Wilkinson’s Air Raid Shelter

a place of safety – or death trap?

The public air raid shelter serving this part of the east end of North Shields was situated in the basement/cellars of W.A. Wilkinson’s Ltd on the corner of King Street and George Street.

W.A. Wilkinson Ltd was a long established North Shields firm, manufacturing mineral waters and sodas. Locally known as “the lemonade factory”, their building was a converted, 2 storey, Victorian meeting hall.

Designated as a public air raid shelter in 1940 with a capacity of 188 – the basement shelter divided opinion amongst the residents of the local streets surrounding the factory.

For some, the building was entirely unsuitable for the purpose…and many refused to use it. The floors above the basement housed the factory’s bottling equipment, racks of glass bottles and vats of chemicals used in the manufacturing process. The basement ceiling was not re-inforced. It was, some felt, a death trap in the event of the building being bombed.

For others, the location of the shelter made plenty of sense. It was large, in a familiar and convenient location – many would have to walk 100m or less to enter it – and best of all it was dry, warm and comfortable.

There are no known photographs of the shelter (nor of the Wilkinson’s factory itself). Survivor testimony tells us that access was down some wooden steps into the shelter which had been divided into 3 distinct “rooms”.

There was a family room, an entertainments room and at the far end, a smoker’s room. These informal spaces were not closed off from one another – one could walk through from one end to the other. There were plenty of bunk beds for those wanting to sleep away the air raids. Often there would be music and singing – a regular accordion player was well remembered – and locals enjoyed a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

The shelter warden was Mrs Ellen Lee – a well known, larger than life local character. She was respected by all and she ran a well organised shelter.

On the night of Saturday May 3rd 1941, the air raid alert sounded at 11.12pm and close to midnight the shelter was full, with police officers turning away stragglers aiming for Wilkinson’s. Indeed, the shelter was crowded with 192 people inside – the official maximum occupancy was 188. Those inside, men, women, children were mainly locals from the surrounding streets, with a few visiting friends and some billeted soldiers.

At midnight, a single enemy plane dropped 4 bombs…

 

Tynemouth Borough Emergency Committee Meeting Minutes

 

5th July 1939 (ARP Committee)
Minutes show that there is a survey underway of those buildings which could offer basement shelter accommodation.

 

4th January 1940 (36th Meeting)
(503) 21 premises are scheduled by the Borough Surveyor for the purpose of providing Public basement shelters. Permission has been secured in 12 cases.
The Corporation is to pay a nominal 5 shillings per annum rent, and accept responsibility for anything done in connection with the shelter which may adversally affect the building or result in damage to the adjoining property or injury or death to any person and indemnify the owners against any cost in the making or removal of the shelter.

 

3rd April 1940 (48th Meeting)
(680) Home Office approval gained for a maximum occupancy of 188 persons in the basement of Messrs Wilkinson’s premises. Conversion works to cost not more than £95.

 

15th May 1940 (55th Meeting)

(756) Permission granted by Home Office to rent Wilkinson’s basement for the purpose of providing an Air Raid Shelter at the cost of a nominal rent of 5 shillings per annum.

 

22nd October 1940
(1025) Approval gained to provide protection against blast and splinter at Wilkinsons at a cost of £9.00

 

shelter entrance
trade advert