The photograph attached here shows a young three year old boy (yours truly) standing in an ordinary street in Liverpool in 1959. The house behind me was the home of my grandparents, Lizzie and John Welsh, and it was an ordinary two-up, two-down terrace in Toxteth, just like thousands of others in many similar streets throughout the city.
To the right of the house is what was known in Liverpool as a ‘bommie’. This was a flat area of land, sometimes rubble strewn, which represented all that remained of a building that had been destroyed during the German bombing raids during WW2. Even though it was probably thirteen years after the war had ended when this photograph was taken, it was not the general policy of the local Corporation to spend money rebuilding properties on small pockets of land such as this. What funding they did have was being spent developing new housing estates away from the city centre, out toward the green belt land which would eventually make up the suburbs. So while this piece of rough dirt and broken rubble might well have been a blight on the local landscape, along with countless others like it the land would become a playground for youngsters just like myself, until eventually the entire area would be cleared and redeveloped with new housing many years afterward.
This bommie had been a house almost exactly the same as the one my grandparents lived in until one fateful night during an air raid when the property took a direct hit from a German bomb.
At the time of the raid the occupant of the house, a lady called Mary O’Prey, was sheltering in my grandmother’s air-raid shelter in the back yard. There would have been plenty of space inside for several families, who would sit out the raid using orange boxes or whatever they could find for seats, wrapping themselves in blankets as protection against the cool night air – their faces illuminated by a couple of flickering candles as they would read or sing songs to their children in an attempt to reassure them. Some of the men would be absent during the raids. Just like Mr O’Prey and my grandfather they had a common duty to fulfill and would be out on the streets, air-raid wardens who braved the elements and the bombs to patrol their local area.
The sound from the bombs plunging down from the sky around them must have been deafening; with hundreds of explosions being heard from Dingle to the town centre as the shadowy swarm passed by overhead. The growing drone from hundreds of aero engines filled the air, but presently even these were superceded by the unmistakable whistle and banshee wailing of a German bomb falling worryingly close by. All would hold their breath and pull their babies closer to them, closing eyes and muttering words of comfort to themselves as the sound grew to a terrifying crescendo. It would have ended with a sickening thud, followed almost immediately by an enormous explosion – the sudden noise shaking the ground and also the strong brick walls which surrounded them. Slowly, as the noise died away and dust settled within the shelter, Mrs O’Prey was heard to turn to my Gran and say: ‘There you go. You’ve lost your house Lizzie!”. However, when the all-clear was finally given and everyone made their way wearily out of the shelter, it was only then that the woman realized it was, in fact, her own home which had actually been destroyed. The shock and devastation she had probably felt at that time just cannot be imagined.
And so it was that thankfully, my family was one of those who had the good fortune to survive those terrible nights in Liverpool. If it would have been any different, or the bomb had fallen a few feet further over to the left, then that three year old boy might well not be around to tell the story he’s telling now. However, my family were not the only individuals who had good fortune that night. As a postscript to this story I can reveal that the family had a pet dog which was reportedly in the house at the time of the blast. The dog was later found, shaken but alive, inside a house in Fernie Street about thirty yards away. It had been blown up into the air by the force of the explosion and sailed right through a back window of the property to land within the bedroom beyond!
Some of those same Fernie Street properties can be seen in the photo behind me but alas, the name or breed of the fortunate dog is not known.