After the First World War the threat of gas attacks and the new possibility of large scale civilian casualties were upper most in people’s minds.  The threat of a second World War meant that measures had to be put in place to protect the population  from this terrible possibility.

One interesting aspect of this fear is how long it was before World War II that the government was actually putting precautions into place.   “Air Raid Precautions Handbook”, “Anti-gas Precautions” and “First Aid for Air Raid Casualties” (held in Gloucestershire Archive under reference Q/Y/7/22) were produced by HMSO in 1935.  In 1938 the decision had been made not to issue gas masks until “the actual emergency arises” (presumably the outbreak of war).  This was for the excellent reason that the masks were made of rubber and needed to be properly stored at even temperature with the metal parts packed separately.  The wardens would however be fitting every man woman and child with a mask and keeping up to date records of requirements so that all masks could be delivered within eight hours of a state of emergency being declared.

On the outbreak of war it became a requirement that everyone should have their gas mask with them.  Thornbury Museum has some examples of the gas masks used at this period and their special cases.  It is possible to see these by prior arrangement.  We are able to show only the images of a few of the items held by the Museum.  They are gas mask case and two types of gas mask. The first on the left is the sort issued to children and supposed to resemble Mickey Mouse and below is the a mask with a respirator.  A mask of this last sort would be issued to someone doing Civil Defence work.

A child’s gas mask

We would like to remind you that these images are not for any commercial use and Thornbury Museum should be contacted before using any images on this website.  Other types of mask were issued including a special one to be used by a young baby.  There were even masks for horses.  Thornbury Museum also has an example of the rattle carried by by an Air Raid Precaution warden to alert people to gas attacks.  The rattle was used because the warden would be wearing a gas mask and could not blow the whistle he used to warn people of other air raids.  Thornbury Museum has various examples of these Air Raid Wardens’ whistles and rattles.

In his book about his father, “The Handiest Man in Gloucestershire,” Professor J.B. (Jack) Pridham described in his own imitable style the gas masks themselves and how they were fitted and tested.

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 breathe 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!”

Gas mask respirator

Gloucestershire Archives Office has the official distribution arrangements for the gas masks required in Thornbury.  The town was divided for administration purposes into five areas: D. J Matthews on The Plain and F T Sainsbury in the High Street were the senior and deputy wardens for High Street, St Mary Street and Marlwood.  Their post was the Men’s Club in the High Street.  C. P. Taylor of The Hatch and H. H. Fudge of Castle Street were the senior and deputy wardens for Castle Street, Kington and Thornbury Castle.  The warden’s post was at The Hatch.  F.H Grace of West Shen and H.L. Beasant of East End Farm were the warden and deputy warden for Back Street, Gillingstool, Sibland, Vilner, Main Road, Grovesend to Buckover and Lodge Farm Milbury Heath.  The post was at Thornbury Electricity Company in St John Street.  W.H. Nicholls of 4 Eastland Road and S. W. G. Dennis at Selwood in Gloucester Road were senior warden and deputy warden for Gloucester Road, Thornbury Park, Morton Mill, Hackett and Easton Hill.

The warden’s post was at Grammar School House. G.N. Lanham of the Old Malt House and F.C. Barker of Manor Farm were senior and deputy warden for Upper Morton, Lower Morton, Park Mill and Oak Farm.  The warden’s post there was at the Old Malt House.  The numbers of respirators required for these posts totalled 922 large, 1399 medium, 351 small and 107 infant.

Information leaflets were also distributed to the local farmers about how to look after livestock affected by gas.  Farmers were advised to have bleaching powder, bleach ointment , soda, paraffin, bicarbonate and antiseptic tablets to hand together with various dressings.  Livestock splashed by liquid gas had to be cleaned with cotton wool and a mixture of paraffin and bleach ointment and then their whole bodies smeared in bleaching powder and water.  Horrible as this process sounds it was only to be used in the event of a gas attack (which never happened).  Animals in rural Gloucestershire were thus far more fortunate than those in towns.  At the beginning of World War II a government pamphlet led to a cull of British pets, most in urban areas.  We have a copy of that pamphlet.

A BBC news website says that in 1939 over 750,000 pets were killed in just one week in Britain.  The reason for this rather drastic action was the concern about the threat of food shortages and bombing that were anticipated when the war started in earnest.  More details about this and other aspects of World War II and its affect on animal population can be found in “Bozo’s War: Animals under Fire 1939-1945” by Clare and Christy Campbell.

Wallace Phillips the former reporter for the Dursley Gazette wrote in his memories of the World War II era that Eastwood Park in Falfield was bought by the Home Office in 1936 and opened as ‘The Civilian Anti-Gas School’.  Eastwood Park was the former home of the Jenkinson family until it was sold to Mr Watts a colliery and shipping owner.  He went on to say that “During the 1939-45 war the name of the School was changed to ‘The Ministry of Home Security Air Raid Precautions School’.  We understand that during this period, the Civil Defence Training Site was built as a copy of a village straddling a street.  The training school seems to have trained Civil Defence Volunteers from all over the country.

One of the civilian clerical staff there was Douglas Garn.  Douglas later enlisted in the RAF and very sadly was killed when his plane was shot down over Hamburg.

It seems that local school children also received some training at how to cope with this menace.  On March 26th 1943 the log book of the Council School had the rather alarming entry that “the children were taken through the Mobile Gas Chamber today”.  We would love to hear more from anyone who survived this experience and can tell us what it actually meant.