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Fire hero blazes ahead to win blue plaque victory

A young soldier who earned the nickname the ‘Coconut Bomber’ in the First World War and went on to spend the next war fighting fires in Southwark, has won the borough’s Blue Plaque this year.

Sergeant George Arthur Roberts was a clear winner bagging well over half of the votes cast for his contribution to Southwark at a time of great change and turmoil.

While living in Camberwell, he saved countless lives as a fireman, earning himself a British Empire Medal and represented the local branch of the British Legion.

George was born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Trinidad where he enrolled as a soldier. When the First World War began, the enthusiastic young volunteer signed up to the European Service and worked his way to England, where he was placed in the Middlesex Regiment and shipped off to The Front in France.

A clipping from Every Week magazine in 1918 says he did “splendid service” in the Dardanelles and served in many “severe engagements” in those torrid months as he was injured in both the battle of Loos and the Somme.

He earned his nickname as the Coconut Bomber because he could throw bombs like he used to throw coconuts as a child – at least that is what was reported by the Every Week. “…he showed great proficiency as a Battalion Bomber, being able to throw his bomb a distance of 74 yards. This extraordinary throw was largely the result of his youthful experience in bringing down coconuts from the palms in his native island,” read the article.

The extract from Every Week which described George as the ‘Coconut Bomber’
The extract from Every Week which described George as the ‘Coconut Bomber’

George met his wife Margaret in 1920 and they lived at a few different addresses in Southwark, but he settled in the Lewis Trust Dwellings in Warner Road, Camberwell and this remained his home until he died in January, 1970.

Not a man to shy away from danger, as the Second World War began, George signed up to the National Fire Service. In 1943 the former electrical engineer was made a section leader and in 1944 he was awarded a British Empire Medal for “general duties at New Cross Fire Station and for his part as a founder and pioneer of the Discussion and Education groups of the Fire Service throughout the Second World War.”

These voluntary talking shops were a part of a national move to try and prevent a repetition of a ‘sleepwalk’ to war and a fascist state through open debate.

Local historian, Stephen Bourne, who spent years researching the “forgotten Camberwell hero” said he was “thrilled” to hear George will be recognised by a Southwark Blue Plaque.

“I was thrilled with the positive reaction I had from voters,” said Stephen. “The London Fire Brigade have been very enthusiastic and supportive…most of them were unaware of George’s work as a fire officer during the Second World War until the nomination was announced. He is a worthy recipient,” he added.

A portrait of George by famous wartime painter Norman Hepple
A portrait of George by famous wartime painter Norman Hepple

There are now over 50 Southwark Blue Plaques proudly celebrating the borough’s rich history since the News and Southwark Heritage started the scheme with Southwark Council back in 2003.

The results

George A Roberts                           604

Blackfriars Settlement                   259

The Solarium, Grange Court         201

Sir Henry Cotton                             58


Read George Roberts’ full story here 


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