Monthly Archives: January 2011


The Sound of the Air Raid Siren

Air raid sirens first sounded the warning in London in September 1939 shortly after the outbreak of war with Germany.  During the May Blitz of 1941, the frightening sound of the air raid siren could be heard across Liverpool several times each day.

world war II air raid poster

The “Carter” air raid siren, manufactured by Gents of Leicestershire was used exclusively in Britain throughout World War II.  The sirens made a very loud and long signal or warning sound. For an alert, the siren sound pitch rose and fell alternately, whereas the “All Clear” was a continuous sound from the siren.

When people heard the siren they would stop what they were doing and make for shelter.  Shelters varied from underground stations, to smaller prefabricated Anderson and Morrison shelters.  If the bombing seemed light, many people preferred to stay in their homes under the stairs.  Government warning messages describing how best to react if the siren sounds, were broadcasted to the general public over the wireless and at the pictures.

Volunteer air raid precaution (ARP) wardens would protect civilians from the danger of air-raids as much as possible during a bomb attack; directing people to the nearest shelter and using their knowledge of the local area to help find and reunite family members who had been separated in the mad rush to escape the bombing.


The Bombing of St. Luke’s

Today St. Luke’s Church still stands prominently at the top of Bold Street, on the corner of Berry Street and Leece Street, as an enduring symbol and reminder of the tragic destruction caused by the Blitz in the Second World War.  The church was hit by an incendiary bomb on Monday 5th May 1941 and the ensuing fire was described by the Liverpool Echo as “magnificent“.

Sadly St. Luke’s could not be saved.  The city was burning as a result of the prolonged attack by the Luftwaffe; fire fighters and relief workers were already stretched to the limit.  In the early hours of Tuesday May 6th local residents who were sheltering in the nearby basements of Roscoe Place reported hearing the great bell fall from the tower.

The interior of St Luke's looking towards the altar

st luke's church liverpool

Photographs above © R Brown and J Parry 1931

A fantastic example of neo-gothic architecture, St. Luke’s had been the focus of community life for those who lived an worked in the area for just over a century.  It had taken John Foster and his son nearly 30 years to design and build, yet it took the Luftwaffe a single night to destroy it…

st luke's church bomb damage

A burnt out shell, commonly known locally as “the bombed-out church“, it was bought from the Church of England by Liverpool City Council in 1968 and became a garden of remembrance to commemorate the thousands of local men, women and children who died as a result of the bomb attacks on their city.  It remains one of Liverpool’s best loved landmarks.

For more information visit historian Jonathan Wild’s informative website devoted to St. Luke’s Church.


The Dockers’ Umbrella in the Blitz

When it was opened in 1893 the Liverpool Overhead Railway was the world’s first electrically-operated overhead railway.  The railway ran close to the River Mersey following the line of Liverpool Docks from Dingle to Bootle.  It gained the affectionate nickname of the Dockers’ Umbrella, as a great proportion of the railway was elevated and dockers could shelter beneath it as they traveled about the docks.

liverpool overhead railway poster

During World War II the Port of Liverpool was the country’s main link across the Atlantic and therefore vital for the constant supply of war materials and food.  Consequently, the long sprawl of docks alongside the Mersey was a major target for the Luftwaffe.  Given its proximity to the docks, it wasn’t surprising the famous Overhead Railway suffered serious bomb damage during the Blitz.

James Street station was destroyed during the May Blitz of 1941 and was consequently rebuilt on modern lines in 1942.  Damage to public transport made traveling to rest centres and other emergency facilities very difficult for those caught out in the bombing.

overhead railway blitz damage james street
Junction of James Street and Strand Street May 1941

overhead railway blitz

Whenever the railway was disrupted by bomb damage, a shuttle service using buses was called into action.  These vehicles carried passengers to and from working sections of track where they could resume their train journeys.

Remarkably, no trains were lost to the bombers during the war, despite regular damage to the track and buildings along the entire length of the line.  Some raids took place at times of the day when the trains were still running, but even after the last night service had ended, the coaches were still vulnerable standing in their depots.

overhead railway blitz sandon dock
Damage to the Overhead at Sandon Dock
overhead railway blitz wapping
Bomb raids cause a warehouse at Wapping Dock to collapse onto the line

Even though there was a desperate need for steel and other raw resources for the war effort, the Dockers’ Umbrella was considered so important to the workings of the port that every effort was made to provide enough metals to repair the railway after the air raids.  However, it was not until November 1941 that all the repairs had been completed and the Overhead was fully open once more.

The war placed a huge strain on the “Ovee” with a massive rise in passengers as a result of the sheer volume of trade coming through Liverpool’s docks.  By 1945 it was carrying 14 million passengers, almost double the figure for 1939.


The Evacuation of Liverpool

During World War II approximately 130,000 people were evacuated away from Merseyside.  These weren’t only school children, but also pregnant women, young mothers with babies and disabled adults.  By 1st September 1939, war with Germany seemed inevitable.  Although nothing was official, people feared they would be attacked as soon as war was declared, so evacuation began days before Prime Minister Chamberlain declared war over the wireless.

The Liverpool Corporation arranged for children to be moved to the quiet countryside of Cheshire and North Wales, where they would be much safer from bomb attacks.  Many children were evacuated by ship from Liverpool to Canada, South Africa, New Zealand or Australia and many of these evacuees never returned home. However hard it might have been, for many parents this was one way to ensure their children would survive even if Britain was invaded.

world war II evacuation lime street

Unexpectedly, after war had been declared, months passed by and the bombs didn’t arrive… this was known as “the Phoney War” and many children were brought back home to Liverpool.  However, once France fell to the Nazis in May 1940, german planes moved much closer to the English Channel and soon after the Blitz on Britain began in earnest!

evacuees liverpool
© Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Like parents in all major industrial cities, those in Merseyside had to be persuaded to let their children go to strangers many miles away for an unknown length of time.  Newsreel reports showing bombs and gas attacks in Spanish cities helped persuade many parents, as did information from schools, loud hailers, churches and newspapers.  Understandably many parents did not want to let their children go, so they stayed in Liverpool.

evacuation poster wwII

world war II evacuation lime street

Inevitably, children reacted differently to this stressful upheaval… some were frightened, others saw it as a great adventure!  Many had not been to the countryside before, nor seen fields or farm animals and were overwhelmed by their new surroundings.

Once children arrived at their destination with their gas masks across their shoulders, they were chosen by billeters who often made their choice based on how the child looked and how strong and healthy they seemed.  Many were separated from their siblings, which was often very traumatic.  Some children were not selected at all and were taken from home to home by the organisers who tried to find them places.

evacuated children wwii

There were many reports of billeters being shocked by the condition of children from poorer inner-city areas; they were very often dirty and ill-dressed.  Lice, malnutrition and diseases such as impetigo, scabies, and diptheria were common in densely populated urban areas, but were very rare in the countryside.

evacuation bathtime

Experiences varied dramatically and inevitably a lot of it was down to pure luck.  Many children had a wonderful time and some even refused to leave at the end of the war.  Some even chose to be adopted by their billeted parents.  Thousand of children lived away from Merseyside for several years.  In that time they had grown a lot and become accustomed to being distanced from their parents; some reunited families were practically strangers.  Many children returned to Merseyside able to speak Welsh fluently – some had forgotten almost all the English they knew.

The most unlucky children were placed where they were not wanted.  Some had a miserable time; fed poor food, forced to live outside and work long hours.  There were several cases of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Mothers often suffered terribly.  They missed their children and at the same time were struggling to cope with bomb raids, rationing and the absence or even death of their husbands.  They were also asked to pay what they could towards their children’s upkeep.  Parents could visit their children but were encouraged not to do so often as this could unsettle the children.  Consequently, mothers usually knew little about the people who were raising their children.

evacuees return home

For most children and parents, the return home meant a very emotional and happy reunion.  There’s no doubt the evacuation of children from Britain’s cities during the Blitz did save lives.


The Story of the Rotunda Theatre

Because of it’s pivotal position at the junction of Scotland road and Stanley road, the Rotunda was an important local landmark since it’s construction in 1860.  Sadly the building was completely destroyed during the Blitz.  But such was it’s presence that even after the war, those who remembered it would still refer to ‘the Rotunda‘ when giving directions to passers-by in Bootle!

rotunda theatre bootle

The site at the junction of Scotland road and Stanley road was built in 1860 and was originally a public house.  In 1866 the proprietor introduced plans for the re-siting of the entertainment on a more extensive upper floor where a larger stage was constructed at the Scotland Road end of the building.  The largely musical fare was then supplemented by sketches.

After further reconstruction with the addition of a gallery, the establishment was opened as the Rotunda Theatre on 23rd November 1869 with a Grand Concert!  Two days later on 25th November, a performance by specially engaged first class artists commenced at precisely 7.00pm.  On that evening it was reported the exterior of the building was brilliantly illuminated by fireworks, and there was also a grand magnesium balloon ascent prior to the opening.

The Rotunda was destroyed by fire in 1877, but was happily rebuilt in a grander style with principal elevations to Stanley Road and Scotland Road connected by a curved corner, surmounted by a dome at the end nearest Scotland Road.  The grand reopening of the new Rotunda Theatre took place on Friday 20th December 1878 and over the next sixty years the various directors of this theatre continued to advance the reputation of the Rotunda as one of the leading centres of melodrama in the provinces.

program rotunda theatre bootle

The Rotunda was destroyed by german bombing on 21st September 1940, but the shell remained standing until 4th May 1941, when fire, bomb blasts and shock waves during the May Blitz caused the walls to finally collapse.  This was quite common, frequent stories were reported of people being injured by falling debris whilst returning to their homes following the ‘all clear’.

4 May 1941 Rotunda Theatre Bootle

Personal Accounts

The Story of Mary Halpin

During the Blitz the Liverpool Echo reported the story of one young woman – a 19 year old ARP telephonist named Mary Halpin.  During a heavy bombing raid, she took the call that her own home had been bombed and there were fears for her father, mother, four sisters and two brothers who were all believed to be inside.

Despite the devastating news Miss Halpin carried on with her duties, taking calls from all over the city until the raid was over.  When she was finally able to return to her home, she found it partially demolished.  Happily, though members of her family had been partially buried by rubble, all were rescued and even the family dog was found safe and alone in the family air raid shelter.

blitz telephonists


Introducing the largest Blitz 70th anniversary event outside London…

In the warm, late afternoon sunshine of May 1st 1941, the Heinkel bombers of Hitler’s mighty Luftwaffe took to the skies once more.  This time their target was Liverpool.  Just hours later at 10:15pm the first bomb fell on Wallasey and the air raid sirens began to wail.

This wasn’t the first time Liverpool had been targeted during the Blitz, but nobody could have foreseen this would be the start of seven days intensive bombing designed to destroy Liverpool’s docks and crush the spirit of her people.  What would forever be remembered as the “May Blitz” was about to begin.

By the end of this long week, almost 700 aircraft had dropped nearly 900 tonnes of high explosives and well over 100,000 incendiaries.  1,453 people had been killed in Liverpool, 257 in Bootle, 28 in Birkenhead, 3 in Wallasey and thousands more had been seriously injured.  4,400 houses were destroyed in Liverpool with 16,400 seriously damaged and 45,500 slightly damaged.  Approximately 51,000 people had been made homeless in Liverpool and another 25,000 in Bootle where it was estimated only 15% of the local housing stock remained.

May 1941 Liverpool City Centre

Out of all this terror and destruction, the spirit of the blitz emerged.  It has gone down in history as a spirit of straightforward stoic courage and endurance: a refusal by the people of Britain to collapse into the hysteria or madness expected by the enemy.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of that terrible week, and so presents an opportunity for us to remember those who lost their lives and also celebrate the enduring morale which kept the British people going during such testing times.  All funds raised during the weekend will be shared between two registered veterans’ charities; the Royal British Legion and D-Day Revisited.

Visit us again for frequent updates about the schedule of events which are designed to be fun for all the family.  In exactly 100 days we will launch the Liverpool Blitz 70 event which we hope will help to spread awareness about what happened and give the people of Merseyside a jolly good weekend of nostalgic blitz-themed entertainment!