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Telephonists try on their gas masks complete with built-in microphones, August 1938 - Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix
Telephonists try on their gas masks complete with built-in microphones, August 1938 - Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix

National History

When the nation lived in dread of gas attacks on our cities

Thankfully for us all, the cry Gas! Gas! Gas! was never heard on the streets of our cities during the Second World War apart from air-raid precaution exercises. 

But the fear of gas attacks was all too real, especially after mustard gas was used in the brutal fighting of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War of 1935 to 1937.

From 1938, gas masks, hoods and large-scale respirators became a part of everyday life. Even pets had their own gas-proof shelters.

A PDSA gas-proof shelter for pets, September 1939 - Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix
A PDSA gas-proof shelter for pets, September 1939 – Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix

It was widely believed at the time that the bombing of towns and cities from the air would commence within a few hours, if not minutes, of war being declared. 

In August 1935, the Government advised local authorities that it proposed to institute gas drills for the civilian population.

Police and fire brigades were already holding small-scale gas drills involving no more than a couple of dozen people at a time, using mask and oxygen tank apparatus.

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The establishment of Air Raid Precautions (later known as Civil Defence) arose out of Cabinet approval in 1935 for spending £100,000 (approx. £7.4 million in 2021) on planning for the contingency of war.

Merseyside ARP teams try on their gas decontamination gear, December 1938 - Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix
Merseyside ARP teams try on their gas decontamination gear, December 1938 – Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix

The new masks were expensive. Some local authorities were under the impression that they would be issuing mask and oxygen tank apparatus to the public at £10 per mask and 25 shillings for oxygen per person.

According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, the 2021 prices would be £727.30p per mask and £85.90 per oxygen tank!

The cash-strapped Government informed the equally cash-strapped local authorities that it would not be picking up the bill.

Concerned that a future enemy might resort to using mustard gas against civilians, the government ordered the production of millions of gasmasks and their distribution to local authorities.

On Merseyside, the main depot was a purpose-built 400ft long by 160ft wide warehouse in Stopgate Lane, Fazakerley.

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It was completed on 19 July 1937. By the end of the following month, sufficient components to assemble around three million respirators had been delivered.

Passengers in gas masks alight from a Merseyside bus during an ARP exercise, July 1941 - Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix
Passengers in gas masks alight from a Merseyside bus during an ARP exercise, July 1941 – Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix

In March 1938, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Alderman Michael Cory Dixon, entered into the spirit of things by donning a gas mask when he attended a series of lectures on Air Raid Precautions (ARP) at St Clement’s School, Lodge Lane.

To avoid any political backlash, he stated he was attending as an interested private citizen.

By the time of the Munich Crisis of September 1938, local authorities held a combined stockpile of more than 38 million masks, with a further 35 million issued to members of the public.

Around Merseyside, masks were distributed to local storage facilities. At Bootle they were stored in a former British Oxygen building on Knowsley Road, the idea being that every Bootle resident would be measured for a correctly fitting mask over the coming weeks.

Many masks were assembled by schoolchildren in their classrooms. The process of stretching the thick rubber bands over the filters left many children with raw thumbs for weeks afterwards.

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There were several different respirators. The standard civilian model consisted of a face-piece attached to a metal box containing filters manufactured of 80 per cent carded wool and 20 per cent asbestos. It was fitted with adjustable straps.

The civilian duty respirator was more robust and designed to be worn by those expected to be working in the presence of gas.

During the latter part of 1939, a ‘gas hood’ respirator for children up to 30 months of age was issued to those living in areas deemed at risk from bombing.

The hood was all embracing, the youngster being placed inside the apparatus. It was secured by a strap passing between the legs. The downside was that the air supply had to be pumped by hand.

An air-raid warden wears a new type of gas hood in July 1941. Like the baby’s respirator, it relied on air being pumped by hand - Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix
An air-raid warden wears a new type of gas hood in July 1941. Like the baby’s respirator, it relied on air being pumped by hand – Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix

Many mothers found the device so difficult to pump that they abandoned using them. There were many reports of babies becoming drowsy due, it is thought, to an insufficient air supply.

For toddlers, there was the red-faced ‘Mickey Mouse’ respirator. It looked nothing at all like Walt Disney’s world-famous cartoon character.

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People carried their respirators around in cardboard boxes as our photo of evacuee children from Sacred Heart School, Liverpool, in September 1939 clearly shows. They were on their way to Edge Hill station to leave the city.

Evacuees from Sacred Heart School, Liverpool, carry gas masks to Edge Hill station, September 1939 - Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix
Evacuees from Sacred Heart School, Liverpool, carry gas masks to Edge Hill station, September 1939 – Source: The Home Front: Britain 1939-45, iNostalgia Publishing/Mirrorpix

When places of entertainment reopened in late September 1939, patrons were to be refused admission if they were not carrying their gas masks.

More than one cinema manager claimed that after performances their cinemas were littered with impromptu ‘containers’ holding half bricks and wastepaper, the punters having already abandoned their ‘respirators.’   

Written By

Former daily newspaper editor and group editorial director for leading national media brands, Malcolm is a regular contributor to the iNostalgia National History with a love for our national heritage.

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