Ah yes, it’s that time of year again. Supermarkets are awash with chocolate Santas, the reindeer jumpers are being aired out, it’s impossible to escape Mariah Carey – and our Wartime Christmas weekend is just around the corner! Before we all join in a chorus of “where on earth has this year gone?” let’s take a moment to get excited about our forthcoming event, which this year is on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 December.
The two days when we take our historic fire, police and ambulance station back in time to the 1940s is always the highlight of our year and our most popular event. Judging by current advance ticket sales, it doesn’t look like it will be handing over that crown any time soon.
It has to be said we do pack a lot in. Visitors can find out more about Christmas on the Home Front, while re-enactors and costumed characters share what life was like for those away from home. Young visitors can enjoy a festive story, there will be vintage magic on display and the museum will be filled with the sounds of forties song. And of course it wouldn't be Christmas without a visit from the main man himself, Father Christmas.
It's important that we strike a balance for visitors at an event like this. Of course, we want people to have a great time and leave feeling festive - and they do! But we also want to reflect what life was like for people during World War II, especially at Christmas time. So with the help of our re-enactors and others we share what it was like for those away from their homes and families at Christmas, address the challenges of shortages and rationing, and remember the impact of the Sheffield Blitz.
As a museum we are very well placed to tell these stories. Our building was an operational police station during World War II, acting as a hub for Air Raid Precautions and was damaged by bombing. We host an exhibition about the Sheffield Blitz and we have in our collection a large number of objects from the period; some of which visitors will be able to get up close and personal with at the event. Preserving these objects, and the tales they tell, is a vital part of what we do. So to whet your appetite I wanted to share with you just a few of the wartime items from our collection that help us keep this history alive.
1938 Leyland fire engine
This might be my favourite thing in the whole museum, because of the story it tells. This engine belonged to Barnsley Fire Brigade. It’s a unique hybrid vehicle in itself; part Leyland Cub, part Hippo and part Tiger! The story is that the brigade reps went to the Leyland factory, cherry-picked what they wanted from various different models, and the firm delivered. On the first night of the Sheffield Blitz on 12 December 1940 this engine and its crew – along with many others from South Yorkshire and beyond – raced to the assistance of local brigades who were desperately trying to tackle the effects of the incessant bombing. This is, as far as we know, the last surviving engine that was actually present during the raids on the city.
Sheffield Fire Brigade duty book
This is a fantastic document. It’s the duty log of the Sheffield Fire Brigade for 1940 and it covers the two nights the city was heavily bombed; on 12 and 15 December. Looking at the entries for those two dates, it really reveals the scale of what the city faced during the Blitz and what an impossible task the brigade was dealing with. Whereas most days cover a couple of pages – the majority of it recording general movements on and off duty – the night of 12 and 13 December cover seven pages of fires, emergency rescues and explosions, all under the scrawled heading of ‘enemy action’. Looking at the list of call outs it’s no surprise that the brigade was utterly overwhelmed, and that help was called in from miles around.
Helmet belonging to Fred Parkes
There was only one full-time, permanent member of the Sheffield Fire Brigade killed during the December raids. His name was Frederick Parkes Spencer and he lost his life at the city’s Empire Theatre, aged 36. The theatre had received a direct hit and was very badly damaged when Frederick and his colleagues were on the scene. He entered the building to try and clear it of any people still inside when it collapsed. He died alongside a colleague from the Auxiliary Fire Service, 29 year old Stanley Slack. His family were only able to identify him by his brass helmet and the number 2 on his uniform. That fire helmet, along with some other personal items, were donated to the museum by the Parkes family. It reminds us of the sacrifices that so many emergency services workers, both regular and volunteers, made as they faced the worse of the bombing to try and save lives.
Civil Defence recruitment booklet
This book, titled National Service, was issued in January 1939. It describes itself as a guide to the ways in which the people could ‘do their bit’ and lists the various options for men AND women, of all ages, in both civil defence and some of the auxiliary armed forces. Police, fire and ambulance are all included as are things like auxiliary coastguard and women’s voluntary service. The detail that this book goes into shows how extensive the planning for another war was and how thoroughly the population would be mobilised to counter the threat from bombing and even potential invasion.
The Air Raid Precautions Service (ARP) was introduced as early as 1935. It was perhaps the most well known organisation to emerge at the time thanks to the immortal image of the air raid warden. (Put that light out!) But it also encompassed several specialist branches such as rescue services, gas decontamination teams and ambulance and first aid services. One of the main jobs of the ARP service was to warn civilians and others about air raids or other attacks. Air raid sirens were mounted on buildings (including one on what is now the museum) but wardens would also ring bells like this one to raise the alarm. Rattles were used to warn of the presence of gas; thankfully never needed but later repurposed as a staple of the football match.
Objects like these, and others, will be on show during our Wartime Christmas weekend. It’s a huge event for us. As an independent, self-funded museum we have to earn enough to keep our museum going and that’s always a challenge. Our Christmas event is an absolutely crucial two days for us. We know there’s always plenty to grab people’s attention at this time of year but we are promising a great weekend and we really hope to see lots of people there and supporting our museum this festive season.
You can find out more about our Wartime Christmas weekend, and get your tickets, at visitnesm.org.uk/wartimechristmas. We'd love to see you there.