We are nearly four years into the second Great War of the century. Many thousands are dead and large areas of all sides cities and docklands are in ruins. Already though, thoughts here are turning to the longed for ‘afterwards.’ The Beveridge Report has been published the previous December, enthralling hundreds of thousands at home and at the front with plans for making a better world. A world that will deal with the ‘Five great evils’ of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease by, amongst other things, creating a National Health Service. And wartime Education Minister Rab Butler will soon be bringing his Education Act to Parliament. Creating a new education system for all and raising the school leaving age to fifteen.
Well Joe Hughes, our guide to wartime Liverpool today, has avoided that and left school at fourteen. Largely because his family needs the income. Born in Chisenhale Street, just off Vauxhall Road in 1928, and now living in Owen House in Kirkdale, close to the North Docks, Joe is in Liverpool to start his second full-time job.
Having begun as a gas-welder close to home Joe has now managed, at just fifteen, to get his first office job. At Exchange Flags, just behind the Town Hall. Joe is starting as an Office Boy, running errands for the Liverpool Exchange Company.
Joe Hughes is my Dad. And today we are walking round wartime Liverpool together.
To walk through the warren of tiny alleyways young Joe frequents in his new job. The Exchange Company are the agents for many of the buildings round here, full of firms engaged in shipping and insurance work. War there may be, but goods and armaments and food are still being moved around the world. And Joe is running between offices with messages about them.
“We’ve got a ticker tape machine. The height of technology. And so hear about things first.”
“And in the crowded alleys you can’t see as far as you’ll be able to in later years. When buildings are knocked down for car parking spaces. Though spaces like these will have the look of bomb damage, mostly they’re not. The business district will get through the war relactively unscathed. For one particularly good reason, as we’ll see in a bit.”
“But by the time I arrive in 1943 they’re already turning black in the smoky, smoggy industrial place.”
Derby House is now a Ministry of Defence office. And while we’re standing here two people from the Liverpool Cottton Association come up and talk to us about their Liverpool Pals and both wars.
“You used to be able to get down to the basement through that door there. I’ll tell you about the basement in a bit.”
“I remember the American troops marching along here after landing down there at the Princes Dock. Hand guns in holsters some of them. Like creatures from another world.”
“Desecrated well after 1943. Had the whole front of it ripped off and replaced with offices.”
We drop down off the street into the kind of lunch room Joe would occasionally treat himself to lunch in. Or more often visit to pick up his boss’s lunch – too grand to leave the office and mix with the workers.
But good and home-made though the food looks, they’re not catering for vegetarians like me. “Just like 1943!” quips Joe.
“Because this, in the basement of where I’m working in 1943, is one of the most important places in our fighting of the Second World War. The Combined Operations of the Navy, the Air Force and the Royal Marines worked out of here. Not just to monitor enemy activities and see off the U-boats attacking our shipping. Not just to win the Battle of the Atlantic and save the country being brought to its knees and invaded. But also to ensure the convoys got through, the 1,000 convoys of food, supplies, armaments and eventually soldiers that keep us alive.
I think this is as important a War Museum as we have. But you wouldn’t think so.”
Walk nearly done, it’s past the Bank of England.
Then round the corner into utter devastation.
While young Joe is running round these streets and alleyways delivering his messages he’s also a member of the Air Training Corps, situated back over by Exchange Station. It’s here he completes the education he didn’t complete at school. And it’s from here that he’ll volunteer for the Royal Air Force, training as an engineer on the new jet planes. And being part of the occupying forces at Lubeck, close to what will become the border of East Germany after the War finally ends.
Musing as we do so that once, long ago, we sat together in a similar window a few doors along from here. And watched history happen.
It’s now September 1957. Young Joe is well grown up now. Twenty nine years old. He’s met Rose, his wife, and they’ve had their first child, Ronnie.
Fifty seven years later we both still agree that this was an act of short-sighted municipal vandalism.