Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000: Chester and the second world war

Pages 253-254

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.

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Throughout the later 1930s preparations were made locally for the resumption of war. R.A.F. Sealand was established at Queensferry in 1933 as a flying training school, and during the war supported front-line squadrons by repairing engines, instruments, armaments, and wireless telegraphy equipment. (fn. 1) More significantly for the local workforce, by 1938 there were two large aircraft factories near Chester: de Havilland at Broughton and Vickers-Armstrong near Hawarden, both in Flintshire. (fn. 2) In 1936 the council established an air-raid precautions committee, which began to train wardens and build shelters; the first council approval for a shelter, for 200 people, was given in April 1939. (fn. 3) In 1938 an imposing classical headquarters was opened for the Army's Western Command in Queen's Park, on land bought from the corporation. (fn. 4)

When Chester's M.P. died in 1940 the Tory nominee, Basil Nield, took his seat without a contest. (fn. 5) By then council politics had become muted; there were no ward elections and W. Matthews Jones served as mayor from 1940 until the end of the war. (fn. 6) Although its own affairs were generally slack, the council had to carry out numerous detailed government directives. (fn. 7)

Many local manufacturing firms turned to war production. There was soon full employment and, as in the First World War, a need to recruit labour from outside the area. (fn. 8) Poverty on the Lache council estate was alleviated when many of its residents were taken on by the aircraft factories. (fn. 9) Women were also needed, and in 1942 the government paid to establish three day nurseries. (fn. 10) Much of the women's effort was focused on the Women's Voluntary Service, set up in 1939. (fn. 11) An early task was to find homes for large numbers of children evacuated from Liverpool when war was declared. The number of evacuees exceeded that of the local school population, and the only way of teaching them was to alternate on a half-day basis. Cestrians were appalled by the poverty of the children sent to them 'unclothed, diseased, and lousy'. One local teacher evidently concluded that 'preventable poverty' was incompatible with the liberty for which the war was being fought. (fn. 12)

The government intervened to protect health, for instance through compulsory vaccination for diphtheria in 1942. Rationing of basic foods, which began early in the war, helped to ensure that food shortages did not cause serious malnutrition, and food supplements were distributed to expectant mothers at baby clinics. The government, however, could do little to improve overcrowded living conditions made worse by the large number of incoming munitions workers. Death rates in Chester, especially that of infants, remained high during the war. (fn. 13)

The war emancipated some women from home, husbands, and child care, and clergymen deplored the relaxation of moral standards. (fn. 14) Cultural life flourished through municipal concerts, plays, and debates staged for war workers and troops, including the many Americans stationed in and around Chester. Courses were run by the Workers' Educational Association, Trinity College of Music, and the Grosvenor Museum. (fn. 15)

The early years of the war were the most dangerous for civilians, although a succession of air raids from late 1940 to early 1941 did little damage. Throughout the war there were 232 alerts: 44 high-explosive bombs and three incendiaries were dropped on the city. On each of the worst occasions, 28 November 1940 and 1 July 1941, three people were killed and three seriously injured. (fn. 16) The Home Guard was established for local defence in 1940, but by 1943 the threat of invasion had passed and in 1944 it was disbanded. By then road signs had been re-erected and the Roodee reseeded for sheep pasture. Rocket attacks on London brought fresh evacuees to the Chester area. (fn. 17) In 1945 victories in Europe and the Far East were celebrated in May and August by services of thanksgiving at the cathedral, dancing in Town Hall Square, bonfires, and street parties. (fn. 18) In the ensuing flush of optimism, post-war priorities for Chester included improved housing, education, and town planning, and the restoration of Watergate Street Rows. By then German prisoners of war were already preparing the site at Blacon for the first post-war council housing estate. (fn. 19)


  • 1. Ches. Observer, 12 Aug. 1933; Chester Chron. Jan. 1997 supplement on 'Bygone Chester'.
  • 2. Ches. Observer, 19 Nov. 1938; 3 Feb. 1940.
  • 3. C.C.A.L.S., ZDS 3/800.
  • 4. Ches. Observer, 28 Mar. 1936; 6 Feb. 1937; 2 Apr., 25 June 1938.
  • 5. Ibid. 24 Feb. 1940.
  • 6. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Lists of Mayors and Sheriffs.
  • 7. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1938/9 to 1944/5, passim.
  • 8. Ches. Observer, 13 Feb. 1940.
  • 9. C.C.A.L.S., ZDHO 1.
  • 10. Ches. Observer, 26 July 1941; 28 Mar. 1942.
  • 11. Ibid. 1 Apr. 1939.
  • 12. Ibid. 30 Sept. 1939; 2 Mar. 1940.
  • 13. Ibid. 21 Mar. 1942; Annual Reps. of M.O.H. (1939-45).
  • 14. e.g. Ches. Observer, 23 Oct. 1943.
  • 15. Ibid. 14 July 1945.
  • 16. Ibid. 7 Oct. 1944.
  • 17. Ibid. 17 Apr. 1943; 1 Jan., 15 July, 9 Dec. 1944; Images of Eng.: Ches. Regiment, comp. Barr, 82.
  • 18. Ches. Observer, 12 May, 18 Aug. 1945.
  • 19. Ibid. 22 Sept. 1945.