Yeovil – September 1939

Yeovil – September 1939


           In the last week of August 1939, and the last week of peace for six years, Yeovil and Petters United Football Club held a ‘Yeovil Football Week’ to help pay the £400 loss incurred during the 1938/39 season. The events included a ‘Get Together Smoking Concert’ and a ‘Flannel Dance’ in the Assembly Rooms, Princes Street. However, the highlight of the ‘Week’, was the Friday evening ‘All Stars Variety Concert’ in the Princes Theatre, featuring Crewkerne-born radio and film star, Ralph Reader, and members of his popular Gang Show, including Eric Christmas, George Cameron, Mac at the Piano and the Twizzle Sisters. Also performing were the BBC singer soprano Doris Waller, The Pocock Brothers on piano and cornet, Paddy Ryan with his ukulele and The Boy Step Dancer, Tony Mogg.

           On the 3 September 1939, the day war broke out, regulations were brought in requiring all householders to curtain their windows to prevent any light showing after dark and which could be seen by enemy aircraft flying overhead. The Yeovil Review of September wrote:
‘Just a week ago, Yeovil with its excellent shops, was ablaze with light. Cinemas were well patronised, village fetes and shows were being organised, football clubs were getting into stride, and summer sport and holidays were in full swing, Now all has changed.

‘Yeovil is and must continue blacked out. Quite a number, in fact there are but few now, who will hear the command of the Special Constable on his nightly beat cry “Put those lights out!” But there are still those few. Just a reminder, to those who think this fuss and nonsense is going a bit too far. The safety of the Town with all its thousands of women and children may be jeopardised by a stray light blazing in the sky, forgotten. Here is a phrase taken from the official notice concerning the “Black Out” – “Any person who permits any glimmer of light to escape from his premises so that it can be seen from the outside constitutes a public danger, matches must not be struck in the open air. Any torches used in the open or in those portions of the premises not effectively screened should be properly screened with paper in the lens or a dark blue bulb.” Note – The penalty for offending in any way against the lighting restrictions is a fine of £50 [average weekly wage £5] or three months imprisonment.

‘Special Constables have already reported insufficient and inadequate screening of household lights. It is not sufficient to draw the blind and switch on the electric light. Some streets are well and truly blacked out, at least they appear so from the front, but at the back the tell tale glow through the drawn blinds betrays the presence of living accommodation. One must face the facts. It may be you who are placing the town in danger from enemy aircraft.

‘Now, a word to the cyclist who before many weeks will find his ride home from work means travelling in the dark. You are not exempt from these lighting regulations. Front lights must be diffused by the use of paper if an electric light is used, and they are reminded that red rear lamps properly screened are now compulsory.

‘Motorists, too have been warned. Temporary expedients for headlight screening must be dispensed with, side lamps, rear lamps, reversing and “Stop” lamps must be reduced to their proper dimensions and lights diffused by the use of paper behind the lens. Travel by night will become increasingly more difficult. It will be better to keep the car in the garage at night than hazard a journey in the dark.’

The first Yeovil ‘black out’ fatality was Mr Thomas Turner a 51 year-old painter employed at the new Houndstone army camp. He had been walking along Thorne lane back to the camp when he was knocked down and fatally injured by a lorry being driven with screened headlamps. In recording a verdict of ‘Death by misadventure’ the Coroner suggested that pedestrians should wear something white to make themselves more visible during the present emergency.

           The National Registration Bill being pushed through Parliament immediately following the outbreak of war, had three main purposes:

1. To support and facilitate any National Service arrangements;
2. To provide up-to-date man power and other population statistics to take the place of the 1931 census;
3. Other incidental services such as the preservation of contact between members of families dispersed by evacuation, to facilitate proof of identity.

Everyone would be given an identity card after filling in a questionnaire which would be issued and collected in 65,000 districts and severe penalties would be introduced for breaking the provisions of the Bill when it became law.

           Boy Scouts. All Boy Scouts in Yeovil were asked to wear their uniforms during the day ’To facilitate their identification when their services are required for messenger work etc.’

School boy humour. ‘A number of school boys anxious to do their bit were busy filling sandbags with earth from the garden at the rear of the South Street Baptist Church. Passers by were greatly amused to read the notice they had chalked on a piece of cardboard which they had fastened to the wall. It read “DOWNING STREET, One Way Traffic Only.”

Graveyard humour. ‘In Princes Street could be seen a printed announcement advertising insurance against War Risk. Premiums:- Death only 20/- etc., some humorist scribbled his quota to this, so that it read “Death only, Isn’t that enough.”’

ARP Badges. The Mayor of Yeovil, Alderman Frank Beel, presented Air Raid Precaution (ARP) badges to 33 Town Council workers who had passed a full anti-gas course. The men would form rescue and demolition teams and public services’ rescue squads.

Ban on Sounding Hooters. ‘An Order has been issued under Defence Regulations forbidding anyone to sound within public hearing, a siren, hooter, whistle, rattle, bell, horn or gong except in accordance with directions for air raid warning purposes. The Order does not apply to church bells or normal use of bicycle bells or motor horns.’

A Black Out casualty. Herbert Allot who was employed by the Navy Army and Royal Air Force Institute (NAAFI) at the new Houndstone army camp, was knocked down by a car in the black out on the Sunday evening that war was declared. He was taken to Yeovil hospital with a suspected fractured skull.

The last peace time coach trips. On Sunday 3 September, local coach operators, Barlow, Phillips & Co, had a full day excursion to Bournemouth, half day to Weymouth, an afternoon mystery trip and evening trips to West Bay. I’m sure there was much to talk about on these excursions!

           Immediately the outbreak of war was declared on Sunday morning 3 September, the evening services were brought forward to 6 o’clock, so that the congregations could get home well before dark when it was feared the bombing would start. The fear of poison gas attack was also very great, and the Western Gazette reported that many of the congregation in St John’s Church were carrying their gas masks to services.

           The Western Gazette reported that on Tuesday 5 September, Miss Sophia Wyndham Bates Harbin, the only child of Mrs Bates Harbin and the late Prebendary Bates Harbin, of Newton Surmaville and barrister, Mr Cosmo Windham Cooper Rawlins of Alverstoke, Hampshire, were married in St John’s Church. Owing to the outbreak of war ‘The wedding took place very quietly, a fortnight before the arranged date.’ A small reception was held at Newton Surmaville House for relations and friends.

           By the day war broke, nearly everyone over the age of five years had been issued with a gas mask, but they would not be available for the under 5’s (your contributor included). The reasoning was explained in the Western Gazette on 8 September: ‘Respirators for children under the age of five will not be issued in the No. 6 Area of Somerset at present. This is because of the children’s relative freedom from danger in the unlikely event of the use of poison gas. Respirators are issued to adults for their use when it is essential for them to pass from place to place, at a time when they have been warned that the presence of poison gas in their neighbourhood is suspected. Young children will naturally be kept in the most suitable refuge room, where plans are carried out to make this room gas proof. In the unlikely event of this room becoming damaged, such children can be safely carried in a damp blanket, coat etc., to an alternative place of refuge.’

However, following a great public outcry, by the following week the Gazette reported that: ‘Anti-gas helmets for babies are being produced as fast as the factories can make them and many thousands have already been issued to the most vulnerable areas. Supplies of respirators for small children are being treated on the same lines as babies’ helmets.’

           Immediately war was declared on 3 September, all Yeovil’s schools were closed and the youngsters enjoyed a longer summer holiday. However, as the feared (and expected) Nazi bomber onslaught did not materialise, most everyday living resumed and the schools went back on Monday morning 18 September.

Likewise, the town’s three cinemas shut immediately, but opened again within the week.

           A flavour of impending conflict (and what would become all too real some 14 months later) was given when an exercise was carried out in the town centre late in July 1939. It was reported that; ‘Yeovil was “reduced to ruins” in the recent Air Raid, when hundreds of members of the A.R.P. and other services came into action in the test of the town’s defences that has yet to take place. As ambulances dashed down Middle Street with clanging bells, fire engines sped on their way to “blazing” buildings, rescue parties and decontamination squads got busy, townspeople were given a glimpse of what might happen in a real raid. And amid all this havoc there was one bright spot of comedy to relieve the tension. One ‘casualty’ who thought he had been left lying in the wreckage of one of the main streets forgotten by the rescue squads, after waiting an hour, made a miraculous recovery and disappeared. When the rescue party for that locality did arrive they found a note instead of a casualty. On it was written: “Bled to Death – Gone Home.”

           From the Western Gazette of 8 September 1939: ‘With a few exceptions, Yeovil’s defences are manned by voluntary service personnel. In the event of a “raid” Yeovil’s defence services would be quickly in action.

‘Hundreds of workers are giving up many hours of their spare time in order to do their National Service tasks, special constables, air raid wardens auxiliary firemen &c., taking their allocated hours of duty as a matter of course. This does not mean that Yeovil has all the volunteers required. The auxiliary fire service still requires men and in the east and north wards there is a serious shortage of wardens. At present there are 210 wardens in the borough, whereas the full compliment is 240. Twenty-one warden posts have been manned day and night since the emergency arose, volunteers doing shifts of four hours in every twenty-four.

‘There are about 30 full-time firemen in the borough, consisting of A.F.S. volunteers and regular members of the brigade. Yeovil V.A.D. Somerset/19 is now about 50 strong and first aid posts are being equipped at Preston Close, Hendford School (South Street), Poor Law Institute, Manor Hotel and Hendford Manor. Yeovil Chamber of Trade has decided that until further notice members of the Chamber should close their business premises at 6 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 1 p.m. on Thursday and 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.’ [There was no Sunday opening in 1939]

Jack Sweet
August 2017

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