Libraries History of Central Library

Central Library at War

Central Library staff worked shifts as fire guards during the Second World War. This fire watch logbook describes the minor damage the library sustained on 1 Jun 1941 . In their memoirs Elizabeth Leach and Izzy Wallman describe life as MPL employees during the war, including the public air raid shelter in the basement, being chatted up by Polish servicemen, the BBC transmissions from the Library Theatre and the aftermath of the Manchester Blitz.

Grow More Food Exhibition poster, 1940 M740/11/2/32

Grow More Food Exhibition poster, 1940 M740/11/2/32

"The glass dome of Central Library was boarded over on the outside, stack windows were blacked out and we scuttled in and out of our dim warren-like rabbits. Manchester was crowded with soldiers and airmen from all the countries of occupied Europe . Also, by heaven, we had the Americans. Most young women were enamoured of the Poles (who haunted the entrance to Van Dock). They all seemed to be tall, blonde, handsome, quite mad and incredibly persistent. It was said that the correct answer to the Polish Question at the time was an indignant "NO!"

We had a large public air-raid shelter in the perimeter of Stack 4, into which these troops crowded. The major concern of the Duty Officer during a night-time raid was not the threatening might of Germany but to prevent the prostitutes who normally plied their trade in Oxford Street from plying it in his shelter instead." (Elizabeth Leach, former member of staff)

"The bored soldiers mainly sat in the library and stared at us, passing remarks sotto-voce. One particularly attractive assistant in the Commercial Library suddenly could stand it no longer and in desperation suggested that perhaps, they would like to write letters back home? If so she would happily supply pens and paper. (This was in fact official policy). A black G.I. replied shamefacedly - "I don't write good, Ma'am". So she wrote the letter home at his dictation and after that she was in business." (Elizabeth Leach, former member of staff)

"Through fire-guard duty many staff acquired an unusual familiarity with the building - and an affection for it. It was "home" for quite long periods. We ate there and slept there, we played snooker and table tennis to while away the evenings. One or two young couples passed the time by finding a use for the Committee Room carpet not envisaged by the Committee.

We women usually changed into slacks and a sweater and slept in the scratchy grey blankets. But one ultra-feminine soul brought sheets, changed into a pretty nightdress and put on a hairnet to protect her perm. When the alert sounded everybody else, already dressed, moved off smartly to action stations followed by wails of "Oh, wait for me!" Wearing her steel helmet over a be-ribboned hairnet she looked a picture." (Elizabeth Leach, former member of staff)

"In some ways I think the second night of the Manchester Blitz, though less fierce than the first, was harder for the fire guard. The team on duty the first night did not know its full extent until the next day, that we had lost the medieval city, the east end of the Cathedral and so much more and that there was a long casualty list. But the people who had to come on duty the second night knew only too well that the city was ablaze and that the fires would certainly guide the bombers in again.

During air raids we did try to do our job as well as we could. We were deployed in pairs on different floors and out on the roof. The roof and the portico were the danger points, as of course, was the dome but we could do little about that. We did practice getting up into the space between the inner and outer domes where you find yourself on a catwalk rather alarmingly poised over the hollow pillars of Great Hall. Even to be down in Great Hall itself with its echoes and the slow tick of the clock is eerie enough when you are there alone at darkness at midnight ." (Elizabeth Leach, former member of staff)

"As well as the portico, there was another hazard on the St. Peter's Square side of the building. This was a mobile anti-aircraft gun, which trundled around the old tram lines and had a habit of firing very loudly without warning when you were close to a window and it was the nearest part of its circuit. It shook you off your feet.

The night the old Free Trade Hall was destroyed our window glass showered in. The Patents Library took the brunt of the blast and for some time we had to warn readers to beware of splinters of glass which had penetrated the filing boxes. Fortunately the "first quality English walnut" tables were indeed so sturdy that the fire-guards gone to earth beneath them were unharmed." (Elizabeth Leach, former member of staff)

"I went with my sister to a Sunday night concert at the Paramount Cinema (now the Odeon) just before Christmas, 1940. When we heard thundering noises outside I said to my sister, "It's Manchester 's turn tonight". We went outside and it was like daylight, with buildings burning everywhere. The Princes Theatre, facing the cinema, had taken a direct hit.

We made our way home to Hightown, going from one shelter to another. That night the bombing went on and on and on. We sheltered under the cellar steps and finally went to bed at half past six . I slept for an hour or so and felt absolutely shattered, but my one worry - after all that - was that I would be late for work.

I had to walk the two miles to St. Peter's Square as there were no trams running. Down Cheetham Hill Road there was shattered glass everywhere, windows blown out; on Miller Street the C.W.S. building storing paint was blazing away; down the back streets fires were smouldering and there was the acrid smell of smoke everywhere. I got to the Library at ten past nine, ten minutes late, and the most astonishing thing was that there was a man sitting in the Reading Room reading a book as if nothing had happened." (Izzy Wallman, former member of staff)


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