Memorials of the May Blitz

Merseyside commemorates seventy five years of the May Blitz this month, when the Luftwaffe pounded Liverpool, Birkenhead, wallasey and Bootle for seven successive nights.

These weren’t the first bombs the area had endured during World Bootle Cemetery Blitz memorial (2)War II. There were fifty raids over a three month period over the autumn 1940, with one killing twenty two inmates at Walton gaol. The single worst incident came at Durning Road in Edge Hill on 28th November when 166 were killed when a shelter took a direct hit. Over three nights just before Christmas 365 were killed, including 74 at a shelter in Blackstock Gardens, with a memorial remembering them on nearby Vauxhall Road.

The May Blitz though saw an increased intensity of bombing with over 2,000 bombs dropped on both sides of the River Mersey over seven successive nights between the 1st and 7th of the month. 1,741 people were killed and 1,154 injured with many more left homeless. Of all the people who lost their lives during air raids on Merseyside in World War II, just under half of them did so in that one week in May. 409 of those who died were in Bootle, where a memorial stands on the site of the former chapel in Bootle Cemetery.

St Luke’s Church in the city centre was hit on the fifth night of the bombing and now stands as an empty shell in memoriam to all those killed. This was the second city centre church to be bombed in the war, the nave of St Nicholas Church on the waterfront having been hit the previous December. A statue now stands there of a boy playing with a toy plane, his mother beckoning him to come downstairs and seek shelter from the bombs.

Liverpool Cathedral had a near miss when a bomb pierced the roof of the south east transept but was deflected by an inner wall and exploded in mid air shattering several stained glass windows. A main target of the raids was the docks, where nearly half of the 144 cargo berths were put out of action. At Huskisson Dock, flames from a shed which had been hit spread to the SS Malakand which was carrying 1,000 tons of ammunition which exploded, killing four people. The subsequent fire burned for 74 hours and parts of the hull plating was found a mile away.

Amongst the casualties was stage and film actress Mary Lawson, a former lover of tennis star Fred Perry. She and her husband were killed when a bomb was dropped on  the house of a friend with whom she was staying in Bedford StrAnfield Cemetery Blitz memorialeet in Toxteth. They were both buried in Kirkdale Cemetery. A deeply personal tragedy took place in Dorothy Street in Edge Hill in the early hours of 4th May when the bodies of George Webb and his wife Sarah (age 61 and 59 respectively) were pulled from the rubble of their home. Their son George, a fireman, had been attending attending the tragic scene at Mill Road hospital, where 83 people were killed, only to return to his parents property to be greeted by his colleagues and such devastating news.

Mr and Mrs Webb were buried at West Derby Cemetery, but there were many victims of the May Blitz who were never identified, 373 of whom were amongst the 554 victims interred in a communal grave at Anfield Cemetery. The grAnfield Cemetery Blitz memorial - Copyave is 170 by 8 feet and cost £4,400 and the memorial that marks it was unveiled on 7th May 1951, ten years after the last night of bombing. The ceremony was unveiled by the Lord Mayor, Alderman H. D. Longbottom. The Daily Post reported that he told those gathered ‘The calamity of the Blitz brought us closer together. It would be a great thing today if we could recall the best of those tragic years.’ 75 years on,the victims of the May Blitz have never been forgotten and a commemoration service will take place at Liverpool Cathedral on 2nd May, hosted by Radio Merseyside.

The Legacy of Joseph Williamson, Philanthropist

The King of Edge Hill

Known as an eccentric, a businessman and a philanthropist, Joseph’s most enduring legacy must be the tunnels he had constructed in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool.

Born in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Joseph was the son of a glassmaker, but left his family home at the age of 11 to work for Richard Tate in the tobacco and snuff business in Liverpool. He quickly rose through the ranks, marrying the boss’s daughter Elizabeth in 1802 and buying the business off her brother in 1803.

Joseph Williamson Portrait

Joseph Williamson Portrait

Now wealthy, Joseph bought a large piece of undeveloped land in Edge Hill along with a house on Mason Street close by. He proceeded to employ builders to construct houses ‘of the strangest description’, apparently with no architect’s plans, rhyme or reason. But he did not stop there. He continued to employ men to work on his land, even when there appeared to be no purpose – moving piles of earth from one place to another and back again. He also embarked on a programme of tunnel building, with underground passageways at depths of between 10 and 50 feet below the surface. Eventually, these stretched for several miles. When he had retired and after the death of his wife, he concentrated all his efforts on these mysterious excavations and appeared increasingly odd to those who met him.

Williamson died in 1840 aged 71. He was buried in the Tate family tomb at St Thomas’ Church and the tunnelling finally stopped.

There is plenty of speculation about the tunnels, fuelled even more by the fact that Joseph was secretive about their purpose. He left behind no plans or any records of who had worked on the tunnel or for how long. Some say he was a member of a strange cult, but the most likely reason was that he saw it as a means of providing gainful work for the many men returning from the Napoleonic Wars. He himself said that his workers “all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self-respect”, suggesting that his prime motive was “the employment of the poor”.

Today, the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels and the Heritage Centre on the site continue to renovate and foster awareness of the labyrinths Joseph created. Parts are open to the public, and if you want to see this fascinating piece of Liverpool history, an enduring memorial to Williamson, you can find details of when to visit here.

There is also a very entertaining account of Williamson with anecdotes about his strange ways in the book Recollections of Old Liverpool by a Nonagenarian, published in 1863 – this is freely available on the internet and also contains many fascinating accounts of the city and its characters!

Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.