Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The 1939 IRA Campaign and the Kiburn Social Club

A largely forgotten IRA campaign was carried out in England just before the outbreak of World War II. In April 1938 the IRA in Dublin drew up a document called the ‘S (for Sabotage) Plan’. It was decided, for the sake of correctness, that a formal declaration of War should be presented to the British Government. The ultimatum, which demanded the removal of all British troops from Ireland, was delivered to Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, on 12 January 1939. Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the Government unwisely treated this as just another idle threat.

Carrying out the S-Plan
On the 16 January eight bombs exploded simultaneously in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Alnwick in Northumberland. There were further bombs over the next six months. Suspects in known centres of Irish population, such as Kilburn, were subjected to intense questioning and their homes searched by the police and Special Branch. But the IRA was one step ahead, having previously located their Active Service Units outside these areas as sleeper agents. The newspapers vied with each other in estimating how many people were involved, with figures fluctuating wildly from 2,000 to as many as 20,000. In fact the real number was probably only a few hundred, including those who supported the bombers.

The police were fortunate when they discovered a copy of the S-Plan in the Harrow home of Michael O’Shea, a 24 year old labourer. Special Branch was surprised by how detailed and well thought out the plan was. Drawn up by Jim O’Donovan and Sean Russell, the IRA Chief of Staff, the key targets were revealed as public utilities such as transport and gasworks.  There was considerable public concern after the newspapers published the information that March.

A major breakthrough happened by accident, when an inquisitive plumber called Charles Heap from Manchester was on a job in Chorley on Medlock. He saw several bags and other suspicious material in a cupboard. When the police searched the premises, they discovered a large amount of explosives, gelignite and detonators. Four people were arrested. The police also found a receipt from a lorry driver in Old Trafford which said, ‘For going to London and bringing back a cargo of stuff to be used on the 16 January. Paid £6 10 shillings’.

When they contacted him, the driver told the police that he’d been paid to transport what was described as a quantity of beeswax on 31 October 1938. He understood the beeswax was going to be used to polish a dance floor. He couldn’t remember the address he had been given but thought it was in Kilburn. From there an Irishman had directed him through a maze of backstreets to a garage in another part of North London. Detectives took the driver round the area until on the third day, he recognised a garage and house at 75 Fordington Road, East Finchley. The house was owned by John Healy, who had a furniture shop at 332 Hornsey Road and allegedly dealt in beeswax. Jack Healy was nothing like the IRA bombers portrayed in the newspapers. He was forty years old with a wife and two children. In his youth he had played Gaelic football in his native Derry before coming to England twenty years ago and settling down. As well running his business, Healy was also the proprietor of the Kilburn Irish Social Club. When police searched the Club they found two tons of potassium chlorate and a drum of aluminium oxide, which when mixed together could be used to make explosives. Gelignite was hard to come by so the IRA used other explosives such as potassium chlorate mixed with paraffin wax. This was nicknamed ‘Paxo’ after the well-known chicken stuffing mix. Healy argued that he had bought the chlorate from a London chemist to make throat pastilles in Ireland.

Gradually, the police traced and arrested other IRA members. On 29 March 1939, Healy was the oldest of the nine men (the rest were all in their 20s), found guilty and sentenced to a total of over 90 years at the Old Bailey. Healy got ten years for supplying material to make the explosives.

The attacks continued almost weekly and the Government introduced The Prevention of Violence Bill. This gave the police new powers of detention, and required all Irish nationals to register with the police just as other aliens had to do. In July when the Home Secretary introduced the Bill to Parliament, he said there had been 127 terrorist incidents since January 1939. One person had been killed, 55 injured, and 66 people had been arrested.

The most serious attack occurred later at the end of August when an IRA bomb exploded in the centre of Coventry killing five people. The police quickly made arrests and two men were convicted and sentenced to death. But anti-Irish feelings ran high: John Healy and a dozen IRA men in Dartmoor were set upon by fellow prisoners. Healy was badly hurt and developed pneumonia. His situation was critical and he spent five weeks in hospital in Plymouth before recovering and being returned to Dartmoor prison. We do not know what happened to him after he served his sentence.

The Kilburn Club
The ‘Kilburn Irish Social Club’ only lasted a few years and may have just been a front for Healy. It took us considerable research to work out where it was. We eventually found Vale Hall in Bridge Place near the Queen’s Arms pub at the bottom of Kilburn, numbered as 15b Kilburn High Road. Its original name was Kilburn Hall, built by Charles Hurditch as an Evangelical Mission Hall about 1868.

Charles Russell Hurditch was born in Exeter in 1840. Aged 20 he came to London and joined the YMCA. In 1864 he became secretary of Stafford Rooms, a YMCA centre in Tichborne Street, just off the Edgware Road. Here he met William Holmes, a stationer and bookseller, whose family had been involved in one of the mass conversions held at the Stafford Rooms. Charles married Mary Holmes on 11 May 1865 and they moved to 164 Alexandra Road, only a few doors from the Holmes family at 156. Charles left the YMCA and established himself as a preacher. He built or rented halls across London to spread his message to the poor, as well as producing magazines, books and composing hymns.

1930s map showing the position of the New Vale Hall

From 1904 the Kilburn Hall was used as a cycle works, then for motor cycles and as a motor garage into the 1920s. It was destroyed by fire early one morning in June 1928, watched by hundreds of women and girls, who had to leave their homes in the neighbouring houses dressed only in their night clothes. It was re-built as the New Vale Hall and in the 1930s it was used for whist, dancing and for boxing and wresting matches. Originally run by Max Lerner, it was taken over by entrepreneur and showman Harold Lane in 1936. He had began by organising whist drives, and in the late 1920s he hired Olympia where 16,000 people played cards for a world record £1,000 top prize. He went on to open his Lane’s London Clubs. Number 1 was at 7-9 King Street, Baker Street; Number 2 was at 11a Queen Street, Hammersmith and Number 3 was at The New Vale Hall, Kilburn.

Harold Lane (in the centre) with wrestlers outside his Baker Street Club in the 1930s (Getty Images)

Lane introduced All-in wrestling to England about 1930. This proved very popular but he ran into trouble by organising matches on a Sunday. In 1935 Lane was summonsed under the ancient Sunday Observance Act. A solicitor’s clerk said he paid 2/6 and went to the Hammersmith club on the evening of 6 October where he saw three well-attended contests. Repeated police raids on his clubs forced Lane to close permanently in 1938.

By the 1950s the Hall was being used as a factory to manufacture steel cabinets. Along with nearby bomb damaged properties, it was demolished in the 1960s and today lies under the Tollgate Gardens estate, owned by Westminster Council.

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