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World War 2 In Peterborough

1939 – 1945


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.

Peterborough Revolts!



An assault was made on the monastery by local rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt. The rebels were put down by the intervention of troops commanded by the Bishop of Norwich, as described in a contemporary account by Henry Knighton: “Likewise at Burgh (Peterborough) the neighbours and tenants of the abbot rose against him and proposed to kill him – which they would have done without redress had God not laid his restraining hand upon them at the last moment. For help came in the shape of Lord Henry Despenser, bishop of Norwich, who arrived with a strong force. He prevented the malefactors from carrying out their aims and scattered the mob, paying them back as they deserved. Sparing no one, he sent some to death and others to prison. Some were struck down with swords and spears near the altar and others at the church walls, both inside and outside the building. For the bishop gladly stretched his avenging hand over them and did not scruple to give them final absolution for their sins with his sword”  


WUTAC at Peterborough East Railway Station



The Great Eastern Soldier’s and Sailor’s Rest Room opened on Christmas Eve 1915 at Peterborough East Railway Station.  The rooms were managed by the Women’s United Total Abstinence Council (WUTAC), supporters of the temperance movement popular at that time. During the first nine days alone, 321 servicemen called at the tea room. They were given food, drink and an opportunity to rest in comfort whilst waiting for their trains to and from the front.  The ladies who managed the tea room encouraged the men to write in the visitors’ books, only two of which have survived from 1916 and 1917. There are over 590 signatures in the books that reveal the servicemen came from across the United Kingdom and as far away as Australia.  They wrote messages of gratitude, poetry and drew pictures expressing their appreciation for the service that the ladies were providing. These two slim volumes provide a brief insight into the thoughts and feelings of the men transiting through the city during the Great War. The books have been digitised and transcribed and the servicemen’s personal histories researched in an effort to tell their story and trace their families.

Milton Hall and the Jedburghs



Built towards the end of the 16th century, Milton Hall is the largest private house in Peterborough.  Once home to the Fitzwilliam family, it is now resided in by the Naylor Leyland family who inherited it from the 10th Earl. The Hall was used by the military during both world wars, a hospital being established in World War I and initially in World War II, the Czech army occupied part of the house and stable block. In December 1943, 300 volunteers from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) were brought together and trained at Milton Hall.  From there they were sent to join small teams to arm, train and co-ordinate foreign resistance fighters in preparation for the D-Day landings in Normandy in May and June 1944.  Codenamed the Jedburghs, the volunteers came from army forces based in Britain, France and America with small contingents coming from Holland, Belgium and Canada.  Between D-Day and VE Day they carried out 101 operations in Europe. In May 1996 surviving members attended a special service at Peterborough Cathedral where a memorial plaque was unveiled to commemorate the 37 men who lost their lives during operations in Europe and the Far East.


Airbases in World War 2



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'.  


Cubbit’s Iron Railway Bridge Built



Cubbit's iron bridge (The Nene Viaduct), is a railway bridge immediately south of Peterborough railway station that carries trains across the River Nene. It was built in 1850 by father and son Sir William Cubitt and Joseph Cubitt for the Great Northern Railway (GNR) and was constructed using cast iron. It spans the River Nene in three arches. It's design and construction is of such note that it is a Grade II listed building    

Thomas Hunter, the Lonely ANZAC



Thomas Hunter was born in County Durham in 1880 but emigrated as a young man to Australia where he worked as a coal miner. At the outbreak of the First World War, he, like many young men enlisted, in his case in the 10th battalion of the 10th division, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces. He fought at Gallipoli and then in the trenches of France and Belgium. In 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, Sgt Hunter was badly injured, so severely that he was shipped back to England for surgery. He was put on a train for Halifax with other wounded but on the journey his condition worsened badly so he was taken off the train at Peterborough and brought to the infirmary where, sadly, on the 31st of July 1916, he died. As he died away from home and his comrades he came to be known as the 'Lonely Anzac'. His death touched the hearts of Peterborians, in a way he came to represent their young men away fighting. A public subscription fund paid  for his funeral and a memorial. The mayor and civic dignitaries led the funeral procession to the Broadway Cemetery and the entire town came to a stop to pay their respects. A two metre tall granite cross was placed on his grave, and a brass plaque to his memory mounted in the military chapel in the cathedral. Every year on ANZAC day, April 25th, a civil ceremony is held at his graveside, attended by the mayor, civic dignitaries and a representative from the Australian High Commission.


The Thorney Computus



Medieval monasteries produced a large quantity of high-quality literature, but they also produced diagrams too. The Thorney Computus contains a world map, a diagram of the relationship between the four elements (earth, water, fire and air) and complex tables used to calculate the dates for Easter and other religious festivals important to the monastic community using a lunar calendar. The detail and complexity is outstanding, which is why it now resides in St John's College, Oxford University. This document is usually attributed to the original work of Byrhtferth of Ramsey Abbey, the Ramsey Computus predating that of Thorney. Dates calculated in the work relate to the 10th and 11th centuries when Byrhtferth was alive, suggesting this was created as an exercise, or as training for practising monks. The Peterborough Computus is almost identical and considered a sibling manuscript, it being later in date.

Mystery of the Girl in the Glass Panelled Coffin.



On Monday 21 May 1906 the body of a young lady was found in the Sheep Wash in Werrington. The day before had been cold & miserable but the girl had no coat or cloak. A hankie in her pocket had “F Arnold” inked on. Her attire would suggest she was a domestic servant. Suggested age 25 years. No one of this name was missing in Peterborough. The body was placed in a coffin at the Blue Bell, with a glass panel over her face.

As nobody knew who the girl was, her photograph was put in the national papers in the hopes someone would recognise her. At the last minute, just before the funeral service, her parents arrived and identified her as Miss Florence Arnold, she had been engaged as a maid in Nottingham. She had a sweet & even temper, but in March had slipped in the snow and hit her head on a mangle. This led to her feeling “queer” at times and displaying fits of bad temper. She decided to discharge herself. Her clothes had arrived home but not Florrie. The father wrote to her employer who confirmed Florrie’s departure. Mr Arnold went up to Nottingham and evidence convinced him, that of only two women booking onto the London train, one of these was his daughter. In which case she would have got off the train at Walton and walked up through Werrington village. Had she done so she would certainly have drawn attention. She was a tall girl with very dark hair and pale skin, but nobody saw her.

The police theory is of suicide during temporary insanity to which her father agreed.

However, the story doesn’t quite end there. Villagers reported hearing a motor car that night drive up the road in the direction of the sheep wash and returned a short while later. Several accounts were given about a car or cars. The police made strict investigations into the matter but attached little significance to the rumours.

Her parents removed her body for burial at Lakenheath. (McKenzie, R.,Werrington Local History Group Newsletter no.15)


Death of Arthur Mellows



Arthur Mellows was a Mayor of Peterborough. Born in 1896 he worked as a solicitor, but he was also an officer of the local Home Guard during the war. He was keen on improving education in the city and helped to make changes to the education system in Peterborough.
He was returning home from a day's shooting in October 1948 with his dog and a friend. As they reached the Conington Level Crossing his friend got out of the car to open the crossing gates. Mellows noticed a stationary train to the south, obviously waiting for a signal change.  He started to drive across the crossing, keeping a keen watch on the train to the south. Unfortunately, in watching that train he completely failed to notice an oncoming train from the north. The train from the north hit his car killing both him and his dog. Conington Crossing was well known as an accident blackspot, and this was the second fatal accident in this year.
Arthur Mellows' Legacy
Arthur Mellows is commemorated by the secondary school in Glinton named after him, Arthur Mellows Village College. His dog is buried by the crossing.