A Safe Place to Be

Despite its location in a quiet rural backwater, Malvern would change forever after the outbreak of the Second World War. Malvern was identified as a safe base for government departments, like the Admiralty. Preparations to move the Royal family to Madresfield Court were also drawn up. As it turned out, neither moved to the town. However, Malvern College was used for at least a year by over 200 members of the Free French Army. After Dunkirk the remnant of the Belgian Army was based at the Abbey Hotel and other large houses. Many Dunkirk survivors were treated by a local doctor, Dr Jessiman in Malvern Link before returning home.

Groups of mothers and children were evacuated from cities like Birmingham and many arrived in Malvern. Here they were assigned accommodation with local families. Malvern was also chosen to be a training base for naval recruits. HMS Duke on St Andrew’s Road was home to 80,000 naval cadets who passed through its base. Their route marches through the area and on the commons were familiar sights.

The Creation of TRE

Aerial photograph showing TRE at Malvern College
Aerial photograph showing TRE at Malvern College

A greater, more permanent migration of men and women to Malvern took place in May 1942. Hundreds of highly trained scientists were moved from their more vulnerable bases along the south coast to continue their top secret radar work. The men and women worked at Malvern College and Pale Manor but many lodged with families across Malvern.

Finally, in the build-up to the allied invasion of France in 1944, five large American hospitals were constructed on the eastern slopes of the hills. Each base accommodated 1000 patients and medical staff. Malvern became used to seeing American convoys and ambulances transporting the wounded to the hospitals.  American soldiers and sailors who were more mobile would often be seen at local dances and the Picture House.

Effect on Wedderburn Road Residents

Wedderburn Road residents would have experienced much of this activity. The 1945 electoral register records the main householder for each house and all the occupants who were old enough to vote. The list reveals quite a large number of lodgers, many of whom would have been either scientists or families who had been evacuated to the road. Roy remembers a couple called Frank and Alice Orchard who moved in with his family during the war, sharing the 3 bed-roomed house with the four members of his family. Rosemary, who lived with her family in Kirkwood, described the mother and daughter who were evacuated from Birmingham to live with them at the beginning of the war. Relationships became very tense and before long the evacuees moved to another address, enabling Rosemary’s parents to receive two Welsh ladies who were very good company.

Other houses in the road provided accommodation for TRE scientists. A young scientist called ‘Duke’ Windsor was billeted with the Stanton family at St Mary’s. He was a gifted artist and played the organ well too. Annie Stanton, who lived further down the road, washed his clothes and made it known that he wore shirts without tails – these were jokingly referred to as bum freezers!

Families like Dorothy’s had different connections with the newly arrived radar scientists. Her husband was on the Reserve list but until he received his call up papers he was required to help build the laboratories and workshops near Malvern College where TRE was based. Many of Malvern’s larger houses were converted into hostels and social areas for service personnel. Rosa helped at the Forces Club at Rosebank, next to the Mount Pleasant Hotel.  Here she served refreshments with her friend and neighbour Jean.

The Americans Arrive

Memories of the American presence have also been preserved. A daughter of the Talbot family living at Helensdale married an American serviceman at the end of the war. With rationing and little spare money, she borrowed Mrs Tummey’s wedding dress for the occasion. Rosemary’s family belonged to the Baptist choir which regularly sang to groups of wounded Americans at Merebrook Hospital and some of the other bases. Dorothy however was more suspicious of the young American soldiers and thought them scruffy and over familiar. They could often be seen around Malvern and they had their own social centre on Worcester Road called a ‘Donut Dugout’. These were clubs run by the American Red Cross for their servicemen and women who were employed at the local hospitals. The one in Malvern had a lounge, canteen, reading, writing and games rooms.

Bombing Raids near Malvern

A house in Quest Hills road damaged by an incendiary bomb 1940
A house in Quest Hills road damaged by an incendiary bomb 1940

Residents in Wedderburn Road of course experienced all the other wartime anxieties and excitement. Roy remembers standing in the road as a young child watching the German planes following the course of the River Severn on their bombing mission to Coventry. Rosemary also recalls the bombing of Coventry on November 14th, 1940, when her front windows rattled and shook. Air raid sirens, from their base at the Gas Works on Madresfield Road, were heard frequently and sandbags were a normal feature outside all houses.

Over 300 high incendiary bombs are known to have been dropped over Malvern and many young boys have recalled the thrill of racing over to Guarlford Road and Poolbrook to search for the fins and other parts of these small incendiary devices. Dorothy was married by 1939 and her family grew up in Eastnor Villa in Wedderburn Road. She described in another of the Museum booklets (Wartime) how they huddled together under the stairs when the air raid sirens sounded. Later they had a proper shelter built in the garden by two TRE scientists, which had steps down into the bunker and a concrete roof. However it is thought that not many houses had this type of shelter; the kitchen table and stair cupboard were seen as providing adequate protection, along with sandbags at all the windows and doors.

The Home Guard

Group of 7 men from Malvern Home Guard, on exercise at Madresfield Court.
Malvern Home Guard on exercise at Madresfield Court. On the left are George Woodward and Mr Fish, and on the right are Peter Rowberry and Sgt. Sam Beard

Roy’s father, like many of the older men, joined the Home Guard and would have been involved in training exercises and regular parades. Other Wedderburn Road residents are likely to have joined the Air Raid Precautions network. Rosa’s brother Len was a night watchman and checked the neighbourhood making sure all houses had their blackouts in place. Blackout and rationing restrictions had been introduced early on in the war. Rosemary recalled the blackout curtains at home and school, along with strips of paper taped across the windows. Both Rosemary and Rosa remember the gas masks that had to accompany them wherever they went. Children often had a mask that made them look like Mickey Mouse and both girls took part in gas mask drills at school.