Tuesday 29 January 2013

Walls of History

At many of the historic military sites & air raid shelters, we have been lucky enough to document pencil graffiti & etchings, some dating back more than 100 years. Written on whitewashed & eroded walls - names, company units, humour & drawings fill an otherwise vacant space leaving a clue for us to hopefully build a better picture & history of the location.

WWII graffiti beneath Bovisand Fort casemates

Graffiti dating back to November 1914,  four months after the start of World War I

Dedication to a Captain on the walls of a former prison cell

With many sites documented now lost to demolition, these images live on with an important purpose - a reminder of the occupants of the time. What happened to the people in later years? The Private who etched his name in pencil at an underground fuel store in 1914 for example - Was he to see battle in the fields of the Somme? Or the ladies of the NAAFI, names written in chalk adorning a section of school air raid shelter - What was to be their fate during the remainder of the Plymouth Blitz?

A prisoner in a fort prison cell left his mark in December 1914, where it still remains evident today

Initials inside a fort tunnel

WWII graffiti months before the German surrender

Air raid shelters around the city have thrown up some of the finest pencil scrawls from shelters around the UK, with sketches including Churchill, Hitler, Luftwaffe aircraft, names & addresses. Many quality drawings adorn humid walls, the artist unknown in many cases, but leaving their historic imprint for future generations to discover & document, making otherwise unseen places accessible to the public via photographs. Amount of graffiti in shelters does vary with one containing very little left, or drawings that had simply worn away through time. Or, in the case of a shelter we documented last year that had the most drawings I have personally seen, stunningly preserved & after 4 hours of documenting what we found, the chances are there will still be more that we had missed, waiting to be discovered by the next researcher.

HMS Javelin

Support Plymouth Warships Week

Luftwaffe dropping parachute bombs

Crossed out scrawls

Mary had a little lamb....

Victory to the British Empire - We did win!

I often wonder what the person was experiencing at the time of their scrawls in the shelter. Were they filled with fear of the chaotic bombardment that rained on the city? Or calm in their thoughts with the mind being occupied with their drawing? There are, in my opinion, works of art on some of the walls showing true skill of the person sketching & must have taken a great amount of effort & time. We look forward to bringing you more findings over the coming months. If you have any photos taken from other locations please feel free to get in touch!

Recognise this chap?

National Fire Service

Sinister looking gas mask sketch

Standing almost three feet high, this stunning depiction of a worker

Boot sketch

Look out for another feature on the blog coming soon.....Shelter Art of WWII.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Defenders of the Skies - Plymouth's WWII Anti-Aircraft Defences

"The sound of the ack-ack boomed around the estuary at the waves of Luftwaffe bombers droning overhead, their payloads smashing down on Plymouth creating great explosions & fire throughout the City. The defenders of the skies were slogging away to try keep the enemy at bay with the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Batteries at Maker Heights pounding the night sky. What will come of the great City of Plymouth?"

A vivid account from a Plymothian who was only 12 at the time, witnessing the sheer ferocity of German attacks & the barrage of defences that surrounded the City, seemingly having little effect on the bombardment that rained down. Over coming months we will look further into the ways that Plymouth was defended from aerial attack focusing on the HAA Batteries that surrounded Plymouth, barrage balloon sites & light anti-aircraft guns that were sited around the streets, manned by US Troops. We will research deeper into each sites history to build a better account of what happened & who manned these important installations.

Maker Heights Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery as it is today

Rusting mountings for 3.7 inch guns

Many sites have been lost to development since the war, although some will still offer archaeological remains just beneath the surface such as the site on farmland near Penlee Nature Reserve. The concrete trackway still remains but all above ground structures were levelled with the return to farmland. A total of ten Heavy Anti-Aircraft Batteries were sited around Plymouth, including Maker Heights, Bere Alston, Carkeel, Plympton & Down Thomas. Over 6 years, we have documented each site carefully to record what now remains before any further loss to development that may happen in the future. Now we want to build on those photographs with unit histories, losses & accounts from the crews who manned them. Sites like this need to be remembered if only for the brave souls that manned the guns. We need your help to raise funds for plaques to be sited at each of the ten locations remembering the crews & will be setting up a fundraising effort in due course.

Relic uncovered from demolished Nissen Huts at an AA Battery site

Arc type emplacements now provide a modern use for farmers

Ammunition lockers inside a HAA Battery emplacement

Barrage Balloon sites were in abundance in & around Plymouth, proving a necessity to help prevent low flying bombers, with locations including Mount Wise, Devonport Park & The Blockhouse, Stoke. The best preserved moorings are to be found at Staddon Heights close to the massive firing range wall but just recently, a hugely important find sheds new light & history of another location that is still under investigation by the team. Add to this another contribution from a reader as to another location in Saltash & it makes for some great results over the 6 years we have been documenting.

Barrage Balloons were sited at The Blockhouse in Stoke 

Balloon mooring points - the best preserved lie atop Staddon Heights

Marking a site at Mount Wise

Here are a couple of old photographs of barrage balloons from back in the day - the first thought to be from Plymouth Sound & the other a fine capture of a 1940's dance on The Hoe, both pictures courtesy of Cyberheritage.

Source: Cyberheritage

Source: Cyberheritage

Do you have any family members who were stationed at sites like these? If so we would love to hear from you & with your help build a history of each unit that served. Any photographs from around the time would be fantastic too although cameras were few & far between back then.

Next time on Defenders of the Skies - Maker HAA Battery.

Sunday 20 January 2013

The All Clear

Our first limited print is available from February entitled The All Clear. It depicts a modern view of how colours were used inside an air raid shelter. The green of the all clear overshadowing the red fading of an air raid in progress, & the bright light of a would-be ARP warden protruding through the blackout to calmly direct you outside......but to what?

Stories tell of emerging after a heavy raid close-by & being confronted with total devastation. Homes flattened from direct hits & on fire from incendiary devices that fell in their thousands. This underground warren of passageways hold many stories that have never come to light & through the Faces of Plymouth Blitz, we will bring you new unpublished accounts from the people who were there.

If you would like yours or a family members history to be part of a massive online archive, please get in touch via

Saturday 19 January 2013

Faces of Plymouth Blitz

Over the past four years we have met with many locals who experienced the Plymouth Blitz, & this year we are looking to speak with more to gather stories & photos from the time. Our research will be collated as part of the Faces of Plymouth Blitz project we have running throughout the year & we urge you to get in touch with us if you would like to share your memories for future generations to learn more about their past.

One of our readers, Lucy, recently got in touch with some fantastic memories from her mum, Mary, whom we have since spoken with to gather detailed information of her experiences in WWII & shed more light on the deep air raid shelter at Hexton Tunnel.

Here is a short excerpt of the full account that Lucy kindly mailed us;

Mary Outhwaite (nee Hine) was born in January 1938, and lived on Hooe Road, the main road into Hooe, until she was an adult.  She remembers the Hexton Hill tunnel and the Breakwater fort.
When the air raid alarm started, my mother would pick me up take me to the bottom of the garden, over the fence, through the fields and down the steep path that leads to the tunnel.  At times the tunnel would be full of people, sometimes squeezed in like sardines – my mother said that one night it was so airless in there, a match wouldn’t stay lit - some of the people would have made makeshift beds.  Mother and I would often sit on some type of wooden bench until the all clear sounded, and we would go home.  There was no door at the entrance of the tunnel, and some people would stand and watch the planes and bombing.  My father wasn’t with us as he was in the home guard and stationed at the top of Murder Hill (Hooe Hill), where there is still a sentry box near the top on the left, where the ground starts to level out.  He was stationed on the guns there, I suppose firing at incoming enemy aircraft. 
My father used to rent a piece of land which overlooked the tunnel, and I used to play there.  When I was about nine or ten (after the war), I would visit the tunnel with friends and walk right through, although there was a slight kink in it and you couldn’t see daylight from one end to the other.  One day we could see a suitcase in the entrance to the tunnel, we didn’t approach, but went home briefly, probably ten minutes at the most.  When we came back, our picnic had been ransacked – oddly, the cheese pasties had gone but the rock buns remained; the suitcase had gone.  The tunnel is on the edge of Hooe Lake, local people were convinced that Lord Haw Haw, the famous propagandist, lived close by on a house boat, and was seen sitting in the bar of the Royal Oak which is also on the edge of the lake.  This may have been after the war although he was tried at Nuremburg and subsequently hanged. 
My grandmother, Mary Hine, realised that this steep track to the tunnel was not an easy one to follow in the dark, so she painted marker stones white to aid vision by night. I last went into the tunnel about ten years ago, from the lake side, it seemed so much smaller!  It was about five foot wide, and a couple of feet drop on either side of the main path.  It was being used for storage, and it didn’t go back very far.

A collapse in the tunnel today denies access to the other entrance that Mary's family used

There we have it, just one amazing story that we intend to build on & all thanks to one of our readers getting in touch to share their family history. If you would like to feature your family as part of the series, please get in touch via

Keep following for future updates & amazing memories from the children of Plymouth Blitz. Here is a video from Steve Johnson showing an ITV documentary from 2001.

Plymouth History - Get Involved!

Welcome to our first post of 2013, the year we take Hidden Plymouth to the next chapter & get more interactive with our readers via exhibitions, talks & we are now welcoming more public contributions to our research & online archive. In collaboration with Cyberheritage, we proudly bring you Plymouth Interactive History after months of research & planning, uncovering new stories & photos to add to those already collated in the past by local historians, researchers & archivists before us. Our new online archive will be available to the public from late February, as part of a brand new worldwide resource website launching right here in Plymouth with thousands of images to view. We are currently archiving a collection of over 10,000 slides & photos spannning 50 years that was kindly donated to us. Many of the photos feature old views of Plymouth showing the change throughout the years.

We have a number of drop-in sessions at selected locations in & around Plymouth throughout 2013 & offer a free archiving service of old documents, photographs, negatives & slides. For further information on dates & venues we are coming to please drop us an e-mail to or alternatively, we can arrange for you to pop into our office by appointment only. In turn, these will also be deposited in community & national archives making them accessible to as many people as possible to gain a better understanding of their local history.

Plymouth Interactive History is your history, your stories & visual memories documented for the digital age. It offers a wealth of resources available electronically & to a worldwide audience, that can help in many areas in assisting future research such as your family tree or local history education for schools providing the next generation with tools to research their past & learn about their heritage.

Our first major project is Faces of Plymouth Blitz featuring previously undocumented stories from those who witnessed it first hand. We have had some amazing feedback from Plymothians since our call for stories of WWII memories to add to the archives. As you can imagine, it is a very lengthy process collating all the information & we put out another call for you to step forward take your part in a little bit of Plymouth history. We are in much need of contributions where history is lacking at some vital sites in & surrounding the city during WWII & urge you to get in touch if you have any information on the following areas under ongoing investigation;

  • Home Guard in Plymouth & surrounding districts including the highly secretive Auxilliary Units AKA Churchill's Resistance. 
  • Heavy Anti-Aircraft Gun Batteries
  • ARP Wardens & Firewatchers, also Fire Guard Messengers who were volunteer children aged between 14-18 
  • Air Raid Shelters - How many of you have an Anderson Shelter in your garden? Do you have memories or stories from the times in air raid shelters? Especially looking for further info on the following air raid shelters that have been lost to demolition; Ker Street, Devonport - Pomphlett Quarry Tunnel - Victoria Park - Mount Wise area - North Prospect School - York Street - Devonport Market & Pounds House ARP Control Centre - Millbay Laundry
  • Barrage Balloon sites
  • Family members who used Nissen Huts for temporary accommodation or shops
  • Were you a Blitz baby? Get in touch!

Please get in touch via History Plymouth

We leave you with a photograph recently sent to us from a reader & featured on Cyberheritage....a rare photo showing the bombing of St Andrews Church on March 21st, 1941. Original source of the photograph is unknown therefore please contact us if you hold the copyright & we will gladly credit in due course.