For Fred, Jean and Sally
December 1940. The fifteenth month of World War II and the third month of the London Blitz. A month that saw a second Great Fire return to the City of London. During a few hours on the evening of 29th December, German incendiary bombs ignited over 1400 fires in the City, eventually creating a firestorm. It was the night Herbert Mason, from a rooftop near Fleet Street, captured his famous image of the Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral wreathed in the smoke and the flames from the burning buildings encircling it.
The 10th May of the following year saw the last night of the London Blitz. The next day, while fires were still being fought and damaged assessed, another photographer was at work in the City of London. Not far from St Paul’s, he also took a stunning photograph portraying the Blitz’s destructive power. It is of No 23 Queen Victoria Street. The building is still on fire, but beyond all help – the fire-crews simply stand back and watch. The picture captures the building just as it teeters and starts to crumble, suspending it forever in mid-collapse.
The fall of 23 Queen Victoria Street, City of London, 11th May 1941
After the war, this photograph was a favourite of school history books. Today, its fame is secured as part of a unique and remarkable collection of images that records the destruction and suffering wreaked on the City of London by the Blitz. Together the images are known as the “Cross and Tibbs Collection”, the name taken from the surnames of the two photographers responsible for its creation. However, Cross and Tibbs were not journalists or war photographers – they were more properly known as Police Constable Arthur Cross and Police Constable Frederick Tibbs, both serving City of London Police officers.
PC Arthur Cross had been appointed Official Photographer to the City of London Police in July 1939. After war was declared, his first job was to take identity photographs of every member of the force. When the Blitz started in September 1940, Fred Tibbs – who was, like Arthur, an enthusiastic amateur photographer – was assigned to help him make a photographic record of any damage caused, seemingly with the view of aiding post-war reconstruction. Although initially intended to last only a few weeks, it was a partnership that instead lasted until the end of the war and one which produced the 360 or so photographs that together form the Cross and Tibbs Collection. Today, it is almost impossible to tell which man took which photograph – with the exception of the falling frontage of 23 Queen Victoria Street. The image from the collection that so imprints itself on the viewer’s memory is the work of Frederick Tibbs.
It was not the only photograph that Fred took of that building that morning. It was one of a series of three. In the first, the building stands, but is well alight. In the last, it is hitting the ground. And then there’s the middle image, the building’s fall, so powerful it has consigned its companions to obscurity. Take another look at it, and you will see it is slightly out of focus. The result perhaps of an incorrect camera setting? No, Fred was far too good a photographer for that. Instead, as he presses the shutter, the building crumbles and he steps backwards and down into a hole in the road caused by the bombing.
Fred had been born in Hackney in 1902 and named Frederick George after his father who was an ironmonger’s assistant. After becoming a messenger for a Dalston railway engineering company at the age of 14, Fred tried his hand as a pianoforte fitter and then electrician before joining the City of London Police on 7th December 1922. He was posted to Bishopsgate Police Station, not the building that stands today, but its Victorian predecessor, built in 1866 by Sir Horace Jones, the architect who was later responsible for Tower Bridge.
Bishopsgate Police Station, c 1909
As a single man, Fred was given accommodation in the station, and so found himself both living and working in the same building where Catherine Eddowes had been incarcerated shortly before she became Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim in September 1888. He served his twelve-month probationary period on C (Bishopsgate) Division at the end of which he was deemed fit for service and confirmed as PC 185C Tibbs (warrant number 8402). His annual pay was the grand sum of 72 shillings.
Sport in a variety of forms was a large part of police life at that time. Two years before Fred joined, the City of London Police had won the Gold Medal in the Tug of War at the Olympics and, as this was the last time the event featured at the Games, the force proudly remains the Olympic Champion to this day. Fred’s sport though was swimming – although he was pretty handy at snooker too – and soon he was a regular on the force’s water polo team. Water polo is traditionally a tough game. In Fred’s day, it was described as a “demented mixture of Murder Ball and British Bulldog in water”. It was a game the City Police had long excelled at. They had been London Champions for five successive years, and force players had represented England numerous times both internationally and at the Olympics.
The experts at “Murder Ball and British Bulldog in water”
The City of London Police Water Polo Team, 1924, London and Middlesex Champions
Fred obviously held his own amongst such company (being 6 ft ½ inches tall probably helped). He won numerous prizes for his swimming. Sadly many of these were in the form of glassware and later found themselves incompatible with the bombs of World War II.
There was one area of water though, that his supervisors and colleagues would have instructed him not to go anywhere near: the Thames. A tidal waterway, it is not only cripplingly cold, but has eddies and undertows all too ready to suck swimmers under. However, with no thought for any of this, on Sunday, 26th April 1936, a fully clothed Fred Tibbs dived into its waters. He, assisted by a colleague, PC William Reed, was trying to rescue a six year old boy who had been swept away, and an adult who in turn, had got into difficulties while trying to save him. Thanks to the selfless actions of Fred and William both the boy and his would-be rescuer survived. For his courage Fred was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Honorary Testimonial on Vellum. This wasn’t to be the only time that Fred saved a life. Several years later, while on holiday at the coast, Fred once again selflessly entered the water to rescue another boy in difficulty, and once again earned the undying gratitude of another family.
By 1936, Fred was married with two young children (pictured left, with the daughter of Arthur Cross in the middle), and by 1939 the family had a home in Fassett Road, Hackney. However, with the onset of war, it was a home that was soon abandoned. Many City officers evacuated their families, and Fred’s wife, son and daughter went to live in the safety of Wales. Fred moved back into accommodation at Bishopsgate Police Station – no longer the Victorian station of Sir Horace Jones and Catherine Eddowes, but the “new” Bishopsgate Station which, constructed in the years running up to war, had been specially built to withstand the anticipated aerial bombardments.
And it was from Bishopsgate that Arthur Cross and Fred worked for the duration of the war, using a makeshift darkroom located in a basement kitchen. With Fred living upstairs, within minutes of the “All Clear” he could be on his way with his photography equipment to record the latest devastation. But this was also a London that was full of people from all over the world. With the heavy bombing the City saw, inevitably some became casualties. To Fred and Arthur fell the task of photographing the bodies to help with later identification. A vital and important job, particularly for the victims’ families, but a part of the war-time photographic work Cross and Tibbs undertook that has been completely overshadowed by their work recording bomb damage.
By 1951, Arthur and Fred were working from proper darkroom and photographic studio facilities at the force Headquarters in Old Jewry, and had seen their annual budget increase from £10 to £1000 a year. Since February of that year, Fred had been part of the Detective Office and officially a Detective Constable, but his main role was still that of a photographer. Due for retirement in July 1958 having served 35½ years as a City of London Police officer, Fred became the subject of a letter written by the Commissioner to the City of London Police Committee. The Commissioner signified his intention to retain Fred’s services in his existing role, but in a civilian capacity as “Mr Tibbs is an excellent photographer and has a wide experience of all phases of Police work. He is considered to be a specialist in the type of work on which he is employed”.
In all, as a police officer and civilian, Fred was to be a part of the City of London Police for 44 years. The photograph on the right shows Fred and his wife heading off to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party: at that time, he was the force’s longest serving member.
In December 1966 though his services were terminated. Due to health problems he had been off sick for the previous twelve months. In one of history’s little ironies, his last day of service for the City of London Police was to be 29th December – on the 26th anniversary of the worst night of the Blitz on London, a Blitz the aftermath of which Fred and his colleague, Arthur Cross, had done so much to preserve for history.
The complete Cross and Tibbs Collection can be found on the Collage website: https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/home?WINID=1481388245247
Blog © PloddintheSquareMile
I am hugely indebted to the daughter and grand-daughter of Frederick Tibbs who have both freely and enthusiastically provided information and told me stories about Fred and allowed me to use them here.
Photographs from their family archive are also reproduced with their kind permission. It is due to them that this blog exists in the form it does, and that Fred’s story, and that of his good friend Arthur Cross, can now be told to another generation.
Left: PC 185c Frederick Tibbs, City of London Police
Served 7th December 1922 – 29th December 1966
© The Tibbs family