A Fire Watcher on the Town Hall in the Manchester Blitz

By Leslie Mason Bell

© IWM (H 6322)

Buildings surrounding a bus station in Manchester burning after a German air raid on the night of 23 December 1940. © IWM (H 6322)

For many years the Manchester Town Hall played a significant role in the life of my late father Allan Arthur Bell and his family.

In March 1918, Allan – known as Arthur in the family – was discharged from military service with the Manchester Regiment, at the age of twenty-four, on Medical Grounds.  In November 1920, Arthur was offered a position with the City Treasurer which he accepted with alacrity. He worked from, or at, the Town Hall for some 38 years, until finally retiring in December 1958.  The Town Clerk provided a Certificate acknowledging Allan’s long service, noting:-

“As receiver of rates at the Rates Hall counter for many years, Mr Bell has helped maintain the best traditions of the department in his courteous and efficient dealings with the public.” 

Although  often plagued by ill health, Dad enjoyed his retirement, receiving regular Pension  payments Statements from the City Treasurer, which,   he checked rigorously until, one day in the  ‘Seventies he invited the Family to a celebratory Lunch. “The Town Hall have repaid my pension contributions!” he announced.

Dad passed away in 1977, and, Mancunian to the last, is buried in the Family Grave in the City’s Southern Cemetery.

Twice wounded on the Somme, and suffering from sinusitis, (which he attributed to German Gas), Dad had no illusions as to what was round the corner in 1939.  He removed the Family, lock stock and Granny, from our home in Stretford into what was then known as “The Country”; finally ending up during 1940 at Handforth, some ten miles to the South of the City, whence he travelled regularly to Town by train.  By now a fully-fledged Rating Officer, Dad could he could be found most weekdays, and Saturday mornings, sitting, like St Matthew, at the receipt of Rates, behind the Southern end of the ultra-wide mahogany counter, of the Rates Hall, fronting Library Walk;  which divided the Town Hall Extension,   always known as “the New Town Hall”, from the Central Library.

Town Hall extension (Rates Hall) 31 March 1938

Town Hall extension (Rates Hall) 31 March 1938. Arthur Bell’s work place (C) Manchester Libraries

In Handforth, the Family moved into an old, and cold, South facing Edwardian villa. As the youngest of four surviving children (born to Arthur and his Wife, Alice in 1935), I was assigned a miniscule bedroom at the rear of the house, facing due North and originally intended for `a miniscule maid.

Through its little widow, Dad taught me to look for the North Star, easily identifiable in the blacked out night sky  by following the contours of a group of stars, or constellation, known as The Great Bear, or Plough, but which to his eye, and to mine,  more resembled a  long handled brass saucepan. To the North, he explained, lay not only the North Pole, but also the great City of Manchester, in whose Town Hall, he spent not only his days, but, increasingly, his nights.

For Dad, patently disabled from any form of military service, had volunteered to “do his bit” for his Country and his City, as a fire watcher.   Firewatchers, or Firespotters were unarmed civilians, locally appointed, and locally stationed, who worked in teams of three or four, often at their workplace, in Dad’s case the (old) Town Hall.

Their duties were basically twofold: to identify and report the location of fallen enemy bombs, and where possible, either neutralize or extinguish them. Bombs fell within two distinct categories; high explosive, or H.E., and incendiary.  H.E. were extremely powerful, in theory, they exploded on impact, in practice they often failed to do so – dealing with them was a job for specialists.

Incendiary bombs were small, and fell scattered like seeds in Spring, to burn for a relatively short time at a very high temperature.  Incendiaries were phosphorous based- phosphorous has the unusual property of continuing to burn under water, so the traditional method of soaking with a hose pipe was totally inappropriate-the only way to extinguish an incendiary bomb was to bury it in sand and leave to burn out in harmless peace. To accomplish this was the most important of a Firewatcher’s duties.

Dad and his team were accordingly issued with the following equipment: a black steel, (or “tin”), helmet lettered A.R.P. (for Air Raid Precautions); a red bucket, which was to be filled with sand, and (for “ordinary” fires) a hand-operated stirrup (not syrup) pump. Stirrup pumps were designed and used to squirt water from another bucket onto the seat of flame, and thus kill the fire. Stirrup pumps could also be used to direct water where required in allotments to assist in digging for Victory.

Most important was a metal scoop attached to the end of a broom handle. Dad, and his cohort were trained, when as incendiary bomb landed in their area, to scoop it up,  white hot,  fizzing, and emitting clouds of noxious smoke, into the sand bucket, and there to smother it in sand, thus rendering it harmless.

Dad’s team worked regular, and nightly, shifts on the roof of the (old)Town Hall.
It was at Christmas time, 1940, that, still carrying in his foot German shrapnel from 1916, he was disabled by enemy action for the second time in his life.

Observing the blacked out sky to the North nightly during the long Winter of 1940/41, the events of two nights in particular are etched in my recollections of childhood. So far, I have not been able to place them in order.

Dad was in the Town Hall on the only occasion in my life that I have seen the Aurora Borealis, shimmering diaphanously through the black sky likea blue and green silk gown hanging over the City, it seemed near enough to lean out and touch.

On the other occasion, I looked through the window to see the sky to the North lit up in red and yellow, and realized to my horror  that the City was in flames  and that my Dad was in the middle of them.   It is impossible accurately to record exactly what happened on the Town Hall Roof on the night of the 23rd December 1940; nevertheless it is possible to discover what I believe to be a fair approximation of the truth.

Aerial View 1930

Town Hall Aerial View 1930. It was the left – east side of the building that was damaged in the Blitz © Manchester Libraries M80335

Toward the end of 1940, the German Dictator, Adolf Hitler mounted a series of aerial attacks on Great Britain. His objective was to weaken, the military capability of his enemy, but also the morale of its civilian population, not only of the Capital, but also of its principal industrial and commercial centres.  By this time his Airforce, the Luftwaffe, was, by any standards, the most powerful in the world, and the occupied lands of France, Belgium and Holland provided unrivalled bases from which to launch attacks across The Channel and the North Sea.  As Christmas approached, having inflicted considerable damage to the fabric of the great port city of Liverpool (but not on the morale of its citizens, the resilient Liverpudlians), Hitler, turned their attention 35 miles inland to the commercial  and industrial centre comprising the cities of Manchester and Salford .

At the age of five, my perception of history was taken from the childrens’ comic papers, Dandy and Beano. These portrayed Hitler, always known familiarly as Adolf, as a silly little cartoon character with a silly little toothbrush moustache, and a big backside which was always being kicked.  The events of Christmas 1940 introduced me to the stark reality, that he was a real and really evil man, who was intent on destroying my City, and, indeed its citizens.  I have never fully recovered psychologically; even now,  over seventy years later the siren sound, at night time, of a passing Police, Fire, or Ambulance vehicle brings terror to the pit of my stomach.

Exactly what happened on the roof of the Town Hall, can never be determined with complete accuracy.

City Architects Dept Map of Bomb damage

City Architects Dept. Map of Bomb damage, showing damage to the Town Hall from and incendiary bomb on 23rd December 1940. © Manchester City Council

We know that Hitler and his gross henchman Hermann Goering determined to deliver an overwhelming blow to the City on the nights of 22nd and 23rd December.  Manchester was waiting: Dad, in particular, was fully trained in the operation of scoop and sand bucket.   Whether it was Dad who dealt with the incendiary bomb which damaged the roof at the Princess Street end, is not certain. What is certain is that the fabric of the building received structural fire damage consistent with that of an incendiary bomb, and that such damage, while serious was not terminal.  The Free Trade Hall, Assizes Court and many other commercial premises had been devastated.

Manchester Assizes Court

Bomb damage to Manchester Assizes Court from1940. © Manchester Libraries

Dad, his pulmonary system already weakened in 1916, was similarly damaged, by smoke inhalation to the lungs. Taken to Manchester Royal Infirmary, which had already been damaged by enemy action, he recovered at the adjoining St. Mary’s Hospital, (usually devoted to the production of babies), and finally to a convalescent home run by his trade union in Matlock Derbyshire.  In due course, he returned to the Rates Hall, where I would visit him from time to time, until I finally left the City in 1960.

As I grew up, I enjoyed visiting the Town Hall. As a Solicitor’s Articled Clerk, my duties took me on regular visits to the Town Clerk’s Department where I would examine the Register of Local Land Charges.  From time to time, pending rebuilding of the Assizes, the City’s Civil Court, the Salford Hundred Court, where I cut my teeth on procedure, held sessions there, and I would ensure that, where possible, I would attend;  learn what I could, and have lunch with Dad.

Dad was never given, nor sought, formal recognition for his part in saving the Town Hall.
Toward the end of the War, and to the disgust of our Mother, he merely received a circular letter from Churchill, Lord High everything Else, one James Lithgow, thanking him for his services.

Town Halls, Manchester Town Hall, Albert Square, Manchester M52160

Town Hall in 1950 © Manchester Libraries

Human Memory is fallible. Now, living the best part of two hundred miles from my native City, I am no longer able to nip over to the Central Library to check documentation, but am greatly obliged to my younger son, Timothy Mason Bell, and to my surviving Sister, Mrs Elsie Rosemary Lane, for their assistance in clarifying my shaky recollections.

 

 

LESLIE M.BELL, North Ferriby, East Yorkshire
January, 2018

POST SCRIPT

Not once did I hear Dad express any animosity toward Germany or Germans.

A couple of years after the events described above, I learned that, some time prior to 1914, in his late teens [Resident 1911 Census], had lived for a while with a childless couple, his Aunt Lily and her Husband, a German waiter called Ernst August Wissel [Born in Hanover].  With the outbreak of [Great War] hostilities, Ernst was interned for the duration.

In the Thirties, with war once again on the horizon, Ernst returned to the Fatherland accompanied by his Wife.  Their fate is not known, but it seems highly unlikely that either survived the War.

I will always my Dad as a man of peace and tolerance.

Advertisements