A toddler’s-eye view of wartime Bristol

30th Apr 2021 - Written by Katy Westaway

Reading time: 3 minutes

As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Brunelcare, we asked people to share their memories of living in Bristol over the last eight decades. Mark, a tenant at one of our housing sites, has shared his experience of growing up in Bristol during the war.


“An identical twin, I was born in 1938 above my parents’ hardware business on the Midland Road (The Batch) in central Bristol. My mother, keen to enjoy an environment free from city congestion (even then), found a terraced ‘Villa’ for sale in St Anne’s and fell in love with it because of the playing fields opposite and the charming wooded valley with a stream at the road’s end. Full of optimism and joy, she moved the family there on August the fourth 1939.


The playing fields vanished under a couple of acres of war-time allotments, a fire station with a balloon barrage facility and a huge underground air-raid shelter that became my parents’ view from their bedroom window. And so it remained for the next five or six years – give or take a falling bomb or two.


On the other side of the ‘Woods’, mum’s brother, Arthur, lived in a new house with his wife and two girls. He was the bright boy of the family, had become an officer in bomb disposal and in late 1940 was to be posted to Ripon in Yorkshire. Em, his wife, decided her man should have a farewell party to speed him on his way. Despite the blackout and fall-out from Dunkirk, surprisingly little disruption had so far been experienced in our area but, on that November evening, Bristol was to catch up with the South East.


I have had an excellent memory from a very early age and my twin an even better recall. It is true to say that I cannot remember every nuance of that party-night but what is vivid in my memory are the sirens screaming and the rush by six adults to get their children into Art and Em’s Anderson shelter and how we were all cramped into that tiny, claustrophobic space. I recall, too, a knocking on its corrugated door by a couple pleading to be allowed to join us which, they soon realised, was an impossibility, so they ran off to seek asylum elsewhere.


How long we spent in those conditions I cannot say, but I know it was an extended period. Eventually, my father decided he would return to our home to find out – in his words – ‘if we had anything left.’ Some long time later, he came back and told my mother that the house was undamaged and it would now be safe to go home. To do that, we had to walk down from my uncle’s house, along the flat length of Mardon’s red-brick factory and climb a steep path up and over some waste land called ‘The Tip’. Tired, I was perched atop my father’s shoulders, and I remember a dark and sombre journey. We ascended to the brow of the ‘The Tip’, where a panorama of Bristol planted itself in my inner vision and it remains there to this day; for the whole world seemed to be on fire; flames and smoke going skywards from Knowle to far distant Clifton.


A couple of days later when visiting my grandparents – our custom every Saturday – my parents walked with the two of us into the town; the scene that met us there lingers still. Destruction. Destroyed shops. Rubble – piled high all along bombed-out Castle Street, way passed the Co-op store, Burton’s, the News Theatre and the shell of the once grand Regent cinema. As a small child, this vision haunted me; who would do this to us? I just couldn’t assimilate it; although, in the next few years – decades, even – one become inured to the situation.


Looking back, I try to evaluate what my parents must have felt as they walked through the destruction of their ancient and (from all accounts) once charming city; a city of whose history they had been particularly proud. How did they view their future? How fearful were they of what it might hold if Germany prevailed?


I often think; how would I have coped in their circumstances, conscious as I am today of the horror of what could follow a Nazi invasion? Truthfully; I just don’t know.


When people ask: ‘Where are you from?’ and I reply ‘Bristol’.’ more often than not they say: ‘Oh – that’s a lovely city!’ And I think: ‘Yes, that’s right, it is.’


Mind you, since 1945, it has taken me far too many years to get there.”