Parish Council History - The Lights go out

Chapter 3 – the lights go out

War was declared on Germany on 3rd September 1939, and the arrival later that month of 216 boys and staff evacuated from Mill Hill School was the first tangible effect on the village. The Seacote Hotel was requisitioned to become the centre of the school, and the ballroom became the pupils’ dining room. Pupils were also housed in Seacroft, Tomlin, Eaglesfield, and Grindal Houses, whilst the staff made themselves comfortable in their unofficial common room in the Queens Hotel bar.

Again, war put the Parish Council in limbo. There were no elections for the duration – councillors were co-opted- and for the first time there were vacant seats on the Council. Although the council continued to meet regularly, the energies of councillors were naturally diverted elsewhere, as defence and self-preservation became a priority.

Tomlin lookoutThe Coastguard lookout on Tomlin, manned 24 hours a day, and the scene of mock attacks by the Home Guard

Air raid precautions

The threat of bombing was taken very seriously from the start, and an ARP post was set up next to the Albert Hotel under Joe Tyson, the Head Warden. During the days of the “Phoney War”- before Hitler invaded the Low Countries- petty officialdom often came to the fore. Mill Hill School had installed an air raid siren on Grindal House, but was forbidden by the Chief Constable from sounding it (even during an air raid). Likewise, seven tons of sand were ordered for smothering incendiary bombs, but the Egremont ARP refused to pay, and the bill passed for a long time round the ARP, the Parish Council and the District Council.

In 1940 the threat of bombing increased, and the St. Bees ARP gave a demonstration to a crowd of 500 in the grounds of Grindal House on how to deal with incendiary bombs. The highlight was a demonstration “How not to put out a bomb”: but the “bombs” almost got out of control, and were only subdued after an unintentionally action-packed 20 minutes. Despite all this activity no official air raid shelter was built in the village despite the pleas of the parish council.

The black-out was now rigidly enforced. A resident of Richmond Crescent was fined £4 for showing light from a skylight, and St. Bees School was fined for “being lit up like a barracks”. Unfortunately, when the railway staff worked all night on the level crossing, despite shading their tilley lamps, swarms of ARP wardens and special constables arrived to see who was spoiling the black-out. Unlucky car drivers trapped by the work had their cars immobilised by the “specials” to prevent their use by invaders. On a brighter note, the Parish Council received a £24 rebate as the street lights were not being used.

The Home Guard

The forerunner of the Home Guard was the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers, or “Look, Duck and Vanish”), which was formed in May 1940. It was manned by volunteers from the Village and Mill Hill and St. Bees Schools, and commanded by Col J.D. Mitchell CMG DSO, the Secretary to Mill Hill School. Unlike many LDV units, they were well-armed from the beginning, as they could use the two Schools’ OTC equipment. There was an enthusiastic response to the call for volunteers. Mitchell responded within ten minutes of the wireless appeal by Anthony Eden, but the oldest applicant, Mr. J. Thompson of the Manor House, was at 78 unfortunately well over the 65 year age limit.

John Sim
The formation of the LDV/Home Guard meant that many village veterans of the First World War, such as John Sim pictured on the left at Lonsdale Terrace, found themselves in uniform again.

Renamed the “Home Guard” in June 1940 they had their HQ on the down platform at the Station, and a sandstone pill box was built to defend the Station and Pow beck bridge. Their exercises were frequent and realistic, especially when invasion was a strong possibility, and the Gas Works was a frequent target for mock attacks. Sometimes they were too realistic. A cut-out of a German glider put on Tomlin during an exercise was so good that the coastguards started an alert that German aircraft had landed. During a protracted exercise in 1941, Gillerthwaite Farm in Ennerdale was the scene of a pitched battle. One platoon walked to Ennerdale to defend the farm, whilst another platoon caught the train to Seascale, camped in Wasdale, and the next day successfully captured the farm by marching over Black Sail Pass and attacking down the valley.

After the threat of invasion had receded, the Home Guard was stood down at a farewell parade in Workington on December 3rd 1944, and was finally wound up in 1945.

Mill Hillians on parade
The formation of the LDV/Home Guard meant that many village veterans of the First World War, such as John Sim pictured on the left at Lonsdale Terrace, found themselves in uniform again.

The Military in St Bees

The coast was a heavily-used route for military aircraft, and to assist them a high intensity aerial navigation beacon was installed at Ivy Hill, Pallaflat. Despite this, a Miles Master plane en route from Reading to Prestwick crashed in heavy fog on Tomlin in 1941. The wreckage was found the next day by farmer Bill Jackson of Rottington assisted by Billy Cottam, and contained the body of Air Transport pilot George W. Holcomb of Miami.

A radar station (No. 87A ,”Chain Home, Low frequency”) was built at the Lighthouse in 1941, and was manned 24 hours a day by the RAF (including many WAAFs). The blast walls and concrete mast foundations can still be seen. The installation was highly secret and was guarded round the clock by nearly one hundred troops of the Border and Manchester Regiments, many of whom were billeted in the village. The lighthouse itself was only blacked out in 1941, an obvious guide for bombers trying to hit the radar. After the installation of much improved radar at Barrow, the St. Bees radar station went off the air in February 1944, and the troops left the village.

Nethertown was a hive of activity too. A large camp was built to house an anti-aircraft gunnery school. A concrete road was built over the railway, and a platform built at the shore, from which AA guns fired at targets towed by aircraft from RAF Cark. By 1945 there were over five hundred service personnel on the site, and after peace was declared it became a gunnery school for the RAF Regiment. The RAF left in December 1945, and it then housed construction workers who were building Sellafield. The canteen survived as the now-defunct “Tow Bar Inn”.

Mill Hillians marching

The Mill Hill platoon of the Home guard marching off the Seacote beach one hot summer day. Pupils were allowed to stand guard duty overnight and allowed off lessons the next day. The hoppers for gravel taken off the beach can be seen in the distance.

The Civilian War

Civilians were active too. The Women’s Institute organised a scrap drive with a dump at Cross Hill which attracted items from a sardine tin to a steel safe, and the tennis courts at Grindal House were cultivated as part of “Dig for Victory”. In 1941 the St. Bees and Sandwith War Effort Working Party was knitting warm items for servicemen, and Albert Haile, landlord of the Oddfellows Arms, was experimenting with outdoor tomatoes grown amongst potatoes. In 1940-41, St. Bees contributed £187 to the West Cumbria Spitfire Fund which raised £5,000 for a a Mark IIB Spitfire named “Scawfell”. It left the factory in May 1941, but was written off on 21st October 1941 when it was crash-landed in a field near Peterhead in Scotland. On a more prosaic level, the news-hungry press reported that a 14 year-old ferret belonging to Mr. W. Sharpe of Autumn House had died.

Legion dance

The British Legion rooms on Outrigg was one of the main social centres of the village. The tatie-pot suppers were legendary.

Food and petrol was strictly rationed, and Wilsons of Egremont dusted off their old horse-drawn butchers van so that deliveries could continue in the village, but the social life of the village continued unabated, if not enhanced. The W.I. reported how pleasant it was to see so many men from the Radar Station at their meetings, and the British Legion had regular socials in the Legion Huts at Outrigg, all enlivened by the presence of the Land Girls who were billeted at various farms. Typical was a Legion social in 1942 when 200 attended a supper to raise money for the Russian Red Cross. The highlight of the evening was inevitably food, on this occasion the auctioning of a large cake and a fresh salmon.

Other diversions included the well-attended film shows in Hodgetts given by G. Dudley Page, the Art Master at Mill Hill, who had supplies of rare early colour cine film, and was able to delight villagers with his home-movies of St. Bees life.

The Council Soldiers On

Sometimes the social wheels didn’t run quite so smoothly. A request in 1942 by the W.I. to hold a dance in Hodgett’s for Red Cross funds, met with a blunt refusal by the Hodgett’s sub-committee. No reason was given, and the W.I. complained strongly to the Parish Council. After a heated meeting, the Council sacked the Hodgett’s committee en masse, and took over direct control of the Club themselves.

The piano in Hodgett’s was sold to ENSA for use by the RAF contingent, and a lot of debate centred on converting the old beagle kennels at the Seacote into a mortuary. But with no street lights to worry about, and little reason for initiatives, the Council’s agendas were sparse.

Rev AinleyRevd A Ainley, longest serving chairman of the parish council.

The Revd. Alfred Ainley left St. Bees in 1941 after having served since 1919 as the Council Chairman. Mr. J. Simpson the Stationmaster and billeting officer for St. Bees took over the Council Chair, but the church didn’t get a new vicar for over ten weeks, and even the Council was moved to write to the Bishop to complain. From 1943 to 1946 the Chairman was William Atkinson of Abbey Farm. A County Councillor for many years, he had farmed in St. Bees since 1910. He was Chairman of West Cumberland Farmers, the world’s largest farmers’ co-operative, and was also Chairman of the Cumberland N.F.U. and a member of the N.F.U. National Executive.

The 1945 V.E. Day celebrations were held jointly with Rottington and were boosted by a surprise grant of £20 by the District Council.

The schoolchildren and OAPs were given teas, and a Grand Victory Dance was held in Hodgett’s Club..

With peace, came a slowing down of village life. Mill Hill departed, Nethertown’s guns were silent, the street lights came on again, and it was time for the Parish Council to resume its activity.

Wings for Victory certificate

Scroll to Top