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World War 2 In Peterborough

1939 – 1945

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The Town played a vital role with industry, airfields and a major railway centre. The flat landscape meant there were many airfields including RAF Peterborough, Westwood, which was a major RAF training centre. Local people volunteered for Military Service but those in ‘reserved occupations’, (jobs important to the war effort) were not conscripted but often spent their spare time in Civil Defence e.g. Home Guard and Auxiliary Fire Service. Businesses set up their own firewatchers while first-aiders and plane spotters were essential. National Service became compulsory for unmarried women aged between 20 and 30, then up to 50 in 1943, unless they had children under 14. Many joined the various women’s forces and nurses were attached to all the Services. Women worked in factories making war machines, ammunition, clothing or parachutes. Engineering industries such as Perkins Engines and Baker Perkins switched to wartime production supplying engines, guns, torpedoes and manufacturing machinery. Amidst this, dancing at local hotels and cinema-going were popular and there were several cinemas, showing films three times a day.  Foreign servicemen became familiar sights on the street. They included including Americans, French and Poles, many of the latter remaining in the city at the end of the war. Peterborough was not a prime target for bombs, so the city received 1496 London evacuees. Brick air raid shelters were built in the city centre. There were 644 Air Raid Alert warnings and bombs were hitting Bridge Street and the Lido. Raids of high explosive and incendiary bombs continued to 1942. Peterborough Cathedral was hit by incendiary bombs but damage was limited by the quick reaction of the fire-watchers.





Hereward the Wake

1070

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Hereward the Wake (known at the time as Hereward the Exile) raided the monastery and town with an army of Danish mercenaries, ostensibly to stop the wealth of Peterborough from falling into the hands of the new Norman Abbot. The Danes “came with many ships and wanted [to get] into the minster, and the monks withstood so that they could not come in. Then they laid fire to it, and burned down all the monks' buildings and the town, except for one building. Then, by means of fire, they came in at Bolhithe Gate. The monks came to meet them, asked them for peace, but they did not care about anything, went into the minster, climbed up to the holy rood, took the crown off our Lord's head… They took there so much gold and silver and so many treasures in money and in clothing and in books that no man can tell another…” By now the town is becoming known as ‘Burgh’ or ‘Burgh St Peter’ – Peterborough.





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The Great Fire of Peterborough

1116

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Most of the town was destroyed in the Great fire of Peterborough, including the castle. It is claimed the church tower burnt for nine days. It possibly started from from an unattended fire in the Abbey's bakery. The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle says “all the minster of Peterborough burned, and all the buildings except the chapter-house and the dormitory; and besides, the most part of the town also all burned. All this happened on a Friday; that was 4 August…”  





Peterborough Infirmary Fire

1884

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At midday on 9th May 1884 there was a disastrous fire at Peterborough Infirmary in Priestgate. The infirmary contained 100 patients who were hauled outside onto the grass to safety, along with as much medical equipment as could be saved. Some of the first newspaper reports suggested that patients were still inside the building when the roof collapsed, but these rumours were unfounded and everybody was accounted for; the patients were driven away in cabs or moved to a building supplied by the Dean and Chapter.  The fire was caused by an overheated flue and caused £5,000 worth of damage. The lack of accessible water to extinguish the fire and deficiencies of the Fire Brigade led to the formation of the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade.





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Mount Thorold (Peterborough Castle) Destroyed

1116

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There are varying accounts regarding the building of a castle in Peterborough. Most accounts agree that it was built by Abbot Thorold just after the Norman Conquest, in response to an attack by Hereward and a large group of Vikings (Danes). It was situated north of the abbey, close to the majority of the residents of the town, and was a simple wooden castle on a motte (hill). The castle was either destroyed in a fire in 1116 with most of the town, or was pulled down by Abbot Martin de Bec when he was rebuilding and redesigning the town: it was never rebuilt or replaced. The remains of the motte exist as a small hill in the cathedral grounds and in the street name Touthill Place. It was previously known as Mount Thorold or Turold and is a scheduled monument.





Metal Work in the Early Bronze Age

2500-1500 BC

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With the arrival in Britain of skilled metal-workers from mainland Europe around 2500 BC, metal technology began. These people are called the Beaker People, the name arising from their particular style of pottery. The first metal used was copper, but this was soon replaced by the harder bronze (an alloy of 90% copper with 10% tin), for which the time period, the Bronze Age, is named. Smiths working in the Peterborough area, mostly in the east, produced hundreds of swords, daggers, spearheads, axes, pins, ornaments and jewellery, such as rings. The production of metal led to greater control of fire and with it, improved, harder pottery.    





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Must Farm

800 BC

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During the later Bronze age most of the farms and settlements in this area were on the drier, flood-free margins of the wetlands, though a few were constructed over the water on wooden piles. One of these small settlements (of some ten houses) has been found at Must Farm on the western edge of Whittlesey. Around 800 BC the houses caught fire very soon after they were built (whether the fires were accidental or deliberate is still under debate) and the entire platform collapsed into the waters below. Because of the fire and the waterlogged conditions the houses collapsed into, Must Farm is a beautifully preserved  archaeological site; it has been described as the Bronze Age Pompeii as the fantastic amount of finds ( including wood, pots, food, jewellery and even fabric)  have revealed a great deal about Bronze Age life and trade. Near to Must Farm, along the channel the River Nene took in antiquity, archaeologists discovered nine intact Bronze Age log  boats, all fashioned from hollowed-out tree trunks, which were sunk over a period of 600 years. These boats are currently undergoing conservation at Flag Fen, where they are on display.





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St. John the Baptist Rebuilt

1407

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The citizens of Medehamstede, lived to the east of the abbey and what is now the Cathedral, on the edge of the fenland. After the great fire of 1116, the inhabitants were moved to the west of the abbey where the land was drier. Unfortunately they did not move the church to the west, and for several centuries the inhabitants of the town had to walk round the vast abbey grounds to reach their isolated church. This was made more difficult by flooding from streams that ran in front of the church, making attendance problematic in the winter. A petition was made to move the church to the west of the abbey, which was granted by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1402. The new church was built using stone from the old one and the Becket Chapel, as well as oak from Abbot William Genge's park. He dedicated the church to St John the Baptist on 26th June 1407. It was originally built with a large leaded spire, which was conspicuous from some distance. Unfortunately, due to instability, it was removed in the 1820s, but it can be seen in John Speed's Map, A Prospect of Peterborough and an old photograph.





Airbases in World War 2

1940s

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As the East of England is very flat and because of its relative closeness to mainland Europe, many airfields were established or enlarged during the Second World War, roughly one every seven miles. Several of these were around Peterborough, amongst them were: RAF Peterborough (now the Westwood area of the city) was used as a training base for pilots. American servicemen were stationed there during the war and post-war French airmen were also trained there. It was not used for operational missions but was bombed several times. RAF Wittering, established in 1916 as a fighter station for the Royal Flying Corps. In 1938 it became a fighter base, with Spitfires and Hurricanes based there taking part in the Battle of Britain. It was bombed at least 5 times, one attack in March 1941 resulting in the deaths of 17 servicemen. Post war it was a home for the British nuclear deterrent and a base for Harrier jump jets. The American Air Force also had bases in this area, including at the villages of King's Cliffe, Polebrook and Glatton from which they launched daylight bombing raids over Germany in their B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Clark Gable, the Hollywood star did his military service from Polebrook in 1943, flying combat missions as Major Clark Gable. In his time off duty he was very popular with the female population of Peterborough!  Peterscourt in Midgate was the base for the American servicemen when off duty, being known as, 'The American Red Cross Club'.  





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Air Raid Causes Loss of Life

1941

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On the night of the 10th of May 1941 Britain experienced the heaviest night of bombing of the entire Blitz. Peterborough got off lightly compared to other cities, but bombs did fall. Some hit close to the Museum in Cross Street causing severe damage to buildings, though the museum escaped with just shattered windows. After the 'All Clear' two fire officers entered a severely damaged building to see if anyone was trapped but unfortunately an unexploded incendiary device went off while they were inside killing them both. They were killed trying to help others.