I’ve been meaning to provide an update on this project for a long time. The good news is that we’ve just delivered the final manuscript of Crime, Regulation and Control: Protecting the Population of Blitzed Cities to Bloomsbury, which should be published early next year.
It’s been quite a long path to publication given we began the project in 2008, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The title belies a specific interest in how the national and local authorities sought to govern and police the population through what they comprehended as the emergency conditions of aerial bombardment. So the book combines an interest in the legislation, regulations and bureaucracies that newly emerged or retrofitted existing ones in order to protect. Our interest is in the life of these different forms of governance: how were they conceived, how did they work, how did they fail?
The main context for the project is Liverpool and Merseyside, which, outside of London, was probably the most bombed area during the Second World War, especially during the first week of May 1941 – we focus much of the project on the build-up to and during the early years of the war. In future posts I’ll say much more about this crucial context. We explore how the apparatus of governance was conceived in relation to a particularly jittery imagination of Liverpool and Merseyside; the connection with the convoys making their way across the Atlantic to Liverpool, coordinated from the particular perspective of Western Approaches Command, based in Derby House; the context of Irish Republican violence that haunted the city in the build up to war, leading to tear gas explosions in cinemas and the bombing of railway bridges and an electricity pylon; the long and existing tensions of labour disputes and industrial unrest with the dock workers; difficult police relations inclined to crack down on the working classes; as well as existing problems of social policy, leaving a region stigmatised by the brush of poverty, apathy and childhood delinquency.
One of the focuses of the book is on the issue of debris. We explore the crucially disruptive role of debris in halting traffic circulation, and congestion for the vital goods making their way from the docks. In Liverpool, London and elsewhere, debris became an enormous problem, where to send it? What vital materials could be recycled? When to demolish a building? Who would be responsible for it? How to bring damaged buildings back into the circulation of housing stock as quickly as possible, given the high demand from those made homeless by the bombings.
We examine the work of the different city and borough authority teams of rescue corps, the subject of Anthony Quinn’s excellent and evocative novel Rescue Man. While Quinn focuses on Liverpool, we follow the work of Birkenhead’s rescue corps, who moved, cleared and searched through debris. These were gruelling and unpleasant tasks of the first order. In one account a maid had been decapitated on the second floor of a house, while the owners escaped unscathed from their bedroom below. First-aiders worked to prepare the casualty to be taken from the house, allowing the rescue party to return the following day to make a further search to salvage the property, clear the debris, and locate the parts of the body which were missing. As Quinn evocatively shows, the work of the rescue crews produced particularly distinctive apprehensions of the Blitz. Where the dead were taken was another problem of what Lakhbir Jassal might call necro-mobility, but also storage. Many mortuaries were quickly overcome by the volumes of the dead transported to temporary mortuaries, and in many cases, stored in completely inappropriate ways. Under pressure individuals and bureaucracies bungled the identification of the body and registration of many of these deaths, bouncing paperwork, bodies and family members between institutions.
The corps also illustrates some of the frictions that built up as different organisations rubbed against one another, forced to work together in the emergency conditions. Police, air raid wardens, first aid and rescue workers often clashed, and we draw on fascinating police records to show this. What’s more, following Tom Fairclough’s extraordinary series of photographs in his recent exhibit Collateral we remember a curious scheme began in 1942 as the authorities were struggling to dispose of the mountains of debris collected during the Blitz. The rubble that was once part of Bootle’s housing stock was recycled as a form of coastal protection. The debris was hauled to Hightown Crosby, just north of Bootle. If you might have expected the debris to have been sorted in some way or crushed to form a smaller aggregate of rocks and pebbles, instead it was deposited as whole bricks, sections of wall, and lumps of sculpted stonework and building facades.
The remains of all of this is a weird landscape of Bootle’s buildings. Fairclough’s photos capture many scenes of stonework, lintels, belfast sinks, brickwork, mosaic tiling, columns and other architectural and domestic materials, now attracting the occasional tourist and dog walker. In the exhibit, some of which can be seen online here, Fairclough juxtaposes the beach scenes with testimony from the Liverpool Blitz, recorded at St Lukes Church by the then in-resident artists Urban Strawberry Lunch.
Of course, the clearances of Blitz material left ‘wide open spaces’ in the landscape. In the concluding chapter of the book we consider the long legacy of the Blitz on Liverpool and Merseyside, particularly as holes punched in the city from the war-time Blitz – many of which were left there until the 1960’s (as captured in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography) – would haunt the city in what sociologist Tony Lane described as a new ‘peace-time’ Blitz of vast residential clearances and rehousings through the 60’s and 70’s, obliterating many streets from the map entirely. The middle classes are mostly able to ‘evacuate’ themselves, whilst the rehoused were to face social destruction as their family and friendship networks were scattered across the city into the poorly conceived high-rises.