We are grateful to Jack Pridham who grew up in Thornbury in what has since been named The Georgian House and who was kind enough to send us a copy of his writings about his early life. What he has written has given us a wonderful insight into life in Thornbury, in this case just after World War II was declared.
“My father’s first response was that we should build an air-raid shelter. None of the younger generation seemed to worry about bombs, in fact I am sure that many of us in our ignorance, looked forward to having a bomb crater in the town – we did not really equate this with death. Bombs only made large holes and big bangs was the message that was conveyed by the British Movietone News!
The air raid shelter was eventually completed by father with some help from a neighbour and minimal encouragement from the family. He dug a large hole adjacent to the southern, low wall of the garden and added a thick roof of old corrugated iron, iron bedsteads and soil and installed some internal wooden seating for about 10 or 12 neighbours. Shiny, government, prefab Anderson Shelters that needed to be buried in the garden were available but for some reason we had none in our town. Priority was probably given to city dwellers that were more likely to be targeted by Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe.
During these early days, air-raid shelters were built in the Thornbury schools and on all roads entering the town, pill-boxes were set up to house machine guns. Mobile barriers were often erected nearby, made from tree trunks, hinged to the wall at one end and supported by a wheel from some old agricultural machine at the other. All kinds of Civilian Defence (CD) organisations were established: Major Algar Howard who owned the Castle and later became the King’s Herald, was elevated to Chief Air Raid Warden in charge of CD. First Aid, Ambulance and Fire services were organised as well as a small force of Special Constables to assist the police. Air-Raid Wardens were appointed, armed with stirrup pumps and buckets of sand; their main job, was to see that the blackout precautions were enforced and that incendiary bombs were extinguished.
In August 1939 when we all thought that, as in 1914-18, Germany would resort to chlorine, phosgene or mustard gas attacks,gas masks were issued: one would also have needed protective suits for mustard but none was offered to civilians. There were five sorts of respirator: a completely enclosed container for small babies; a colourful but usually hated Mickey Mouse mask for youngsters; a civilian adult mask for the masses, which would offer safety for an hour or so; a civilian duty mask for wardens and the like which would last a little longer, and a service respirator for the police and military personnel. The latter, unlike the others, sported a ‘corrugated trachea’ which added space-suit dimensions to the kit; this dropped down into a khaki canvas bag with a separate red container of active charcoal. Under attack, this was said to have a life of about three hours. The civilian ‘job’ was stored in a brown cardboard box with piece of string to hang around the neck and written instructions to carry it with you on all occasions. Brown or red waterproof gas mask carriers (with, I think, a pocket to carry a National Identity Card) could be bought to improve the image. Frequent gas mask practices were held in the schools – “Chin in first then pull the rest of the mask over the face. Place a piece of cardboard over the air intake and breath in”. Instant suffocation meant that your mask was in good order! Continued breathing suggested that you needed a smaller version – they came in three sizes – large, medium and small. If the small was too large then heaven forbid, you needed the Mickey Mouse model!
The first air raid warning from a wailing siren mounted on the top of the Police Station in the High Street came sometime in 1940, about a year after the first UK raid. It was daylight and pm as I remember, and the three Pridhams and neighbours – two Whites, a Sealey, a Cripps together with Auntie Rose all filed quickly into the air raid shelter. Here, except for one or two visits to the bathroom (which mother felt was too dangerous to make) we sat for something like three hours with no indication that the enemy was anywhere in the area. This occurred on a couple of other occasions after which the shelter was abandoned: pneumonia was considered to be a greater hazard than German bombers!
Another annoyance was the black-out restrictions which at the beginning of the war at least, were rigorously enforced by the police and air-raid wardens. A shrill police whistle or a harsh shout at night would send people hurriedly to their black-out curtains to look for gaps. Uncle Sidney Gayner, did well at this time. His draper’s shop sold the blackout material which was bought by most of the householders in the town. A rough wooden frame was normally made to fit the window to which the black material was pinned. Sidney probably also sold the sticky white tape which was applied as a diagonal cross to every window pane to prevent injuries from flying glass resulting from bomb blasts.
Motor vehicles were also subject to the restrictions and headlights were blacked-out apart from narrow slits which rendered them almost useless, particularly in the thick pea-souper fogs that were so common at that time. As many bombers found their targets one wonders how efficient the black-out really was and how at night, the countryside appeared from several thousand feet up in the air. With relatively primitive navigation equipment, the German pilots would certainly have been helped by pathfinder patches of light which we probably provided for them.”