Wearside Echoes: War, what war? Just Keep Calm and Carry On!

WAR DAMAGE: The remains of Union Street following an air raid in 1943 - which saw Betty bombed out of her home.
WAR DAMAGE: The remains of Union Street following an air raid in 1943 - which saw Betty bombed out of her home.
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BETTY Weston was urged to “Keep Calm and Carry On” as she sheltered from German bombing raids in a Wearside bank vault during the Second World War.

Four Ministry of Information posters featuring the morale-boosting slogan were plastered on the walls of the little girl’s shelter beneath the North of England Building Society in Fawcett Street.

Today the remains of the 72-year-old posters – some of the few to survive the war – can still be seen. But although the images are now tattered and torn, 82-year-old Betty’s memories of the six years of conflict remain as vivid as ever.

“I used to sleep down in that shelter most nights,” she recalled. “There was me, my older sister Irene and our mam, Ida Cooper. We had a mattress to make things a little more comfortable.

“The shelter was open during to the day to bank staff and the public, but at night it was just for us and the caretaker. It kept us safe for years – until a bomb dropped on the station.”

Betty and her family were living in a flat above the bank when war broke out in 1939. Her father Wallace, a shipyard plater, was called up for service with the DLI, leaving Ida to cope alone with her two girls.

“Our flat was right at the top of the building,” said Betty. “The bank was on the ground floor, but a firm of solicitors and a business called Browns, I think, also shared the same building.

“We had three rooms and the attics to live in, but mam only used the attics to do the washing in. I liked it there, and only later realised I had missed out on having somewhere to play. You couldn’t just play outside.”

Betty, who was born in Hardwicke Street in Monkwearmouth, moved to the Fawcett Street flat at the age of six and was a pupil at Cowan Terrace School when war broke out.

The busy shopping street was, as the little girl soon found out, a prime target for Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Repeated air raids saw incendiary bombs by the dozen rain down around her home.

“I still remember the night Binns was bombed in 1941,” she said. “Once the all-clear had been given, mam took me to see the flames – although she wouldn’t let me get too near. It was a right old blaze.”

German bombers repeatedly targeted Sunderland’s docks, stations, shipyards and town centre over the next two years and, on March 14, 1943, a parachute mine exploded in Union Street – just yards from the bank.

“We were sleeping down in the shelter as usual that night,” recalls Betty. “When I woke up, I found my mam and sister crying their eyes out. I didn’t know what was wrong.

“Apparently the bomb had exploded so close to us that the building had shaken. My mother and sister were terrified, but I had just slept through it all. I never heard a thing.”

Once the all-clear sounded, Ida made her way through rubble and bomb debris to the family’s little flat – but found it uninhabitable. The bank itself was damaged, but still intact.

“Mam took us into the bank to wait, then walked all the way to Newcastle Road to tell the bank manager, Mr Nelson, that there was a problem,” said Betty. “It was a very brave thing to do.

“I don’t think I ever saw the flat after it was bombed. That was it, we just had to leave.”

Betty’s father was granted temporary leave from the Army after the bombing, to help find a new home, and the Coopers moved into a flat at The Crescent in Ashbrooke just a few days later.

It was not the end of the family’s links to the old bank building, however, as Betty’s sister Irene worked for a firm of solicitors based within the bomb-damaged building for several years – until contracting TB.

“My dad’s medals and cups from the first war were all stored in the strong room under the bank too, where the shelter was,” recalls Betty. “We only moved them after we were bombed out.

“I will always remember that shelter. It was where we spent so many hours during the war.”

l The old air raid shelter is now used for storage by Jessops, the photographic supply store. The four old Keep Calm posters remain on the walls.