Robert Saunders: Walsall’s Blackout in World War One

Posted: January 23, 2017 in WWI

We are again near that time of year of the year, especially so during the centenary of the conflict, that the people of the Black Country come together to remember the ‘Great Zeppelin Raid’ of 31 January/1 February 1916. This article, taken from the holdings of Walsall Archives, focusses mainly on the blackout policy of Walsall Council both before and after the raid.

It was the first time that Zeppelins raided in-land and we are often led to believe, and I can only speak of Walsall here, that it caught an area that arrogantly thought itself safe from aerial attack: Walsall famously having its street lights full-on and its tramcars running. This is actually not the case: Walsall’s Chief Constable had ordered street, shop and theatre lighting reduced by half back in February 1915 and, as a letter from Walsall Council to Nottingham Council dating from October 1916 shows, a plan existed for ‘complete extinguishment’ upon a warning transmitted from ‘a Midland Centre’. This Centre was told around an hour and a half before the first bombs dropped on Walsall that night – when the Zeppelins were around ’40 miles away’ – however, while Birmingham was informed and put its ‘blackout’ plan into operation, ‘Walsall and other towns’ were not and suffered accordingly.

An account of the raid in October 1916, in a letter to Nottingham County Council.

An account of the raid in October 1916, in a letter to Nottingham County Council.

The Zeppelins had exposed a weakness in communications and by 12 February a new warning system was devised that replaced the responsibility of the police with that of Telephone District Managers. They had also exposed the limitations of the Council’s policy of turning the lights off and trusting to luck; so, over the next days, weeks and months Walsall put into operation a system of public sirens, initiated a total black-out, petitioned for Anti-Aircraft guns, improved their ambulance facilities, looked at air raid shelters and carried out a test mobilisation of up to 300 people. Elsewhere, the local Co-op started selling ‘Veneta Zeppelin blinds’ (in any colour as long as it was dark green) and the first newspaper after the raid saw agents selling Zeppelin Insurance.

As the Government repudiated liability after the raid, Zeppelin insurance was available in the following edition of the Walsall newspapers

As the Government repudiated liability after the raid, Zeppelin insurance was available in the following edition of the Walsall newspapers

The total blackout was a typical British knee-jerk reaction, being poorly thought out in my opinion. It makes me think on Laurence Olivier’s narration to ‘A World at War’ – on how the blackout in the opening months of World War Two was originally seen as a bit of a joke until the accidents increased and the joke didn’t seem quite so funny anymore.

Day;'s statement to the Coroner in February 1917.

Day’s statement to the Coroner in February 1917.

It took a full year and the death of Robert Saunders to get some change to the policy in Walsall. Saunders, a 60-year old locksmith from Fletchers Lane in Willenhall, was crossing Upper Bridge Street at around 9.30 pm on Saturday 10 February 1917 when he was struck by a Birmingham & Midland Motor Omnibus Company bus. The bus, the 8.43 pm Birmingham – Walsall service driven by Smethwick man Walter Day, had been travelling slowly and, according to regulations, was only burning two side lamps that were obscured. Day states that he did not see him until it was too late, as there were no street lights and his bus was blacked out. Saunders, probably the last victim attributable to the Great Zeppelin Raid in Walsall, died a few hours later.

It was clearly not the first accident to have occurred and as consequence the Coroner wrote on behalf of the jury to the Council on the issue of street lighting. Finally, the Chief Constable arranged, at a cost of £3 per light, for 15 electric lamps to be erected at compulsory stops on the main roads of the Borough. All of these lights could be switched off automatically just in case the Zeppelins returned – which of course they never did!

For other stories on the Walsall Borough take a look at my Wyrleyblog: (also on Facebook and Twitter) and the Walsall Local History Centre’s blog: (also on Facebook and Twitter)

  1. beeseeker says:

    very interesting; I was in Loughborough recently and in their rather wonderful campanile Museum/War memorial they have newspaper reports of a Zeppelin raid there that “occassioned the very first British civilian death by air raid bombing.”

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