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  • Wendy Percival

Masks by the Million

With masks being a hot topic at the moment - sewing enthusiasts making their own and extra clever versions being invented, such the ones I saw on local TV the other day, with mini windows in them so deaf people can still lip read - I was interested to read about yesterday’s anniversary. Apparently, on 9th July 1938, Britain issued 35 million gas masks to the general public, concerned at the rising threat of war and worried that chemical warfare might become a tactic of the enemy. 


I’m indebted to Helen Baggott (author of Posted in the Past, mentioned in blog post, The Joy of a letter) who dug around for information on the subject, after I’d commented about the anniversary on Facebook, wondering where the masks had been manufactured.


Helen discovered that there had been two main factories, one in Northwest London and another in Blackburn in Lancashire. She even found an entry on the 1939 Register of two women, 25 year old Elizabeth Marsden and her younger sister Dorothy, living in Blackburn and whose occupations were recorded as gas mask makers!


Extract from The 1939 Register, courtesy of Ancestry.com

Gas mask memories


My mum was 4 when the Second World War broke out and she used to tell us about having to carry her gas mask to and from school. They regularly had practice drills when they had to hide under their desks.

My mum, Pat, on the right with her older sister

The family were living in Crewe when the war started and my aunt, my mum’s older sister, recalled seeing a barrage balloon and running home in panic, thinking it was a zeppelin about to bomb them. 


Ironic twist


My grandmother decided it was too dangerous to stay in Crewe with the railways being such a major target, and the family moved back to Wolverhampton to live with her parents.


It was perhaps ironic, therefore, that a couple of years after coming home to be “safe”, an incendiary bomb was dropped on their house!


The bomb came through the roof and landed in my mum’s bedroom (while she was asleep in bed!), burned through the floor and ended up on top of the piano in the living room below, setting it alight. Amazingly, no one was hurt.


But it could have been a lot worse. An air raid warden arrived just in time to prevent my grandmother from throwing a bucket of water on the flames. Had she done so, the bomb would have exploded, taking my gran and mum to Kingdom Come and I wouldn’t be here now, telling you their story!




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