Thornbury 1939 - 1946

by Wallace Phillips

Wallace Phillips – Thornbury 1939 – 1946 2016-10-25T14:25:47+00:00

Wallace Phillips, known as ‘Wally’ was a reporter for the Dursley Gazette.  He wrote several interesting articles on life in Thornbury.

With the war clouds growing ever darker and more threatening as 1939 wore on, the inevitability of a conflict became evident and increasing attention was given to recruiting not only the Armed Forces but also Civil Defence, all sections of which had an important role to play and a valuable contribution to make in the years ahead.

Air Raid Wardens, the Women’s Voluntary Services, Ambulance and First Aid Services, Special Constables to assist the Police, the creation of the Auxiliary Fire Service later to merge into the National Fire Service and Fire Parties to assist the regular Fire Brigade, the Rescue Service – all these were being speedily built up into effective units in Thornbury as elsewhere in the country and in due course all did their bit.

Actually Civil Defence had come to the area some years earlier when the Home Office bought Eastwood Park, Falfield, for many years the home of the Jenkinson family, although this family had sold it in 1918 to Mr. Watts, a colliery and shipping owner.

In 1936 ‘The Civilian Anti-Gas School’ was opened and a year later the Annexe was built.  During the 1939-45 war the name of the School was changed to ‘The Ministry of Home Security Air Raid Precautions School’.  It was loaned by the Home Office after the war in 1945 to the South Western Police District and became No. 7 District Police Training Centre.  In January, 1949 it was handed back to the Civil Defence Department of the Home Office and Civil Defence courses were resumed in May, 1949.  In recent years it has been used as a training centre for Hospital Engineers.

During its use as a Civil Defence School one of the features was the creation of a facsimile town street after it had been struck by bombs with the walls of houses and office blocks leaning at impossible angles, all types of buildings shattered and blasted, heaps of rubble blocking pavements and roadway and even a wrecked aircraft to provide the greatest possible realism for wardens, fire, rescue and ambulance services as they went through the crash courses.  It was an experience which was to stand many of them in good stead during the ‘real thing’.

Meanwhile in every town and village air raid shelters were being dug and every home had either its shelter or some corner was reinforced to provide what protection it could.  Sand bags were issued and protected the more important buildings, blackout curtains were installed everywhere and once war had been declared the warden’s cry of ‘Put out/that light’ or ‘Put up that black-out’ became almost a slogan and persistent offenders were hauled before the magistrates and fined.

‘Dig for Victory’ became the cry which led to the formation of the Thornbury Home Food Production Committee with Mr. A. S. Cooper as its hon. secretary.

The Sub Controller and Chief Air Warden in charge of Civil Defence throughout the Thornbury Rural District was Major Algar Howard of Thornbury Castle who was knighted in 1944.  Other chiefs of staff included Colonel C. E. Turner of Oldown as Deputy Chief Air Warden and Captain Richard Bennett as Major Howard’s Deputy in Thornbury.  Mr. John Judd, Clerk to the RDC, was Co-ordinating Officer, Dr. A. J. Kitson (First Aid Commandant), Miss Anstice Bennett (His Deputy), Mr. Ronald Huntington (Decontamination Officer and in charge of War Damage), Mr. Leslie Hawkins (Heavy Rescue), Mr. Philip Cooper (Supt., First Aid Parties), Mrs. Dutson (Deputy Ambulance Officer), Mr. G. R. Millard (Incident Officer, Fire Commandant, Food Controller and Local Overseer), Mr. H. Hignell and Mr. H. R. Stephens (Control Staff), Mr.. F. A. Mumford (Co-ordination Officer and Evacuation Officer), Mr. A. Riddiford (Mortuary Superintendent) and Mrs. K. Jackson (Secretary).  The Council Offices, then at Oriel House, Castle Street, formed the Administration centre. Major Lee was in command of the local Home Guard unit.

Thornbury was a receiving area for children evacuated from the Dovercourt area of the South East coast.  The children were received into the homes of the people of the parish and district.  There were the inevitable difficulties on both sides but the majority of the children settled in remarkably well with few disturbances.  The majority formed associations with their foster homes which remain unbroken to the present day while some remained, never to return to the old homes.

More famous evacuees to this haven of peace, as the authorities must have considered it until the time of the Bristol blitzes, included the documents and records of the Royal College of Arms which were housed at Thornbury Castle at the invitation of Sir Algar Howard (Garter King of Arms) under the supervision of Mr. William Caffall.

The B.B.C. also sent their Music and Light Entertainment Departments to Bristol and the West so that Sir Adrian Boult became a resident in Thornbury and a B.B.C.  Drama Director, Mr. Cyril Wood, made his home at Falfield.  Mr. Wood also played an important role in the social and entertainment side of the district.  Through his influence Thornbury people had the opportunity of seeing and hearing some of the best-known names in entertainment in the country during those war years while Mr. Wood also gave unsparingly of his time in helping amateur drama enthusiasts to obtain a smattering at least of professional polish.

Mr. Wood produced at Thornbury among other plays ‘Love from a Stranger’, starring Wilfred Babbage and Joan Henson of the B.B.C. Repertory Co. and R. C. Sheriff’s ‘Badgers Green’ starring Bruce Belfrage, very well known B.B.C. news announcer of the period as well as an actor, supported in this play by a cast of local amateurs.

At a time when people were cutting down their iron railings and handing in old saucepans and metal utensils to provide scrap metal in aid of the war effort – an exercise of psychological rather than practical value – everything possible was being done to raise money.  The first major exercise was ‘War Weapons Week’.  At Thornbury Mr. Cyril Wood arranged a Serenade Concert given in the Grammar School Hall by the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra, leader Marie Wilson, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult; the B.B.C. Singers conducted by Trevor Harvey; Mary O’Farrell and Stephen Jack of the B.B.C. Repertory Company recited and Stuart Hibberd, then the doyen of announcers, read a passage.

During the same week a variety concert at the Cossham Hall, Thornbury included poplar B.B.C. variety artistes of the period of whom Dorothy Hare, then a vivacious soubrette and now a T.V. character actress, is the only one still active on stage.  The others included Leslie Bridgmont, Hubert of Nosmo King and Hubert, Ronald Hill, Arthur Chesney, Compton Evans and Ray Monelle and Reginald Williams and his B.B.C. Dance Players.

The ceremonial opening of The Week at Thornbury Castle was performed by the Duchess of Beaufort.  There was a mass tableau of H.M. Forces and Voluntary Services, the Band of the 8th Gloucesters and chorus of 500 voices with the B.B.C. Singers.  Stephen Jack declaimed the famous speech from ‘Henry V’ from the Castle battlements.

Mr. Arthur Wilkins, who despite advancing years was full of energy and enthusiasm, was in charge of the training of ‘the volunteers to the Auxiliary Fire Service helped by the Thornbury RDC Voluntary Retained Firemen.  The outbreak of war was followed by some six or seven months of the so-called ‘Phoney War’ during which regular training was interspersed with the occasional civil fires of grassland, hay ricks, chimney fires, etc.  However eventually the real thing began in the district with the dropping of incendiaries at Hallen.  From then on there was plenty of activity.  However, it was the larger industrial centres which were the main early targets.

After Birmingham had had a series of raids a party of ten volunteer auxiliary firemen from the Thornbury District under Mr. G. Peckett of Falfield, Section Officer, went up to Birmingham for a fortnight to give the overtaxed local firemen a well-earned rest.  Enemy activity was almost nil during that period but the night before the party returned to Thornbury was the first of the so-called Baedecker raids with Coventry as the target.  The Thornbury squad stood by all night waiting to be called in to Coventry but their services were not required.  They duly returned home the next day just in time to be ready for the first major raid on Bristol on the night of Sunday, November 24, 1940.  A Thornbury crew was sent to the devastated area of Park Street and Queen’s Road, Bristol.  When the raids were resumed the following night, another Thornbury crew was called in to the Bristol Fire Headquarters in Rupert Street before being sent out to a fire in a paper warehouse near St. Philip’s railway Station.  As the crew made their way there the sights of flames pouring from St. Peter’s Church and the Church of St. Mary le Port and the holocaust in Union Street and Castle Street became an indelible memory.

The next major blitz which lasted for some thirteen hours on January 3/4 1941 was on one of the coldest nights of a cold winter.  A Thornbury crew sent to deal with a fire at Dallin’s Wharf just off the Bristol Centre had to set up their trailor pump on the edge of the dock with the quayside slippery with ice and with icicles forming on helmets and overcoats and eyebrows frozen as the firemen worked, while if a hose was left idle for half an hour it literally froze solid.

The last of the three big Bristol air attacks came on Good Friday, 1941.  On this occasion a Thornbury crew was sent into Bristol Centre to deal with a fire at the old Electricity offices more or less opposite where the present SWEB building stands.  On returning exhausted to the rendezvous at the old Tramways Depot at the top of Gloucester Road, the crew was eventually roused and told to go to the fire headquarters in Jacob Street for a meal.  Because of blocked roads and roads cordoned off due to unexploded bombs, so many detours had to be made that the crew eventually found themselves right out at Stapleton Road near the railway bridge.  Before entering Stapleton Road from a side road they had to wait for a procession of limousines to travel along the main Stapleton Road towards the Bristol Centre and then the firemen followed the procession to Old Market.  They were puzzled to see crowds of bystanders who cheered the leading car and then as the old red fire engine manned by a crew blackened with smoke from their fire fighting activities trailed along, cheering broke out with renewed frenzy and enthusiasm, giving them a triumphal progress.  It was not until some time later that the firemen discovered they had accidentally become part of the entourage accompanying Sir Winston Churchill who was making a tour of the devastated areas of Bristol that day.

Fire crews from Thornbury also went to help at Plymouth, Weston and Bath.

At the end of June, 1945, Mr. G. R. Millard presented to the Civil Defence Committee this summary of enemy action within the Thornbury Rural District between 1939-1945.

There were 557 air raid warnings in all, made up of 383 in 1940 decreasing to 121 in 1941, 34 in 1942, 13 in 1943 and six in 1944.  The first warning came at 00.18 hours on June 25th, 1940 and the last at 5.16 a.m. on June 13, 1944.  The longest period was 12 hours 39 minutes on January 4/5, 1941.

There were 219 incidents requiring action by ARP services.  The number of bombs dropped was 566 plus about fifteen in the River Severn between high and low water marks.  High explosive bombs which did not explode on impact numbered 83.  The number of incendiary bombs dropped was estimated at 1,536, fire pot incendiary bombs 10, oil incendiary bombs 39, phosphorous incendiary bombs two, parachute mines four and photo flash bombs ten.
Casualties were: killed seven males, two females; injured eight males, six females.  There were two crashed enemy aircraft, their crew casualties being four killed and two injured.  Livestock killed numbered 27 and injured twelve.  Houses damaged numbered 584 of which eight were totally destroyed.  The highest number of high explosive bombs dropped in one raid was 95 on August 22/23rd, 1940.

The Fire Service sent crews to Birmingham, Worcester, Manchester, Plymouth, Southampton and many times to Bristol.

One of the most poignant memories of the war was witnessing the arrival of the first trainload of wounded American soldiers at Thornbury railway station after the Second Front had been opened in 1944.  They were on their way to hospital at the Earl of Ducie’s former home at Falfield and it was a harrowing sight as they were transferred from the train to the fleet of waiting ambulances.

One inevitable discomfort caused by the war in which everyone shared was rationing.  There was an announcement in ‘The Gazette’ in February, 1940 stating that the price of milk was being increased to 7d a quart.  Among the main items rationed were meat, eggs, fats, cheese, bacon, sugar and sweets and rationing continued until nearly a decade after the end of the war.  The word ‘ersatz’ passed into common use and the delights of spam, whale meat, snoek and powdered egg were introduced. Petrol was also severely rationed.

With the shortage of milk certain people became eligible for Free Milk, chiefly expectant or nursing mothers.  Mr. G. R. Millard as Food Controller had to deal with applications for Free Milk and he supplied this list of extracts from letters which may be found amusing:

‘Please send me a form for cheap milk as I am expecting mother.’
‘Please send me a form for a supply of milk for having children at reduced prices.’
‘I have posted the form by mistake before my child was properly filled in.’
‘Sorry to be so long in filling in the form but I have been in bed with my baby for two weeks and did not know it was running out until the milkman told me.’
‘This is my eighth child; what are you going to do about it.’
‘I require extra milk as I am stagnant.’
‘In accordance with the instructions I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope.’

VE Day on May 8th, 1945 was, according to ‘The Gazette’, observed with gratitude, thanksgiving and a sense of relief rather than a spirit of boisterous mafficking.  Services of thanksgiving were held in all the churches in the town.  The main streets were resplendent in red, white and blue decorations – flags, banners, streamers and bunting of all descriptions.  Rosettes were plentiful and even a bus had a Union Jack spread across its radiator.

On the Tuesday night large crowds gathered around a bonfire which seemed to appear from nowhere on The Plain and was soon blazing cheerfully while in floodlit Pullin’s Green there was dancing in the street.  Fireworks and crackers added to the noisy gaiety.  On Wednesday there were bonfires in the Mundy Playing Fields and again on The Plain.

A special parade service was held on the Wednesday in the Parish Church attended by the Maritime Regiment after which the parade marched to the Cossham Hall.  A short service was held at Thornbury Grammar School and there was a large attendance at the Catholic Church whose main thanksgiving was a special Mass on the Sunday.

Oldbury-on-Severn organised a tea for the children followed by a social at the Memorial Hall with Mr. J. T. Nichols as M.C.   The Thornbury Welcome Home Fund organised a dance on May 17th.’

VJ Day celebrations followed at the latter part of August, 1945 when at Thornbury there was a programme of sports on the Mundy Playing Field organised by a committee of which Mr. G. R. Millard was chairman and Mr. R. A. H. Champion hon. secretary.  Tea was given to all children in the parish between the ages of 3-16 in two sittings in the Cossham Hall, this being arranged by a committee of ladies of which Mrs. R. H. Dagger was the chairman.  The day ended with a dance at the Cossham Hall.

Eastland Avenue, Eastland Road and Eastfield Road organised their own tea for 82 children to which the ladies resident in Thornbury Infirmary were invited and Mr. C. Ball with his tractor and two trailers provided rides for the children.  There were sports and dancing in the evening and each child received one shilling.

High Street and Silver Street had a Victory Treat on the Tuesday followed by games in the Cossham Hall.  Sports had to be cancelled because of rain.  Castle Street did not allow rain to stop their sports and tea and the evening ended with rides round the town in carts driven by Messrs. F. and H. Pearce.

Alveston celebrated with tea and sports and with money left over it was decided to provide savings stamps for every child born in the parish during the war years.

Thornbury Amateur Dramatic Society was one of the first to get off the mark after the war when they put on their ‘Trial of the Flitch’ at the Cossham Hall in early December, 1945 – the winning couple being Mr. and Mrs. Horatio Barton of Oldbury-on-Severn.

The year 1946 ended on a cheery note when the bells of St. Mary’s Parish Church, Thornbury were rung to give a special Christmas message of peace on earth and goodwill toward men to all the Empire in a broadcast on the BBC Home and Light programmes on Christmas morning and a shortened form of mattins a little later in the morning was broadcast in the Overseas Service of the BBC.  The service was conducted by the Vicar, Canon R. G. Rawstorne, and the ringers were Messrs. Stanley Poole, steeplemaster, R. Poole, A. E. King, W. G. Symes, W. Poole, N. Burrows, J. Collins and R. Trotman.

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