The Blitz spirit

by Simon Fowler

Narrated by plummy-voiced newsreaders or American journalists, wartime newsreels often show spontaneous sing-songs by cheery Cockneys hunkered down in East End shelters. They were thought to be good for morale.

During 1940 and 1941 much consideration was given to stiffening morale in Richmond’s shelters as well.

In the larger public shelters certain standards of behaviour was to be expected. Richmond council and the local papers spent a lot of time fussing over this. In September 1940, for example, council minutes recorded that “Notices have been exhibited in all public shelters prohibiting smoking and the practice of congregating in the entrances; with regard to the admission of dogs to public shelters the notices say that it is at the discretion of the shelter marshals”.

Each shelter was under the control of a volunteer shelter marshal and his deputy, who were expected to maintain morale as well as order. They were always a shortage of such people. In November 1940 the Richmond Herald included an appeal from the Chief Shelter Marshal Harold Ball, who wanted to create ‘a family party spirit’ in every shelter: “We need educated people possessing big hearts and capable of administering to the needs of the people, with an uppermost thought for the human side of the story. My chief aim is to make them happy; to maintain public morale.”

In addition, volunteers provided entertainment to the shelterers. The Richmond and Twickenham Times suggested that “what was done was a proper antidote to the noise and other drawbacks of the night outside”.

A story described how a police concert party visited the shelters under the arches of Richmond Bridge and then at the Town Hall: “They made quite a prepossessing appearance in their smart scarlet evening jackets with navy blue lapels, boiled shirts, white button holes and dandy sashes’ providing a “thoroughly entertaining show” with a mixture of comic turns and singing accompanied by violins.  “Gunfire was vigorous though unheeded during the concert and it was still prevalent as the party made its way to the Town Hall shelter to give a second turn.”

Meanwhile more fun was taking place at the large shelter on Richmond Green where conditions “were not as good as those in the other shelter, but that made the entertainment arranged all the more welcome”.  Here, “[a] mixed programme that appealed to the various standards of taste in the audience had been arranged, but proceedings were informal and closed, so that sleepers could bed down, at 9pm”. There was community signing together with records played on a radiogram.

It’s hard to know how popular the entertainments provided were, but they would have certainly taken people’s minds off what was going outside the shelter.

This article was originally published in the Twickenham and Richmond Tribune, 12 November 2021.