The main public air raid shelter serving the east-end of North Shields was situated in the basement of the W.A. Wilkinson’s lemonade factory, situated on the corner of King Street and George Street.
The basement of this Victorian building was designated as an air raid shelter in 1940. The Home Office approved the Shelter with a maximum occupancy of 188. The shelter was separated into 3 rooms or bays. Despite its potentially dangerous location beneath a factory with heavy equipment, glass and chemicals in the work rooms above, the shelter was popular with the locals, many of whom would regularly use it during raids because of its comfort, cleanliness and regular musical entertainments.
There are no known photographs of the Wilkinson’s factory, however the basement shelter is remembered as a 3 bay basement, with one bay leading to another. Access was via a door on King Street and down some wooden steps. Each bay had double bunks along each wall. Refreshments were available. The last bay was a designated smoking area for the men and had an exit door to George Street.
The shelter warden was Mrs Ellen Lee. A popular local lady, nicknamed Nelly, she stood for no nonsense and ran the shelter well, with an eye to the comfort and safety of its users. Shortly after the air raid sirens sounded, Mrs Lee began counting the number of people entering the shelter. They were mainly local folk living in the nearby streets and their friends with two or three strangers. By 23.50, 192 people were in the shelter. It was nearly full.
Inside the Shelter…
Inside was the usual hubbub of activity. Friends and family settling into their favourite spaces. Mothers getting their children into the bunk beds and ready for sleep. Several of the men moved through into the last bay of the shelter, the designated smoking section, no doubt for a chat to while away the time.
At midnight, the single High Explosive bomb struck.
The catastrophe was almost instant. Survivors heard a distant thump and then the roof collapsed. The bottling machinery and debris from the upper floors crashed into the cellar, crushing or trapping the occupants. A few people near the exit were able to get out, while a handful of others like 19 year old Stanley Hull had an astounding escape. He recalled:
I heard a dull thud, a big gust, and the dirt and dust fell. I saw a gap. Went for it and went out and just walked home and told my mother and father.
When the bomb hit, everything went dark and then the screams and shouts started. Mrs Lee who was in No 2 Room, called for everyone to keep quiet. With her torch on she shouted: “See me light, I’ll get you out”.
Moving through No 1 Room, Mrs Lee found the exit door blocked with fallen rubble and bricks. Using her strength and weight she shoulder charged the wall repeatedly until it gave way enough to make an opening onto the street. She stood at this escape route until 32 people had managed to get out.
Mrs Lee herself was badly burnt in the explosion. Nevertheless she remained at her duty. Her son Albert and daughter Hilda were both in No 1 Room. Albert was unharmed but Hilda had bad injuries: a wound the size of her head in her side, a broken arm and leg.
The ARP (Air Raid Precautions) rescue and demolition squads arrived quickly but were faced with a nightmare operation. Three cellar bays had been completely destroyed and there was the constant risk of more wreckage collapsing. In the following hours the scale of the tragedy became apparent as the casualties mounted – and the dead outnumbered the living.
Whole families had been lost
Robert William Sutherst recalled that his mother and cousin were killed and his brother (Thomas Martin Sutherst) lost part of his leg. His sister, Alice Emmerson Sutherst was buried underneath layers of rubble, yet emerged virtually unscathed following her ordeal. Alice was discovered two days later by the pet dog of Mr Thomas Marshall, the local chimney sweep, whilst both were out on a walking exercise. Robert’s father was given compassionate leave from the army and identified the bodies.
Ronald Curran was saved by the stubbornness of his mother. When the air raid warnings sounded relatives asked her to go to Wilkinson’s with them – almost a family outing – but she refused. He remembered her saying: “If we die we’ll die in our own home”. Obstinately she took shelter with Ronald in a cupboard under the stairs. The next day he found out that his grandmother, aunt and cousins, Veronica and Maureen were all dead.
The Final Toll
Injured survivors were taken to Kettlewell School and then on to Tynemouth Jubilee Hospital and Preston Hospital in the town.
Immediately after the bombing a temporary mortuary in Church Way was opened. As bodies were recovered they were taken there for identification, a grim procedure that lasted for five days.
A special burial plot was identified at Tynemouth Cemetery
Of the 192 people in the shelter that night; 107 men, women and children lost their lives.
For comprehensive information about the Wilkinson’s air raid tragedy, please visit: northshields173.org