A new education pack about life on the home front in York during the Second World War has just gone out to every primary school in the city. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

DAVID Wilson was just 11 years old the night the bombs fell on York.

His dad, Jock, was caretaker and sword-bearer at the Guildhall, and the family lived in the caretaker’s flat above the Victorian municipal offices next door. Which is how the young David came to get a close-up view of the impact of one of the most extraordinary and violent nights in York's modern history.

At 2.42am in the early hours of April 29, 1942, air raid sirens began to sound across the city. For the next two hours, bombs rained down on York. By the time what came to be known as the 'Baedeker Raid' was over, 115 people were dead or dying. Six of them were German Luftwaffe - but the rest were British, mostly ordinary York men, women and children.

Streets and buildings across central York had been hit, as well as several schools and some outlying streets. Among the buildings badly damaged were York Railway Station, St Martin's Church on Coney Street - and the Guildhall.

In an interview given a few years ago, David remembered that night. He recalled the Observer Corps’ warning bell going off, followed by the sirens. Then all hell broke loose.

David, his mum and his older sister Margaret, who was in the ATS, went down to the supposedly bomb-proof ARP headquarters in the basement. But his dad was on fire watch – and stayed above, vainly trying to tackle the flames.

The roof of the Guildhall had been undergoing repairs, David recalled. “The whole thing was a tinderbox. It caught fire and just went up.”

David’s own most vivid memory was of going out onto the balcony overlooking the river behind the Guildhall. “I remember my mother saying ‘The Guildhall is on fire, and so is everywhere else! Take that lad outside and show him what’s happening!’”

From the balcony it seemed the whole riverfront was on fire: the Guildhall, and buildings on the opposite side of the river too.

York Press:

The Guildhall burning, April 1942. Picture: Explore York

Eventually, as the fires at the Guildhall burned more fiercely, the family was evacuated to the Mansion House.

Margaret was in her ATS uniform, and wearing a tin hat. It was fortunate that she was. As they walked along the passage beside the Guildhall, lead dripped off the roof and on to his sister’s head. “If she hadn’t had that helmet on...” David recalled.

David Wilson's memories of that night are among the many first-hand accounts of what life was like in York on the 'home front' during the Second World War that are contained in a new education pack for local primary schools.

Developed by York Civic Trust and Explore York for the 80th anniversary of the start of the war, the pack - York in the Second World War - draws upon local archives, old photos, newspaper accounts and real-life case-studies to paint an unforgettable picture of what life was like in York in wartime.

Aimed at Key Stage 2 pupils at the upper end of primary school, the pack also includes questions and suggested activities designed to get children thinking about what life was like for York people during the war - and how their own lives compare.

The pack contains a full account of the Baedeker Raid, including a wealth of photos, details of casualties and damage, and an account of the spirit with which the people of York picked themselves up afterwards.

It also includes authentic documents from the time - such as a council education committee report detailing the schools which were damaged. They included Queen Anne Secondary School. "Five high explosive bombs dropped in line across the playing field and adjoining land," the report says. "There are two large craters on the land, two on the tennis courts and one on the edge of the field between the back of Sycamore Terrace and our air raid shelters."

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Poppleton Road school was also badly damaged: "Direct hit in centre of school by high explosive bomb," the report says. "Extensive damage to main building. 12 rooms (out of 21) and central halls cannot be used."

The pack covers far more than just that one air raid, however. It looks at how rationing affected the lives of people in York; at the 'Dig for Victory' campaign in which York people were urged to plant vegetables instead of flowers in parks and gardens so as to ensure food supplies; and at the need for metal which led to railings and other metal fittings being removed and smelted down.

There is an account of how York factories were pressed into the war effort - including Terry's, which was used to make propeller blades. With so many men away fighting, often it was women who worked in the factories. In another case study one of these women, Cissie Colley, remembers making the propeller blades. "It had to be a certain amount of varnish on, and if you got more, you had to scrape it off. We were so tired. You'd go to seven days a week. If they wanted you on a Sunday you had to go in. They dropped all the rules and regulations about labour. It was terribly important because they were losing a lot of aeroplanes."

The pack looks at the foreign aircrews - Free French and Canadian among them - who were based at airfields near York, and who used to come into the city on their nights off. And it also looks at the lives of evacuees - young children evacuated far from their big city homes.

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Children evacuated from Hull arrive in Clifton in 1939. Picture: Explore York

One such was a young John Wright, who ended up at a home in Haxby after being evacuated from Middlesbrough with his little brother George. His story, also told in the pack and based on a book he wrote ten years ago, is particularly heartbreaking.

John and George ended up boarding with a woman he called 'Mrs Harris' in his book. It wasn't her real name – and there was a reason for the change.

“She was a horrible woman," John recalled. "Her cold stare could take the warmth out of the sunniest day."

John went to the village school in Haxby. But the evacuees weren’t always popular with other children.

“We 'vaccies' were often looked on as non-persons and were blamed for anything that went wrong,” he recalled. “There were sometimes fights in the playground between vaccies and the locals.”

There was much that he came to like about his life in Haxby. But he and George were homesick: and they wondered why their mum never visited.

The great day came in 1944 when their Gran came to take them home. She sat them on the sofa in Mrs Harris’ front room. “I’m very sorry to tell you that your Mam and Dad were killed in the bombing of Newport Bridge in 1942,” she said. “So you will be coming to live with me.”


Download York In The Second World War for free

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York In The Second World War is the fourth in a series of education packs for local primary schools based on York's history and archives which have been produced by York Civic Trust and Explore York.

Verna Campbell, the chair of the civic trust's education committee, said it had been produced to mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. "Many schools are studying the war as a topic," she said. "What makes our pack different is that it focuses on how the people of York were affected by the war - including perhaps the grandparents or great-grandparents of some of the children who will be using the pack. We hope that teachers and pupils alike will find it useful and enjoyable."

The other three education packs produced so far are 'Life in York's Victorian Workhouse'; 'Votes for Women', about the York Suffragettes; and York in the First World War.

All four packs are available digitally for free download from the civic trust's website yorkcivictrust.co.uk - just click on the site's education page, then on KS2 Education Packs.