some kind of fire and it looks like this.St. Columba's ChurchAs I mentioned, when the monks told me this wasn’t a photograph taken at Ampleforth, a small bell went off in my head, but it wasn’t until the next week that I remembered a story my mother had told me about their life during the war.

When the Hankey family was evacuated from Gibraltar to London in May, 1940, they took the top floor flat at 60 Pont Street,

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Roof Pontdirectly across from a Scotch Presbyterian church called St. Columba’s. Here’s a picture of the church today from the end of Pont Street.St. Columba's from distance

It looks nothing like the photo from my uncle Ian’s file.

Here’s a picture of the church the Hankey family  saw across Pont Street when they came to live in the flat.Church before fire

And here’s a passage from the history of St. Columba’s which explains why it’s no longer there.

“Disaster struck on the night of 10 May 1941. An incendiary bomb dropped from an enemy aircraft destroyed the whole (church) building in a matter of hours, to the stunned bewilderment of the congregation who turned up for service the next morning. For more than a decade the large congregation continued to operate without benefit of building, using the facilities of Imperial College (Jehangir Hall) for Sunday services and the courtesy of local churches and Manse for other activities.

The spirit of the congregation during the dark days of World War II was sustained by the wise leadership and fervent preaching of the Reverend Robert FV Scott. From the morning of the blitz, when a lady parishioner had pressed her purse into his hands, saying, “Take this. We must rebuild. More will follow.” until the proud day in 1955, when the splendid new St. Columba’s was finally dedicated, Dr. Scott had nourished the faith and hope of the congregation and co-operated with the architect to achieve as fine a facility as any modern church could hope for.”

This is what my mother remembered about that night.

Ian was still in London on leave when they dropped the incendiary on the St. Columba’s church across the street from 60 Pont Street and he shinnied up the house across the street to try and put it out.  I remember him up on the roof throwing the sand on the church.  He gave up because it was hopeless.  The incendiaries were much more effective than fire and all the fire engines were down in the East End for what was really the second great fire of London.

On May 12, 1941,  Ian was posted to the 10th Battalion so for the preceding weekend, he was on leave at home.  And on May 11th, the day after his useless attempts to put out the fire, he climbed back up to the roof of Pont Street with his camera and took that shot of the smoldering embers of St. Columba’s. And it turns out his is the only photograph of the church roof from above. All the others that St. Columba’s owns are of the damaged interiorInterior

or of the church from down below after the fire. Note the missing roof.Church after fire

When we showed a copy of Ian’s photograph

St. Columba's Church to the Minister of St. Columba’s, Angus MacLeod (whose great-grandfather, Donald MacLeod, was the minister of this same church in the 1880s),

MacLeodhe was thrilled.  As were we.  Another little mystery solved.

Angus then took us up to the church tower so we could look down on the roof of my mother’s house on Pont Street. And from there, we saw some of the best views of London.

London View 2The roof of Harrods

Harrodsand the Shard and the London Eye.LOndon View

The people we’ve encountered on this trip have been unfailingly generous and truly excited about the bits of history I’ve carried to them from across the pond, thanks to my mother’s memories and the photographs she saved.  So often, treasures come back to me as in meeting Angus MacLeod and seeing London from what felt like the top of the world. And finally, looking down on the building where my mother spent so much of her life during the war.

60 Pont from on high

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  1. John Partin :

    Hail, St. Columbia. What a wonderful adventure you’ve had; seeing where your mom lived and uncovering the mystery of a photograph. Most of us travel only for pleasure, oblivious to the wonders we pass by without notice.