Fire Watchers Alarm Bell, Manchester

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Fire Watchers Alarm Bell, Manchester

Fire Watchers were civilians who spent the nights on the roofs of buildings during air raids, looking for and dealing with incendiary bombs, rather than taking shelter from the falling bombs like most other people.

This account by Frank Walsh, who was on duty just around the corner from where the above photo was taken, gives a flavour of what they did.

“Although strictly not of age, I volunteered to fire watch, tempted by the small remuneration each volunteer received for the nights work. Abel Heywoods was a five story building with a flat roof. It had a huge wooden sign on top, approximately eight feet high. The large gold letters spelled out ‘A H & SONS’. By standing on the middle of the letter H you had an uninterrupted clear view all over the centre of Manchester.

When not on alert some volunteers slept on camp beds while others toured the building on a rota basis. However, once the sirens had sounded everyone went on to the flat roof to watch the searchlights criss cross the sky, occasionally highlighting one of the many barrage balloons floating high in the sky. These were to help deter planes from undertaking low level bombing.
Then, not long to wait before the heavy drone of the bombers engines could be heard in the distance. This noise gradually increased as the planes got nearer and nearer, then the crump of bombs falling and the noise of the anti-aircraft batteries opening up. These helped light up the night sky with the flash of exploding shells. Sometimes on a moonlit night you could see the silhouette of a bomber high in the sky.”

Source; BBC…

View period maps of Manchester showing Luftwaffe damage to buildings during the Blitz.…

The link above re; Frank Walsh’s recollections of the Christmas Bltz have been a prime source of information. He vividly describes the scene below; the area to the south of Piccadilly – which comprised mostly cotton warehouses – being totally ablaze. Contemporary bombing maps of the City show that every building between Parker Street and Charlotte Street, and Chorlton Street and Abingdon Street with the sole exception of the telephone exchange, was destroyed on December 23rd 1940.

Frank was a Fire Watcher with his employers, Abel Heywood & Son. The shop pictured here is in Lever Street just to the north-west of Picadilly and only a couple of hundred metres from where the lead photo was taken.
Abel Heywood & Son Bookshop, 1910

Photo from Manchester Archives photostream

A fire watcher on duty (photographed in London)
Photo used with IWM Non-Commercial Licence

This is the building which has the Fire Watchers Alarm Bell. It is on the corner of Dale Street and China Lane.


39 comments on “Fire Watchers Alarm Bell, Manchester
  1. salfordlad1 says:

    Brilliant – what a find..

  2. Marty 1955 ... says:

    EXCELLENT Ian …. I so love that you ad all that info to a lot of your pics …gives them life …well done mate

  3. nondesigner59 says:

    Great find…

  4. southseadave says:

    Great bit of history there Ian, but as to the picture, i love the colours and textures.

  5. Gizzardtreedude says:

    Excellent presentation again Ian, great main shot too. Thoroughly interesting. I will be taking my time checking out the links. Great stuff 🙂

  6. pasujoba says:

    Terrific research Ian . The shot is no slouch either !
    This subject is such a draw to people even those of us not old enough want to try and grasp what the experience was like……though i doubt any would want to go through it in real!

  7. bill_fawcett says:

    Agree with Paul – terrific research Ian and a very nice find of the the alarm bell. Surprised it has survived all these years.

  8. Stezzer says:

    Great artistic shot with the bokeh and detail. I like your history write ups that give me a greater insight into what’s happened on our doorstep. I clicked on the last image hoping to expand it but it said oops private.

  9. Kingsdude/Dave says:

    What a great find Ian and the background story is fascinating – I had no idea of their role, they must have very brave souls indeed !. I can`t even begin to imagine how frightening it must been to be out in the open on a city rooftop just waiting for an enemy air raid .

  10. cgullz says:

    i love the framing here, that gorgeous brick red and the fantastic bokeh blurry bits!!!

  11. Tech Owl says:

    Super work – nice find Ian

  12. gastephen says:

    Wonderful shot and a great find!

  13. amyrey says:

    The sort of thing English Heritage should be preserving…. seems awful vulnerable.

  14. mick cooke says:

    very interesting ian , they did a great job

  15. Keartona says:

    Must have been exciting and terrifying all at the same time.
    He describes it with a poetic sense of awe at the sight of it all.

  16. stiemer says:

    Great find, very interesting.

  17. Mustang Koji says:

    It is such a vintage item, I am surprised it is out in the open… It should be preserved in memory of those who endured or perished. Great stuff, Ian.

  18. Ian D B says:

    [] Thanks Stezz. I normally don’t have secondary shots viewable so people don’t feel obliged to trawl through them, but I have enabled this one since you ask!
    [] [] [] Thanks guys. I was very surprised to see it too. I suppose it has lasted over 70 years and it is a listed (protected) building so will probably be there a while longer yet…
    [] Yeah it is a well written piece.
    [] [] Thank you!
    [] [] Where would we be without them all?
    [] Wash your bokeh mouth out young lady!
    [] [] I know, can you imagine! I have to be honest, I reckon I would’ve been up there myself had I been around back then and not in the forces. What a thing to see – bombs, fires, searchlights, barrage balloons and German bombers. Scary but fascinating.
    [] Cheers Mark!
    [] thanks Wilf. I wonder what else there is still around.
    [] Thanks mate, good to hear from you.
    [] [] Thanks Malcolm, Cheers Dave.

  19. Deputy Don says:

    My parents met when Dad was a Firewatcher in Worthing during WW2 and Mother was working in the ARP canteen downstairs where the firewatchers went for a cuppa after an alert was over. But they never talked about it, so I’ve learned a lot from reading your (as always) well researched and informative comments. Thank you!

  20. Ian D B says:

    [] Hi Don, nice to see you, all the best for 2013 and that. Thanks for adding that comment, much appreciated. I bet your Dad had a busy time, that bit of coast was always under attack, sometimes from FW190 fighters carrying bombs in fast hit and run raids.

  21. stopherjones says:

    Great find, amazing history, quite an unimaginable thing to do, hard to imagine anywhere more vulnerable during a raid. Love the saturation and focus. If I’m being honest, not sure about the car, on the one hand I find it a bit distracting, on the other it ties the old with the new. But either way I like for it making me think more about it.

  22. Ian D B says:

    Thanks Chris. Agree there can be fewer more dangerous places, stumbling about in the dark with a stirrup pump as high explosives and incendiaries rained down….

    The car was parked there, so I hadn’t much choice. Would be better without it, you’re right.

  23. cgullz says:

    [] points for you, calling me ‘young lady’! … have been just popping in and still intend to come back and have a good read here.

  24. Ian D B says:

    Lol, morning Ang!

  25. cgullz says:

    [] Good afternoon now lol .. Jay-Z yr up late for a weeknight! Quite the treat to bump into you two .. []

  26. Ian D B says:

    Yes but as you point out it has gone 12 so time for bed. Catch you later!

  27. stopherjones says:

    [] ah, hadn’t even considered that. Meant to say, amazing supplementary photos, they really help tell the story and underline the danger of the situation

  28. Billy Currie says:

    How interesting, I never even knew there was such a thing

  29. mickb6265 says:

    great piece of history,ian….if i ever get re-incarnated,i am being born in 1920,so i,m 19 when ww2 starts…

  30. crusader752 says:

    I’m amazed this still exists and intact too Ian. Great composition and comparison with the new vehicle too.
    Before he joined the RAF, my dad used to firewatch locally at the children’s home he spent most of his early years in. Imagine spending most of the day either at school or at work, then spending half, if not all the night watching and waiting, never knowing what was in store, with no lights, no electronic gizmo’s to keep you awake or use – just you, your thoughts and your wits in the dark! 🙁

  31. Ian D B says:

    [] Me neither Billie. That’s the wonder of Flickr, I saw a shot of it on someone else’s stream so went to look for myself
    [] Thanks Mick, god to see you mate. My Dad was born in 1920. I am at the same time glad I never lived through it but sort of wish I had been there… I think you know what I mean!
    [] Thank you Rob, yes it is one of those jobs I never gave much thought to… Apart from the well known stories of the fire watchers on the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, bravely picking up incendiaries and chucking them over the edge.

  32. Deputy Don says:

    [] Dad’s only story from those days was cycling home one night during the blackout when a German plane, probably lost, suddenly loomed up in front of him at zero altitude. Dad often wondered who was more scared, himself or the pilot who suddenly saw a bicycle coming towards him.

  33. Ian D B says:

    [] God almighty! Can you imagine what both of them must have thought!

  34. cgullz says:

    [] i keep coming back to this shot, i’m quite taken with it. i think it’s the red of the brick and the old school lettering .. but also [] Chris mentions about the car – i don’t mind it there, i think the split composition and the split between old and new therein is what makes this cooler. In saying that, because of the split comp and your already excellent skills at composite – a change in ‘mood’ / atmosphere could be made by placing an alternate bokeh image next to the wall .. that is, remove the car and have bokeh boys playing soccer in the street, or even bokeh man in long coat. it really is an intriguing image, options for more play here i think.

  35. janano2010 says:

    Very nice shot. I like it

  36. cgullz says:

    Thankyou for sharing

    with the War Stories Group

  37. Dalesman2012 says:

    A Brilliant Observation complete with first rate Text and Historical account to go with it !!!

  38. bazylek100 says:

    It’s fascinating that this little reminder of the turbulent and long gone past has preserved until now. Each year, with every new investment or renovation of old buildings, such inconspicuous traces of WWII disappear in our cities.
    This alarm bell in your picture reminds me of the ‘N/A’ arrows in Kraków. I rememeber there was still plenty of them when I was a child, but nowadays they are a rare sight in the city:
    Hier ausgraben!!!

    As for the technical aspect of the photo, it’s very well composed, Ian. I also like that you’ve included the modern car in the picture. Very good post! It was also interesting to read the personal accout from one of the fire watchers (lucky guy he didn’t get such job in Dresden!).

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