Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fairford Crescent

Throughout the 1930s the British government made preparations for war as the aspirations of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler became increasingly more menacing.  It was anticipated that this conflict, when it eventually began, would not be confined to the battlefield but would extend to the Home Front.

Experts predicted that bombing raids would kill hundreds of thousands of people and the provision of adequate protection for the civilian population was top of the government's list of priorities.

In November 1938, ten months before Hitler's invasion of Poland, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain placed Sir John Anderson in charge of air raid precautions.  The air raid shelter he commissioned would become a household name.

Issued free to householders on a yearly income of below £250, the Anderson shelter consisted of galvanised corrugated steel panels which had to be sunk into the ground to a depth of 4ft and covered with at least 15 inches of earth.  No easy task but ARP wardens and even the boy scouts responded to the call for help to build the shelters where there were no able bodied men to take on the construction.

However, the residents of Fairford Crescent, Swindon had no such problems as Terry Gill masterminded their own, much larger project.

In the 1930s prolific local build A.J. Colborne, built a number of properties in the Whitworth Road area and in 1938 newlyweds Terry and Rose Gill moved into 6 Fairford Crescent.

Terry's niece Brenda Murphy recalls how Mr Lovelock from number 8, Mr Manning from number 10, Mr Woodward and Mr Green with his boys all helped her uncle dig the 12 foot deep hole for the shelter.

When the shelter was complete, the neighbours constructed a connecting access path at the bottom of their gardens along which they scrambled at the sound of the air raid warning.

The GWR Works was a frequent target for enemy bombers.  A raid on the works on December 20, 1940 resulted in damage to rolling stock while on July 27, 1942 a German bomber peppered a gas holder with machine gun fire.

On the night of December 19, 1940 Beatrice and Ipswich Streets took a direct hit during a bombing raid.  Five house were destroyed and many others damaged.  One person later died from their injuries.  But Swindon's highest death toll came on August 17, 1942 when bombs fell on Ferndale Road and Kembrey Street, killing 25 people.  Later that same month a bomb fell on Drove Road and eight people were killed.

Like the Anderson, Terry's shelter in Fairford Crescent was prone to flooding and Brenda recalls how her uncle used to drain it to water his garden during the summer months.

New owners Mike and Muriel Sellwood purchased the property in 2008 following Terry's death and while Mike started on some renovation work indoors, Muriel tackled the garden.

"After clearing all the brambles at the bottom of the garden, I found the air raid shelter," said Muriel, solving the mystery of why the Sellwood's garden was much higher than their neighbours.  Muriel explained that they had taken down the rotten entrance but had not ventured inside as there was about three feet of water inside.

After the war many Anderson shelters were converted into garden sheds and while occasional examples still survive, the majority were reclaimed by local authorities for the metal content.

Meanwhile Terry Gill's substation concrete structure remains, a unique relic of Swindon's war time history.

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