The word ‘Blitz’ immediately conjures images of air raids and destruction, but whilst the RAF battled in the air to keep Britain safe, ordinary members of the public fought their own war on the ground. The word ‘Blitz’ has become synonymous with Britain’s war and alongside this, another word became synonymous with the Blitz: Blackout.
The blackout was introduced on 1 September 1939, two days before Britain declared war on Germany. The people of Southampton would have been relatively ready for it because the authorities had been practicing blackouts for a while. One night in March 1938, a blackout experiment was conducted in the Western Docks which was described as being eminently satisfactory, despite the prediction that work would slow down by thirty to forty percent in blackout conditions. More exercises and practice runs were carried out across Southampton in June, July, and August 1939, with blackouts, regional communication drills, and RAF exercises all taking place. The experiments and preparations were later praised in a letter written by Wing Commander Eric John Hodsoll, Inspector-General of Air Raid Precautions. ‘I have always have the happiest recollections of the help we have had from Southampton from the beginning,’ he reportedly wrote in December 1939.
When Britain entered the war, these exercises and practice blackouts suddenly became a reality. People would have to cover their windows and doors at night to stop any light escaping, streetlights were either turned off, dimmed, or fitted with covers, and shops, factories, restaurants, and clubs also suffered from restrictions. The blackout, whilst necessary, caused many issues. Businesses suffered financial losses and many people struggled with with the long, dark nights. Those who broke the rules were fined and subsequently named and shamed in the local press. The darkness also caused many accidents which, sadly, resulted in some fatalities.
The blackout placed restrictions on people’s lives and it is no coincidence that this article has been written whilst the nation is in lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is interesting to note the warnings given to those who violated the blackout regulations during the Second World War. They feel strangely familiar and they can be compared to the warnings aimed at those who break lockdown regulations in the present day.
It was the responsibility of the local police and the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens to enforce the blackout regulations. Whilst the majority of people happily followed the rules to ensure their homes would not become a beacon to visiting bombers, there were exceptions. In November 1939, the Hampshire Advertiser printed the following:
‘Those whose business it is to check up on the black-out will agree that on the whole Southampton people have made an uncommonly good job of an awkward business, and that this has been achieved without the pressure implied by numerous prosecutions. At the same time, there are indications that a high standard black-out is not being everywhere maintained. A certain carelessness about chinks of bright light at the sides of windows is observable…’
One month later, in December 1939, three men were fined £1 each for non-observance of the blackout regulations. After fining the men, the chairman of the magistrates, Sir Sidney Kimber, suggested that the penalty would be increased at some point in the future. “It is becoming a question of national danger that so little attention is being given to the law. It is a question probably of life and death to every member of the community. Therefore the Bench must take a very much more serious view in future,” Kimber said.
In Southampton and other towns and cities across the United Kingdom, people continued to accidentally or deliberately ignore the rules, despite the danger that non-observance may bring. The matter was discussed during the 1940 Court Leet proceedings. This ancient court has been held in Southampton for centuries and continues to this day. The Middle English word ‘leet’ comes from an Anglo-Norman word, which may help to date the history of this court in Southampton. In 1590, for example, those attending the Court Leet heard about how people were going to the pub instead of church, they heard about the houses, roads, and sections of the town walls that were decayed, they learnt of a stray horse, and about how dung and other rubbish was being piled up against the old walls. Three hundred and fifty years later, in April 1940, those at the Court Leet discussed the need for a stricter blackout. Elsie Sandell, now considered a local legend, said that she had seen so many streaks of light coming from windows, that she wondered just what the regulations were. Sir Sidney Kimber said that ‘offenders should remember that the lives of the community might depend on a strict observance of the black-out’ and reiterated his view that everyone should do their utmost to follow the rules. The mayor, Robert Nathan Sinclair, stated that the High Street and Above Bar Street should be the first to receive attention because anyone travelling from the bottom of town to the Avenue at night would ‘see light coming from many shop doors and windows’. Seven months later, large parts of the High Street and Above Bar Street would be completely obliterated by enemy bombs. Councillor Bertie Arthur Corry agreed with the others who had spoken at the Court Leet by stating that he had ‘never seen an Act of Parliament so ignored as this had been during the seven months the country had been at war’. However, Councillor Frederick Stewart Smith disagreed, saying that whilst he knew there were cases where too much light had been shown, it was his opinion that the blackout order was being ‘generally observed’ and that the breaches were exceptions. Incidentally, at the 1590 Court Leet, it was reported that someone had illegally cut down some trees but nobody knew who had done it. In 1940, it was reported that people were damaging trees in the parks, and it was said that it was very difficult to catch the perpetrators. Some things never change.
Sir Sidney Kimber, after issuing £1 fines back in November 1939, had warned that the penalties may need to be increased. In May 1940, another warning was issued by another magistrate, Charles James Sharp. “The war has been on for eight months and the magistrates think that the public should have learned to observe the regulations. The breaking of the regulations must be stopped or we shall have to increase the fines. People who do not observe the order are a danger not only to themselves, but to the whole community.” Four people were then fined between £1 and £2 for permitting lights to be visible at night. Later that month, the fine was increased, as two offenders were fined £3 each. On 19 June, five people were fined £3 each. In the same court session, two air raid wardens were each fined £2 for not adhering to the blackout regulations! Even though it was a minority of people breaking the rules, cases like these were common and they continued to appear in newspaper columns throughout 1940. It seemed like every week the magistrates had to issue yet more fines to people who did not – or would not – follow the rules. In August 1940, the following article appeared in the Hampshire Advertiser:
‘BE SERIOUS ABOUT BLACK-OUT – Magistrates Issue Warning – During the hearing of summonses for permitting or causing unscreened lights to be displayed at Southampton, the presiding magistrate, Sir Sidney Kimber, said he had been asked by the magistrates to refer to the almost nightly occurrence of lights being shown, mostly be inadvertence, to the great danger of the community.
The magistrates present were not anxious to impose fines, neither did some of them think that the imposition of bigger fines would have the desired effect.
The only way in which the matter could be remedied was by people realising that they themselves as individuals should see that their fellow citizens, their neighbours and friends, were not put to the likelihood of penalties by the enemy, because of their failures.
“What is being said by the Bench to-day,” added Sir Sidney, “is more of an appeal that people should take this matter much more seriously, and that irrespective of their being brought here and heavily fined, the duty to their town and to themselves should be far more paramount than it is at the present time.”‘
Despite their constant pleas, the magistrates were forced to continue to hand out fines as the war wore on. Whilst it was common to see lists of names under headlines such as ‘MORE BLACK-OUT CASES’ every week, it was still only a minority of people, and the vast majority of people seemed to get on with the blackout without any major issues.
There were, however, incidents and accidents relating to the darkness and in some cases, fatalities. On New Year’s Eve, 1939, a Liverpudlian named Frederick Arthur Rogers fell from the quay into the water at the docks and drowned. At the inquest, a verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded and the Hampshire Advertiser reported on it under a headline of ‘DOCKS BLACK-OUT FATALITY’. On 27 January 1940, a seventy-four-year-old Highfield man called Walter Hugh Fletcher was knocked down by a motorcycle on the Avenue during the blackout, and he died in hospital the next day. Five days after Fletcher was knocked down, the body of a man was pulled out of Southampton Water near Fawley. He was identified as Alexander Finlay, a sailor from Belfast. He had last been seen on 16 December 1939, when he told friends he was going to play a game of darts. It was then thought that, in the darkness, he probably fell into the water at Town Quay when returning to his ship in the blackout. On the night of 15 February 1940, at around half-past ten, a Scottish ship’s fireman called James Hamilton was killed when he was run over by a car on Commercial Road near the Civic Centre. The verdict was one of ‘accidental death’ and no blame was attached to the driver. There were many accidents that occurred as a result of the blackout, and many injuries were suffered. One example happened in June 1940, when Police Constable Frank Muddiman was driving Chief Constable Herbert Clifford Allen along the Avenue. Muddiman stopped the car because they spotted a person shining a light in the road, and Allen was just getting out when another car went up the back of them. The police car was shunted forward and crashed into a tree, with Muddiman receiving severe bruising to the chest. Allen was flung forward into the road and received cuts on both hands, badly bruised ribs and torso, and an injured ankle. Incidentally, the passenger in the car which crashed into the police car was Sidney Stanton, the Borough Engineer.
Blackout conditions were far from ideal and some were concerned about the effect they would have on people’s mental health. In September 1940, an article appeared in the Hampshire Advertiser. It was written by ‘Mrs. Robert Noble’:
‘The evenings are drawing in and before very long the blackout will prevent many of us from going out of doors much after supper. No one likes the blackout, but it is the condition of war-time, and it need not make our evenings this winter seem long or dull.
Not being hermits, most of us need company at times. A good many people are lonely. Their own friends and relatives are scattered. Others have been uprooted from their homes and are living in strange surroundings. They need new friends with whom they can spend the dark winter evenings. It would be the greatest of pities if shyness or the absence of a formal introduction prevented families living next door to each other or in the same building becoming friends and neighbours.
It has been easier since the war started to make new contacts. Social barriers are being broken down, and women especially, in the war work they do in their own community, are making many new friends. In villages and country towns there are already various admirable organisations which bring people together and give opportunities for making acquaintances.
Neighbours who have done nothing more than nod to each other good morning over the garden fence can get to know each other properly. It should then be possible to plan sociable evenings later on when it is too dark to go out much. Knitting or sewing will be done all the more pleasantly and quickly in company.
Whatever neighbours may arrange, the main point is that if everyone in a community can feel among friends no one will be worried or depressed by the black-out this winter.’
The ‘blackout blues’ were indeed a concern and the Nazi propaganda machine sought to capitalise on it. The Nazi Party had banned jazz music but, at the same time, Joseph Goebbels had brought together some of Germany’s best jazz and swing musicians to form a band that could produce pieces of musical propaganda which could then be broadcast to listeners in the United Kingdom. Charlie and his Orchestra, as they were known, often took existing jazz songs, such as Saint Louis Blues, but changed the lyrics, thus creating covers with titles like Blackout Blues… Got the Blackout Blues, as blue as I can be / That man [Winston Churchill] got a heart like a rock cast in the sea / He won’t let folks live as they want to be…
Unlike, say, during a global pandemic, members of the public could still go out and enjoy themselves, just as long as the establishments they frequented prevented any light from shining out into the street. One place that offered people the chance to ‘Forget your Black-out Blues’ was the Northgate Club on Commercial Road, an advertisement for which appeared in the Hampshire Advertiser on 29 June 1940.
However, in the following week’s edition of the newspaper, a warrant was issued against Brian Ransom of the Northgate Club on Commercial Road for failing to appear in court on a lighting summons.
Businesses like the Northgate Club tried to continue trading during the blackout, but it was clear that many would suffer as a result of the rules. Early in the war, in January 1940, the Hampshire Advertiser reported that the blackout had caused a huge fall in Southampton transport numbers and because of the war, running costs were increasing. According to the report, the trams had 591,074 fewer passengers between 7 September 1930 and 3 January 1940, compared to the same period in 1938-1939. The buses had 952,331 fewer passengers, and the Floating Bridge had 93,501 fewer foot passengers in the same period. ‘Since the black-out began dwellers east of the Itchen have given up or have vastly curtailed their evening excursions into town.’ The report added that the numbers could also be down to different timetables and a wartime restriction on petrol consumption. As a result, the Transport Committee were forced to increase the tram fares. The newspaper stated that ‘Southampton Corporation Transport is suffering from “Black-out Blues.” The “golden lining” has disappeared entirely from the financial horizon!’
In February 1940, a couple of weeks after reporting on the fall in public transport passengers, the same newspaper reported on the annual meeting of the Southampton and District Licensed Victuallers Association:
‘”The year 1939 will go down to history as one of the blackest trade years for our members,” it was stated. “We are not able to report any sort of legislation brought in during the year for the benefit of the licensed victualler,” continued the report. The increased assessments that we are called upon to pay, in spite of the decrease in trade owing to the restrictions placed upon the trade by the war, and the increased taxation on beer, spirits and wines, will mean that many will have to leave the trade from which they have been able to get a living for the last few years. Efforts, in conjunction with the Brewers’ Society, have been made to obtain reductions in assessments, and in a few cases they were successful, but in the great majority we are asked to grin and bear it.”‘
It was reported that there had been a slight decrease in membership mainly owing to changes having to be made in many houses where the overhead charges were so heavy that the licensees left the trade rather than lose everything.
The report continued:
‘Proposing the adoption of the report, the chairman (Mr. C. E. Lloyd) remarked that the past year had been a very trying one. Never had he known a year when licensees had suffered so many irritating restrictions and set-backs. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had inflicted further heavy burdens, there had been reassessments, and the black-out restrictions had a very serious effect on trade. Not only had it been costly to black-out premises, but trade had “flopped” since the restrictions were imposed.
“However,” said the chairman, “we must bear these sacrifices, if they are for the benefit of the country, and hope that the cloud hanging over us will soon pass.”‘
Even in these early months of wartime, the pub and hotel industries had clearly suffered as a result of the war and the blackout restrictions. Some publicans and hoteliers had already been forced to shut up shop. Many industries and businesses would suffer greatly as a result of the blackout, increased taxation, and fewer customers.
The war was damaging Southampton’s economy but the town would soon also suffer devastating and irrevocable physical damage caused by enemy action. The Luftwaffe bombed Southampton through the entire war, but 1940 saw the worst of the raids. In September, fifty-two people were killed when the Luftwaffe targeted the Cunliffe-Owen aircraft factory at Swaythling and later that month, they carried out three separate daylight raids on the Supermarine factory at Woolston, where the Spitfire was designed and first built. The Germans managed to put the factory out of action and over one hundred people were killed as a result of these raids. During one of the raids, they also bombed the gas works at Northam, killing eleven workers.
On 6 November 1940, the Civic Centre’s art gallery took a direct hit and thirty-five people were killed. There were fifteen children from the Central District Girls’ School taking an art class that day, and they went down to the basement after hearing the air raid siren. The bomb crashed through the roof of the gallery and tragically, the explosion killed fourteen of them.
Later that month, on 23 November, the Germans launched a major night-time raid on Southampton. For six hours they pummelled the town with a deadly cargo of high explosives and incendiary bombs. The devastation was shocking. The ARP wardens would have been right in the thick of it as firefighters battled the flames. Five firefighters were killed that night. It was said that one could see the red glow of Southampton burning from France and, according go the American press, the Nazis reportedly boasted of their victory over the innocent people of Southampton by triumphantly declaring that they had reduced Southampton to ‘a smoking ruin’. Despite these claims, the Luftwaffe would still return exactly one week later.
The bombers returned on 30 November. They brought yet more death and destruction with them, laying waste in particular to the High Street and Above Bar Street. Churches were destroyed, pubs were flattened, homes were smashed, and businesses were ruined. When the Luftwaffe returned for their third major raid in eight days the following night, many parts of the town were still on fire.
During the Second World War, the Nazi raids on Southampton claimed the lives of over six hundred people. Thousands were injured and thousands more were left homeless. Nearly forty-five thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed during the Blitz and some of the charm and character of old Southampton was killed with it.
Another issue the magistrates had to deal with from time to time was looting. The combination of enemy action, blackout, rationing, and other restrictions, helped to facilitate a national increase in crime. According to this BBC article, reported crimes in England and Wales rose from 303,771 in 1939 to 478,000 in 1945, as people were caught distributing restricted goods in the black market, fined for breaking the blackout regulations, and jailed for looting. In the 23 November 1940 edition of the Hampshire Advertiser – published on the day that Southampton faced one of its worst nights of bombing – there was an article about a number of boys who were charged with looting at the Southampton Juvenile Court. A young blacksmith’s mate was fined ten shillings for looting one pound’s worth of timber, and another young boy was charged with stealing money from gas meters. He pleaded not guilty, but the court heard how he had gone into damaged houses, broken the gas meters, and then stolen the money from them. The chairman of the court said that he had thrown away chances that had been given to him, and he sent the boy to an approved school, whilst ordering his mother to pay five shillings a week towards his maintenance. A schoolboy then pleaded guilty to four cases of looting after it was said that ‘he had stolen clothes and articles from people who had already suffered from enemy action’. He was already under supervision in regard to a previous case, and he was ordered to receive six strokes of the birch rod. Two eight-year-old lads were then fined twenty shillings each and placed on probation after they had stolen items from a bombed shop, and elsewhere they had stolen a handbag and a brooch, as well as money from a gas meter in a bombed house.
Blackouts were a difficult but necessary part of Britain’s war but by and large, the public followed the rules. Those who did not were named and shamed in their local newspapers, they were given stern reprimands, and they were fined. Blackout rulebreakers appeared before magistrates almost on a daily basis, and the magistrates were quick to remind them that by breaking the rules, they were not only endangering themselves, but also their neighbours, their friends, and their family too. For those people in the dark days (and very dark nights) of 1940, it would be a long road ahead. However, the blackout curtains eventually came down, the streetlights came on, the pubs and clubs once again spilled their enticing light out into the night, and people could attempt to return to normality as best they could. Of course, many thousands never got to see the bright lights of the victory parties, and those people should never be forgotten. Those who were fortunate enough to be able to witness the end of the war had been forced to live with severe restrictions for years, from the blackout to the rationing of food and goods, but the majority did follow the rules, and eventually they were able to say goodbye to the restrictions that had affected their lives for so long.
Header image from a public service announcement in the Eastbourne Chronicle, 10 February 1940 – Image from Findmypast.co.uk, © Johnston Press, image created courtesy of The British Library Board.
Findmypast.co.uk, various newspapers
Southampton’s Children of the Blitz by Andrew Bissell