Billinge History Society

Billinge History (the book)


It was in March 2000 that an article in the local paper mentioned a women looking for Billingers to interview about World War Two.  I gave her a bell.  She intended submitting a dissertation on the impact of that war on Billinge and we made a friendly deal that I would help her find people to interview if we could use her material.  The finished document is intended for academic assessment.  It contains a bibliography, acknowledgments, a preface, records of interviews and other material required by such an endeavour.  With the author’s permission I have extracted from it the pages below.


In order to consider the impact which World War Two upon Billinge, it seems relevant to outline the village’s history and lifestyles before the war.  Billinge lies between Wigan and St Helens, two miles from the A580 East Lancs. Road linking Manchester and Liverpool and is surrounded by farmland.  Since 1945 new housing estates and shops have been built, sometimes, unfortunately, replacing older buildings.

Billinge is situated on a hill, which rises 602 feet, dominates the surrounding area and is the highest point in Merseyside.  The beacon on the hill was part of the old signalling system and from the summit, according to Richard D. Lewis in The Billingers, 16 counties are visible.  Stone from the now-disused quarry was used to construct many of the older buildings. Billinge’s neighbours are Garswood, Upholland, Orrell, Ashton in Makerfield and Rainford, while Haydock, Newton le Willows, Winwick and Warrington are close.

Accessible evidence of Roman presence in the area is now scarce, although in his book, ‘A History of Lancashire’, J.J. Bagley states that they built a stronghold at Wigan, which was a road junction for Lancaster, Manchester and routes to Chester.  There are claims that they visited Orrell, and a Roman coin was reportedly found during building renovation work in Billinge’s Carr Mill Road.  Bagley claims that the first settlement at Billinge may have occurred when family groups of Angles crossed the Pennines, settling on ‘fairly high ground ... and on isolated sites clear of the marshland’ (p.8). Bagley explains that ‘The -inga place-names ... are of this early period’, which he dates at circa 570 A.D., when ‘Billinge (became) the new home of the family of Bylla’.  Billinge seemed to avoid the Viking invasions that occurred later, although they settled at Skelmersdale and Scholes in Wigan.

In ‘The Billingers’, Richard Lewis claims that by 1720 the village population was around 900, while the 1801 census describes 1,141 inhabitants, of whom: ‘146 people were employed in agriculture and 477 in handicrafts, trades and manufactures’.  He quotes the 1861 and 1961 censuses, which give populations of 3,066 and 6,945 respectively, while recent housing developments have continued this growth.  Evidence of early forms of work is shown on a tombstone in St Aidan’s churchyard describing a man who died in 1720 from an adder bite while working in Billinge Hill Quarry, and both Bagley and Lewis describe nail-making as a prevalent cottage industry until 1825.

By 1939 most local men were employed in mining, Lewis claims that a 1786 map shows no collieries in Billinge although the industry blossomed during the 19th century as the area is within the West Lancashire Coalfield.  By 1842 Billinge’s Blackleyhurst Colliery employed 133 local people over 13 years of age and 37 children.  Mining increased locally, by 1929 there were six collieries in Billinge and 12 large mines in St Helens.

There were outlets for the villagers’ leisure time, with a corrugated-iron cinema, football and cricket teams, fishing, possibly even some poaching acitivity and at least nine public houses, some with bowling greens.  Many families kept chickens and grew vegetables and fruit, and there were a few pigs in back gardens.

Billinge has long associations with Roman Catholicism.  Birchley Hall, which was privately owned in wartime but is now a Sue Ryder Home, had priest holes and tunnels.  By 1939 there was a Methodist Chapel and Protestant and Catholic churches with their own schools as well as a Catholic orphanage, which is now a Nugent Society School

Village life was not easy, the community was isolated and large families occupied small cottages with few labour saving devices.  Men became accustomed from an early age to coalface work, and even during World War Two youths of 14 were still working in the mines under conditions described by one Bevin Boy as: ‘half-naked bodies, bending, crawling, rolling, heaving, straining to produce that without which we cannot exist’1.  Bevin tried to conscript more employees for the mines in 1943, when demand for coal exceeded production.  There were no memories of Bevin Boys being used in Billinge pits but the passage serves to illustrate the normal working conditions in mines.

Many local women worked in timber yards, agriculture, or in shops as well as bringing up families.  By the outbreak of World War Two, Billinge was a close-knit, industrialised, working class village.  The village’s patriotism is still evident as the tree planted to celebrate the Relief of Mafeking in 1901 flourishes along Main Street.


The most prevalent remark among the Billinge people who survived the Second World War was:  ‘We were lucky really’, and this may be true when their wartime experiences are compared with those of Manchester and Liverpool, which bore the brunt of the attacks in the North-West.  There can, however, be no doubt that the war deeply affected every aspect of the lives of the village’s wartime inhabitants, in their workplaces, schools, homes and socially.  Their memories of this period are still powerful, 55 years after the end of the war.

According to a Marion Yass, in ‘The Home Front - England 1939-1945’, a Mass Observation Poll of 31 August 1939 showed that only 18% of people expected war, an increase of merely 3% on a September 1938 poll, but this possibly reflected wishful thinking rather than realism, since preparations for war were by then apparent throughout Britain.  In ‘The People’s War’, Angus Calder states that the first Government pamphlet on Air Raid Precautions was issued in September 1935, therefore shortly after Germany’s announcement that it had ‘re-established her air force and introduced military conscription’2.  By April 1937 the Air Raid Wardens Service had been created and on 9 August 1939 there was a trial blackout.  Norman Longmate’s, ‘How we Lived Then’ states that gasmasks were distributed at his Boarding School shortly after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1938.  In Bury and the Second World War, Ken Inman and Michael H. Helm describe the preparations there, including digging anti-tank trenches in 1938, protecting buildings with sandbags, and the delivery of a Bren gun to the barracks in April 1938.

Procedures for the evacuation of children from potential major target areas had been established and, according to Arthur Marwick’s ‘The Home Front’, this began on 1 September, after the German invasion of Poland.  No Billingers were among the ‘827,000 schoolchildren and 524,000 mothers with children under school age’ described by Asa Briggs, in ‘Go to It! Working for Victory on the Home Front 1939-1945’, (p.106), who were evacuated under the arrangements which Marwick claimed were ‘pretty chaotic’, but village life was affected later in the war when evacuees sought refuge in the area.

In Billinge no one could remember being surprised when Neville Chamberlain announced the outbreak of war on the wireless.  An Air Raid Warden’s wife recalls having already been instructed on the operation of a stirrup pump, but fervently hoped that she would never need to extinguish a fire with the contraption.  A wartime schoolboy remembers listening to the Prime Minister’s announcement at 11.15 a.m. on Sunday, 3 September, with some builders working along his road.  A church organist recalled the Vicar shortening the service so that his congregation could listen to the broadcast, which concluded: ‘... and that consequently this country is at war with Germany’3.

Richard Lewis, who was born in Billinge in the 1930s, briefly describes his wartime experiences in the area:

On Sept. 3rd., 1939, war with Germany was declared.  The lights started going out all over Europe, nowhere more effectively than in Wigan, where the blackout was de rigeur.  Our location, midway between Liverpool and Manchester meant that we had bombers passing overhead many nights from 1940 to 19444.

Many aspects of daily life were very quickly affected by the onset of the war. In 1939 one family had to find a second-hand lorry for their coal-merchants business in Billinge’s Main Street after the army requisitioned their recently purchased new vehicle.  Sadly, this later became inconsequential to the family when their son was lost in action while serving with the Lancashire Fusiliers in Burma in 1943.

The central control over foodstuffs, which was quickly established, dramatically affected consumers and producers throughout Britain, Billinge being no exception. Workers in food stores could sometimes supplement their diets, and a chemist’s shop worker remembers that occasionally goods could be bartered for food.  A local farmer’s daughter recalls the legislation which soon controlled all aspects of production and supply, particularly the laws regarding the rearing of pigs, which stated that farms could slaughter only one pig each year for their own use.  Local farmers co-operated and shared whichever animal was available, to ensure a more even supply of pork.  Similar mutual co-operation was widespread, and Pig Clubs became ‘particularly popular with fire stations and wardens’ posts’ throughout the country5.

The war encroached on other aspects of farm life, and a mother and daughter who had escaped from the Liverpool bombing were evacuated to a local farm.  This was especially memorable as the little girl one day saw the cows being milked and told the farmer that at home they got their milk from nice clean tins, not from dirty old cows.  In Storm Over The Mersey, Beryl Wade explains that milk was delivered to dairies in Liverpool in cans then ladled out into bottled or jugs.

Winston Churchill’s disapproval when Oliver Lyttleton, President of the Board of Trade, proposed the introduction of clothes rationing in 1941, would have seemed justified to farm workers.  According to Paul Addison’s ‘Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955’, Churchill accused Lyttleton ‘of wanting to “strip the poor people to the buff”’ and one farm worker remembers this rationing posing particular problems, as they received no special allowances although their clothes wore out quickly and needed mending frequently.

Later in the war some German Prisoners of War were sent to work on one local farm.  It seems that they received lenient treatment, even being allowed to light small fires and bake potatoes.  Under the rationing system, agricultural and heavy manual workers were allowed extra cheese to cope with physically demanding tasks6, and on this farm it was considered that the Germans could not work without adequate food.  Realising that even this small amount of help to Prisoners of War might be misconstrued, the family tried to avoid official scrutiny.

There were no recollections of the Women’s Land Army having been used on Billinge farms, but a lady who has recorded her memories of life on one of Lord Derby’s farms in Rainford remembered that ‘girls from the country and towns came out to the farms dressed in khaki and green complete with a wide brimmed hat ... we were grateful for their help to the country even if we were a little jealous of their uniforms, and badges.’  There are also references to Liverpool girls working with the Voluntary Land Army on a farm in Ormskirk7.

In ‘North West Village at War, Winwick 1939-45’, Frank Goulding recounts that

Italian Prisoners of War who were used for farm work there always sought shelter from the rain.  It is unclear whether the same problems occurred when Italians worked along Billinge’s Red Barn Lane, but it is remembered that these particular workers attracted a great deal of attention from the local young ladies.  German Prisoners of War worked in Billinge mines, and the son of one miner remembers being told that this caused problems since Polish workers were also employed there and the two nationalities had to be separated.

Working conditions in the mines showed little improvement during the war, despite the ever-increasing demand for coal.  When Henry Moore was commissioned to illustrate miners at work, he described the coalface conditions:

If one were asked to describe what Hell might be like, this would do.  A dense darkness you could touch, the whirring din of the coal cutting machine, throwing into the air black dust so thick that the light beams from the miners’ lamps could only shine into it a few inches - ... pit props placed only a foot or two apart ... all this in the stifling heat8.

There were no showers at many mines and Billinge miners used tin baths at home.  Miners believed that they were helping Britain’s war efforts even though they were not on the front line, as Bert Coombes, a miner, wrote in 1944 in ‘Those Clouded Hills’:

‘There is blood on the coal; there will always be blood on the coal’9.

There was considerable discontent within the industry due to the working conditions, the huge demands for coal, the strains placed upon the labour force by the presence of unwilling new workers, and the disputes over wage structures. In 1944 the President of the National Union of Miners said that there had ‘never been a time when there was such unrest and dissatisfaction in the country’s coalfields’10.  These problems were exacerbated by the weather, and in ‘The People’s War. Britain 1939-1945’, Angus Calder records that in 1942 ‘there were forty-six degrees of frost on January 15th.  In the third bad winter of war, the transport of coal, by rail and road, broke down yet again.’

Some Billinge miners were sceptical about Winston Churchill’s leadership after he became Prime Minister in 1940.  From their perspective Churchill seemed rather remote and smug, and his famous oratory failed to impress these down-to-earth men, although he could have been addressing them directly when he told the House of Commons ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’11. Their attitude was summarised by one wartime miner’s daughter who recalled her father’s view that Churchill seemed ‘Quite safe down there in that bunker all night, then he’d come up in the morning, waving a big cigar and giving us the V sign.’

One aspect of life, which certainly changed during the war, was school.  A junior school headmaster at the time recalled asking children to bring in oddments of net curtains to fasten inside the windows, to prevent glass falling into the classrooms, should the school be bombed.  Window protection was an essential practice, described in Liverpool schoolgirl, Beryl Wade’s, wartime reminiscences of life in a sweetshop, when people used ‘net curtaining to glue on’, and Anne Valery’s description in ‘Talking About The War 1939-1945: A Personal View of the War in Britain’ of ‘criss-cross sticky brown paper on our house windows to protect us from glass splintering from bombs’.

One headmaster took the initiative of splitting the school day into two, boys attending during the morning and girls in the afternoon.  In this way he hoped that families would not lose all their children if their school suffered an attack. Since the school did not have its own shelter at that time, these precautions seemed sensible and necessary, but this was not a universally adapted idea and the routines chosen by different schools to cope with the wartime dangers varied greatly.  A wartime schoolboy recollects their school rota system, since the shelter was too small for all the pupils together. A schoolgirl at St Mary’s, Billinge, remembers occasions when pupils were sent out for the day to help with picking up potatoes.  Pupils were given cards, which the farmer signed to prove that they had spent the day working.

While the war affected the lives of Billingers who were employed, attended school or enrolled in the services, the greatest impact was encountered within their homes.  One lady who married a Mine Engineer on 24 August 1940 remembered going to Wigan market to buy some green velvet material for her wedding dress.  In ‘The People’s War’ Angus Calder explains that clothes were not rationed until June 1941, against Churchill’s wishes as he ‘consistently fought to retard the development of “austerity”’, although he agreed while preoccupied after the Bismarck sank.

Clothes were not a particular problem in planning a wedding in 1940, although later in the war Billinge brides had to borrow one another’s wedding dresses.  This couple’s arrangements were however cast into disarray when the air raid siren sounded on their wedding night and the groom, who was an Air Raid Warden, had to report for duty.  This memory is substantiated in a report regarding Winwick:

We experienced ground vibrations from exploding bombs for the first time on Saturday night, 24th August, as our neighbours at Newton-le-Willows received their initial batch of explosives in a field adjoining the East Lancs. Road12.

The German target in Earlstown was probably the Vulcan Foundry, where Matilda tanks were made, and Goulding’s book contains an aerial photograph of the works taken by a German plane on 6 September 1940.

Goulding describes the severe winter conditions, when, for three days from 26 January 1940, Winwick suffered ‘the heaviest snowstorm within living memory ... six feet high snowdrifts ... lingered with us until the first week in March’.  1940 was not exceptional: wartime winters were all very bleak: ‘one of the remarkable features of these wartime winters was the unusual number of heavy snowstorms.  For the third winter in succession, we saw deep snow piled high’.  Apparently the conditions were even worse in Billinge, possibly due to its more exposed and higher location, as one lady, who was nursing in Liverpool at the time, stated that: ‘In Billinge in 1940 there was a huge snow drift, 30ft deep in Main Street’.  These freezing conditions would have made farming and mining impossible.

Billinge women played their part in the war effort, for example knitting circles were formed to send clothing to servicemen.  It was customary to post the name and address of the knitter in with these garments so that, if possible, the serviceman who received the parcel could one day thank the sender.  A lady in Garswood was very surprised after the war to answer her door to a Frenchman who said he had received her knitted socks and wanted to thank her.

Many local women worked in wood yards, several of which operated in Billinge throughout the war.  Martin Rigby shows a photograph of a Rainford timber salvage yard, where unwanted nails were removed from wood before it was used for ammunition boxes.  Other women were taken by bus to munitions factories, one of which was in Risley.  This was unpopular work due to transport difficulties, also there was ‘a shortage of welfare facilities and women were fearful of explosions, dermatitis and skin discolouration’13.  Women were often obliged to work under the National Service (No.2) Act covering female conscriptions, which became law in December 1941.

Their fears were not unfounded, as one 21-year-old Billinge lady who worked at the Risley factory died of cordite poisoning.  This was not an isolated incident, the hazards of working in a Kirby munitions plant, including the loss of women’s fingers, ears, and even deaths due to explosions are described in ‘Liverpool Women at Work’, an anthology of contributions from Liverpool wartime women.  Another problem encountered by women employed in traditionally male spheres was that male employees sometimes resented their intrusion, as another anthology describes:

The young chaps who worked there knew very well that any moment they would have to go off to war. ... They were mad because they’d been called up. They were mad at us for taking over their jobs, even though we had no choice. They didn’t want to show us what to do and they made things really awkward14.

As increasing numbers of goods became rationed, many villagers followed governmental advice to ‘dig for victory’ and cultivated their own fruit and vegetables.  This was especially useful when hens provided fresh eggs so that the disliked powdered egg could be avoided.  One lady remembers problems when her family registered with a Main Street shop for their rationed goods.  Shopkeepers could offer substitute brands in place of customers’ favourites and she recalls her father’s irritation when his preferred Woodbines were regularly replaced with the less popular Turkish ‘Pasha’ cigarettes, especially as a Special Policemen still obtained Woodbines there.  Her father coped with the inferior substitutes for a while, but when his patience was exhausted he went to the shop after his shift in the mine and demanded Woodbines.  Apparently the coal dust added to his fearsome appearance and the shopkeeper found Woodbines for him after that.

It would be wrong to portray Billinge as devoid of all social life during World War Two, although the local sporting leagues were temporarily suspended.  The cinema with corrugated-iron walls in Main Street remained a popular diversion from the daily hardships and a source of amusement for boys who created a dreadful noise by running sticks along the outside walls.  Some villagers walked to Garswood for weekly dances, which attracted some of the American troops who were stationed nearby.  One man who was a teenager at the time remembers four of these GIs regularly attending the dances.  The Americans disappeared suddenly in 1944 and he recalls one of them returning after the war to tell his English friends that the other three had sadly been killed in the D-Day landings in June that year.

Although the blackout conditions made wartime travelling difficult, one lady remembers going by train to Wigan fair with three RAF trainees from the Padgate camp.  This was a particularly happy wartime experience and a welcome break from the normal routine of hard work and ‘making-do’, even though finding her way home in the dark was a challenge. Nighttime cycling was hazardous; one man who cycled to work covered his bicycle lamp with black material, which allowed a pinpoint of light through, giving just sufficient light on familiar routes.

The village pubs were popular meeting places in wartime and on Saturday nights the Hare and Hounds in Billinge Higher End often attracted American troops.  At least one Billinge lass married an American soldier after the war and Richard Lewis records their popularity, especially among the children who were attracted by their supplies of sweets.

While the German campaign to bomb the North West was most intensive, during 1940 and 1941, refugees sought shelter in Billinge and the neighbouring area. Rainford High School was used as a temporary dormitory for people from Liverpool, some even walked there from the city outskirts.  Beryl Wade describes spending several nights in the Thatto Heath area of St Helens during the Liverpool blitz in May 1941.  Several families found refuge in Billinge and were housed along Roby Well Way, they must have received kind treatment as some remained in the village after the war.  One lady vouches for this kindness, remembering that her ARP Warden husband would regularly bring small groups of refugees to their home for Saturday tea, which posed problems for her due to the rationing and the scarcity of food.

In ‘Britain in the Century of Total War War, Peace and Social Change 1900-1967’,

Arthur Marwick claimed that ‘Total war involved the same sort of disruptions in domestic social life as had the conflict of 1914-18; these were further enhanced by the fierce aerial bombardment and the fact that Britain was used as an allied base. In Marwick’s view, war is:

a human and social activity ... in a ‘society at war’ certain activities take place, certain situations are created, certain problems arise, certain processes are set in motion15.

In Billinge, as elsewhere in Britain, World War Two affected all aspects of daily life, in schools, in the workplace, socially and at home.


In Billinge, as elsewhere throughout Britain, men were conscripted for active service during the war, but many were required to remain in the village and continue their essential work in the mines and other heavy industries.  The defence of the village therefore relied largely upon those who continued their usual employment, and by September 1939 many had enlisted as Air Raid Wardens and were preparing to join the Special Police and Auxiliary Firefighting forces.  They were expected to work their normal hours and also to carry out their civil defence training and duties on a rota basis during out-of-work hours.

The first appeals for Air Raid Precaution volunteers were made in January 1937, by 1938 local authorities were required to arrange their civil defence systems, including: wardens, first aid, emergency ambulance, gas decontamination, rescue, repair and demolition services, as well as setting up first aid posts, gas cleansing stations and casualty clearing stations.  They were also obliged to expand the local fire services by forming and equipping an Auxiliary Fire Service16.

Recruits in rural areas like Billinge were described by a 1942 Ministry of Information publication as having ‘performed interminably the peculiarly testing task of standing and waiting’. Air Raid Wardens formed approximately half of the civil defence service.  Their duties included surveillance:

He was the eyes and ears of the Control Centre in the field ... As a reporter in the field, his just judgment of the extent and severity of bomb damage was what enabled Control to send the right services to the right places ...This he could do only by knowing his neighbourhood and its people17.

Since their duties included ensuring that all buildings conformed to blackout directives and supervising air raid precautions both within buildings and outside, during the period before the commencement of the serious air raids, the Wardens were considered by some people ‘as public enemy number one’18.  Although there were instances when these supervisory duties caused conflict in communities, and even made them the butt of local jokes, the Wardens played a vital role in safeguarding lives when the aerial attacks began.  One Billinger recalls with admiration a Warden’s prompt actions in extinguishing an incendiary device, which had fallen into her front garden, thereby saving her property from severe damage.

Part of their duties was to ensure people took suitable shelter when the air raid siren, which was sited on the Main Street Council Office, sounded. The Billinge Wardens sometimes allowed these rules to be modified, and two Wardens’ wives said they always sheltered under their stairs rather than go into designated communal shelters.  One lady remembers staying under the stairs with her mother, who had always been frightened of thunderstorms, but the noise of the planes overhead and the imminent danger soon cured her fear of thunder.

Several people particularly remembered over-zealous Air Raid Wardens in the village, whom they felt, occasionally, overstepped their official duties.  One local man, now in his eighties, still recalls with indignation a Warden who saw him kissing his girlfriend goodnight on the front step and subsequently reported the ‘carryings on’ to his father, who then demanded a full explanation of his conduct.  Another Billinge man recalls his father’s irritation regarding one miner who was a part-time Warden and forgot that his civil defence authority was not enforceable while at work.  Apparently the error of his judgement was explained and the workplace levels of authority were re-established.

A local family particularly remembered one Billinge Warden, keen on helping to maintain law and order in the community, who had surreptiously been keeping a pig behind their cottage, close to the Warden’s home.  As the war continued, meat became scarcer under the rationing, and eventually the pig was considered ready for slaughter.  In order to accomplish this without attracting the attention of the authorities, the family waited patiently until the Warden left home to begin his duties, then quickly summoned the slaughterer.  A man who was born during the war can remember the great amusement which this deception, which provided a welcome pork supplement to many Billinge dinner tables, continued to cause long after the war ended.

David Carroll states in The Home Guard that the Local Defence Volunteers, later renamed the Home Guard, were formed following a radio broadcast by Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, on 14 May 1940.  The Billinge company headquarters in Pingot Road was the base for 40 men under the leadership of two First World War veterans, Major Naylor from Golborne and Captain East.  One veteran of this force remembers that they operated in twos with one rifle to each pair and that Captain East took them to Altcar Range, which lies between Southport and Liverpool, to learn to fire their weapons.  Their duties included helping to maintain the blackout and they had the authority to shoot out any lights, which shone in windows.  The Home Guard manned an Observation Post on Billinge hill, which helped to warn their Command Post of incoming air attacks and also guarded the roadblocks, which were set up in strategic points throughout the village.  These duties comply with Norman Longmate’s description in ‘The Real Dad’s Army’ of the Home Guard’s 1940 directives to ‘Observe and Report’.

The manning of the roadblocks during cold winter nights may have been monotonous, since traffic would have been scarce and few people owned private cars, but the vigilance of the Billinge Home Guard was demonstrated on two occasions at the Rainford Road blockade.  A veteran who manned this point particularly remembers challenging two vehicles there.

In one case a van was stopped at 4 a.m. and the driver did not seem to take the matter seriously when the Home Guard questioned him regarding his identity and his destination.  Since their orders were not to allow anyone through whom they considered suspicious, one of the men on duty had to search the vehicle while his companion covered his actions with their rifle.  The search revealed that this was in fact a newspaper delivery van, and the driver was considered to have been foolish to cause the confrontation, since he had been in real danger of being shot.  The risks taken by the driver are outlined by Norman Longmate’s claim that ‘the LDV’ were in ‘a unique position as the only army in history to have killed more of its own countrymen than its enemies.’  On the other occasion they stopped a military vehicle driven by an army officer who replied to their questions by saying:  ‘Do you mind if I don’t tell you that, but I can assure you I am not a German.’  He was allowed to continue his journey.

The dangers encountered by the Home Guard even in quiet Northwest villages are apparent in an incident in Garswood, when an unexploded bomb landed in a playing field.  Since the team required to defuse the bomb could not reach the village until the following day, the bomb had to be guarded overnight and two Home Guardsmen were posted there.  Unfortunately, during the night the sentries apparently heard a disturbance close to the device, and when they went nearer to investigate, the bomb exploded, killing them both.

Auxiliaries who were based at local fire stations assisted the Fire Service.  One Firefighter in May 2000 still possessed his tin helmet marked NFS 28 and his fireman’s axe from his time with the Ashton in Makerfield brigade.  Their main duties were to deal with incendiary bombs, many of which were dropped by German planes, which had possibly found the situation ‘too hot’ for them over Liverpool and were jettisoning their loads over the countryside before returning to base.  This kept the Firefighters busy since one night a field in Garswood had at least 50 fires burning.

A difficult job that the firefighters faced was helping out at scenes where large explosives had landed.  The Ashton in Makerfield Brigade had a harrowing experience when the cottage of an elderly couple received a direct hit as they drank tea at their dining table in the early hours of the morning, their sleep having been disturbed by the air raid.  The bomb fell between the couple, killing the wife instantly and badly wounding her husband.

Another aspect of firefighters’ duties was to assist other civil defenders in maintaining a vigilant watch over the neighbourhood, including empty premises, in order to stop any possible breach of security.  There was widespread suspicion regarding  ‘elements in Britain which would collaborate with Hitler’, as explained by Angus Calder in ‘The People’s War. Britain 1939-1945’, (p.138), and during the war the country became a homeland where pill-boxes, tank traps, road blocks bristled on all sides, where railway stations became anonymous and signposts pointed to nowhere, where ‘walls had ears’ and any stranger might be a fifth columnist or saboteur19.

Rumours that Germans might be parachuted into Britain, and might even be disguised as miners, were rife, so members of the civil defence were constantly reminded of the need to be on the alert for any possible threat to security.  This was demonstrated by one Firefighter’s memory of returning from duty late at night on his bicycle, and passing a cottage, which he knew to be unoccupied.  As he passed, he heard strange sounds in the cottage, so he dismounted, took out his axe and crept quietly round to the back of the building.  When he reached the back door, he realised that the sounds were actually running water, a frozen pipe had burst and water was flowing down the cellar steps.  He was relieved not to have to face an enemy on this occasion, armed only with his fireman’s axe, but this shows the potential dangers which the civil defence were prepared to face.

Various sites around Billinge were used by the services in the war effort.  It was a familiar sight to see military vehicles lined up along the Rainford by-pass, ready for despatch.  Within that area, by Daisy Hand Farm, there was a large ammunition store, which was guarded by regular soldiers.  One lady who has lived all her life in the area claims that these military activities must have been known to the Germans, as Lord Haw-Haw mentioned Rainford in a broadcast.  Tim Healy, ‘Life on the Home Front’, p.34, explains that William Joyce was a British Fascist who broadcast from Berlin as Lord Haw Haw. Some 6 million people in Britain listened to his broadcasts, which began with the words ‘Germany calling’.  He was executed at the Tower of London after the war.  There are reports that munitions were stored in disused mines, including one in Upholland. Richard Lewis mentions the large military camp in Ashton in Makerfield, which was used by many different nationalities, and there was also a camp in Haydock. Prisoners of War camped in Haydock and one local man on holiday in Germany met an ex-prisoner who stayed there.  In Earlstown the Matilda tanks were manufactured and the American air base at Burtonwood, which has only very recently closed, also show the area’s military involvement.

During the Liverpool blitz in May 1941 an anti-aircraft battery was stationed on Billinge hill as a temporary measure to try to prevent some of the bombers reaching the city.  There was a permanent battery near to Crank Caverns, along the Rainford Road, manned by regular troops, and the site is now marked by a property called ‘Gunsite Bungalow’.  One man who was a young child during the war remembers that the guns themselves were removed shortly after the end of the war but that their mounts were left, providing an unusual playground for him and his friends.

In view of the very serious bombing raids, which were experienced by the nearest cities, Billinge escaped lightly from aerial attacks during the war.  There are only reports of one large explosive in the village itself when a bomb landed in a field opposite Greenfield Orphanage and fortunately the only casualty on this occasion was an Air Raid Warden who banged his head.  A line of craters was once visible between Crank and the East Lancs Road, but the land has since been cultivated in different ways and it is not now possible to ascertain whether they were caused by a series of bombs.  There are accounts of direct hits in many of the surrounding villages and towns but Billinge was fortunate in suffering only very slight bomb damage and certainly seemed to benefit from the efforts of its efficient and vigilant defenders.

Defending the village on a part-time basis must have taken up a great deal of the hours, which were not spent working.  One impact of the war upon Billinge’s Civil Defence representatives must have been to eliminate almost all their spare time in order to safeguard their community.


Billinge’s history of fighting on the front line includes a man who received a medal for his part in the 1878-80 Afghanistan War, after which he retired wounded and then worked in the mines, as reported in the Wigan Observer, August 1976.  Many local men were involved in the South African Wars and Fred Holcroft claims in ‘The Devil’s Hill, Local Men at the Battle of Spion Kop, 1900’, that in the Battle of the Spion Kop, ‘the Lancashire Fusiliers led the British assault, ... they included many men from the Wigan area, and ... they suffered the greatest losses of all the British regiments’.  The involvement of Billinge men in these wars seems probable as a tree was planted along Main Street to commemorate the Relief of Mafeking.  Local war memorials show that at least 51 Billinge men were killed in action during the First World War, indicating a very high level of participation for a small Northwest community.

During World War Two Billingers served in all branches of the armed forces and took part in the European and Far Eastern conflicts, thereby upholding the village’s tradition of fighting for their country.  The November 1941 issue of St Aidan’s Church magazine, edited by Reverend A. White, lists 118 men who were then known to be ‘Serving with the King’s Forces’, plus one Merchant seaman, one lady in the WAAF and one in the ATS.  This list includes the Vicar’s son who had left theological studies in Oxford to join the RAF.  Sadly he was killed in May 1942 while returning from a 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne.

Nine of the 118 listed as being on active service when the magazine was issued were subsequently killed in action, along with at least 14 other men from the village.  Six

of the Billinge men who died in the fighting were Roman Catholics, including two brothers from Red Barn Lane who died in separate incidents in the air, and three were Methodists, so their names did not appear in the Church of England magazine, neither would those who had joined the services after November 1941.  This seems to indicate that Billinge would have had a considerable number of men involved in action during the course of the war.  In a small community, all the inhabitants would have known the men who had gone to the front line, and may have been distant relatives of some, so the impact of their involvement in the conflicts upon the villagers would have been considerable.  The grief of mothers whose sons did not return from the war is still remembered by old friends and neighbours.

Happily, the majority of Billinge servicemen returned to the village virtually unscathed, but some bore the mental and physical scars of their ordeal, which had long-term effects on their lives after the war.  One local man had joined the Coldstream Guards in the early 1930s, and then went to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.  These troops were evacuated from Dunkirk under ‘Operation Dynamo’ in which 338,226 men, ‘almost the entire B.E.F. was saved’, according to A.J.P. Taylor’s ‘English History 1914-1945’. While in France he regularly corresponded with his wife using the Forces Mail Service, and his letters show how much he missed his family life in Billinge and looked forward to his leave.  Later he joined the British campaign in Tunisia, and took part in the Battle for Longstop Hill, a German stronghold, described by A.B. Austin, in ‘Birth of an Army’ as ‘their first and most important barrier to Tunis’.  The British faced grim conditions on the hilly terrain with climbs so arduous that, Austin claimed, ‘you were tired when you had to begin to fight’.  The Billinge soldier was among the many casualties, he received a severe leg wound and returned to England.

There is some evidence that Billinge Hospital was used for military cases during the First World War, but this soldier was treated in Peasley Cross Hospital, St Helens, where his leg was eventually amputated.  He survived his injury, and led a happy family life after the war, even cultivating his garden.  His daughter was surprised to meet one of his fellow Dunkirk veterans some time ago, who explained how her father saved his life by holding him up in deep water for several hours until they were rescued.

One casualty who may have escaped the official lists was a sailor spending his leave at home in Billinge.  A small farewell party had been arranged for the day when he was due to return to his ship.  His family realised that they needed some extra items of food for the party and, as time was short, the sailor offered to cycle to the shops, but sadly he was killed on the journey.

The war doubtless had a great impact on all those involved in active service as well as their families, friends and neighbours.  The families of those who were killed felt the greatest effect, especially as they often had no certainty of the circumstances of the deaths.  The family of one soldier, who was taken as a Prisoner of War in Burma and did not survive, received a letter from the Burmese authorities, asking if they wished to pay towards the upkeep of his grave.  However, the reports of prison camp survivors regarding their treatment in Burma cast doubts as to whether the Billinge man would have been given a proper burial or grave.  Thus his family did not feel able to send a donation for the grave, as they could not rely on this really serving the intended purpose.

One man who was a small child during the war can remember being frightened when his soldier father returned home, as he was almost a stranger.  He particularly remembers his father’s anger if any food was wasted after the war, having seen starving children rummaging in rubbish bins to find scraps of food.  His father returned to work in the local mines and rarely referred to his wartime experiences, but he always recalled the plight of the desperate children, which had left a lasting impression on him.

An enduring memory of another Billinge soldier is of endless journeys, while constantly on the alert for signs of danger.  Similar experiences are described in the narrative of a Liverpool soldier who travelled through South Africa, India, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Sicily and Italy.  A profile of the author summarises the impact of the Second World War upon the veterans:

Like many of his fellow comrades, the deprivations, sacrifices and strenuous endeavours associated with the Second World War have given Jim an inner toughness and self discipline which has stood him in good stead throughout his life20.


Liverpool had been bombed before 1 May 1941, and was targeted afterwards, but that date belongs to history, for that was the night that history was written in letters of fire across the Mersey sky.  It was the night that ushered in what was probably the worst week that the world had ever known21.

Liverpool docks, which carried troops and supplies to the front line and into Britain, were vital to the country’s survival.  At the beginning of May 1941, according to John Hughes in ‘Port in a Storm’, there were ‘231 sea-going merchant ships in the port’, most of which were British but some were from Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Holland and Norway, plus several from neutral countries.  In addition there were ‘48 tugs, 292 barges, flats, elevators and other small craft; plus the Royal Navy’s contribution - destroyers, corvettes, minesweepers, sloops’.  The docks brought in raw materials for processing at Liverpool’s industrial sites; there was vital shipbuilding in Birkenhead and commercial enterprises in the city centre.  In World War Two the Headquarters of the Western Approaches was in Liverpool and there were ordnance factories in Kirby and aircraft manufacturing in Speke, which meant that ‘the concentration of legitimate military targets in the area was ominous’22.

During the Liverpool blitz there were ‘509 alerts; 68 raids; 119 land mines; 2,315 high explosive, 50 oil, and innumerable incendiary bombs’ which damaged 184,300 homes and totally destroyed another 10,84023.  The devastation in Liverpool was so severe that lists of those killed were displayed daily outside the Town Hall.  It was sometimes impossible for individual funerals to be conducted and Whittington-Egan states that 550 ‘Unknown Warriors of the Battle of Britain’ were buried in a common grave in Anfield cemetery on 13 May 1941. In ‘Storm Over The Mersey’, Beryl Wade recounts that a total of 1,453 people from Liverpool were killed during May 1941, with 1,065 seriously injured, and in addition there were 257 victims from Bootle.

The attacks on rural areas like Billinge were less intense but would have been no less terrifying.  There was, however, usually the comfort of being able to provide appropriate funerals for those who were killed, and the organist at a Garswood Church clearly remembered playing the ‘Dead March’ for the two Home Guardsmen who were killed by the bomb there.

In Beryl Wade’s description of her wartime childhood in Liverpool she describes the way in which the war had affected the city even before the May 1941 onslaught.  By the Spring of 1940 ‘an Ack-Ack gun had been installed’ in Walton Hall Park, ‘with a large barrage balloon flying above it’.  Wade describes donating her tricycle to a street collection of metal for war use and the way in which these efforts were encouraged by Liverpool Corporation Health Committee who offered a prize for the school which collected the most waste ‘comprising paper, bones, old clothes and other salvage material’. The metal collection was certainly carried out in Billinge too, as iron railings were taken from outside buildings in Main Street.

In addition to the dangers from bombings, the people in the city had to cope with the same rationing as the rest of the country, which brought shortages of almost every commodity.  This was particularly hard for those whose homes were lost, as many household items were irreplaceable.  Many city dwellers lived in old terraced houses, which had no gardens, and they therefore had no means of supplementing their rations by growing any of their own food in the same way as villagers.  One farmer’s daughter from Rainford accompanied another farm worker with a lorry full of cabbages for sale in Liverpool.  Although the quality of the cabbages was so poor that they might not even have been good enough for pig food in other circumstances, she was amazed to see the queues which quickly formed in Liverpool when people realised that there were fresh vegetables for sale, emphasising the hardships and deprivation which were endured daily.

The death toll and the buildings which were damaged were possibly the tip of the iceberg for the people of Liverpool, there were innumerous other hardships which became everyday occurrences during World War Two.  One example of the stark reality of the situation in human terms was a couple that married just before the war and rented a terraced house in Kirkdale.  In 1941 the lady was pregnant and her husband worked on the docks.  One land mine exploded in an adjacent street making their block of terraced houses move, which terrified her, causing problems with her pregnancy and the baby was stillborn.  While she was in hospital the nurses brought an orphaned baby boy to her and offered him as a replacement for her lost child.  She realised the desperate situation, if a baby could just be offered to a stranger, as he had no one else.

People from Billinge were aware of the situation in Liverpool, searchlights were visible from Billinge hill and refugees began to seek shelter in the relatively untroubled villages and towns.  One Garswood man remembers going to Liverpool on business during the war and seeing the funnel of a ferryboat, which had been sunk sticking out of the Mersey.  The boat was probably the Wallasey ferry, Royal Daffodil II, which was sunk at Seacombe loading stage in May 1941, was raised in July 1942 and returned to service by June 194324.  The boat was recovered and returned into use, and he was pleased to be able to ride in it again subsequently.  On another occasion he recalled seeing among the many bombsites one with a Union Jack standing proudly on the top, which for him symbolised the people’s resilience in the face of their adversity.

Among the people of Billinge there was awareness that, despite the hardships, which they suffered, they had escaped the worst dangers.  The villagers who stayed at home during the war believed that they had tried to assist their less fortunate neighbours by helping to maintain the supplies of coal and food and offering shelter where possible.  A nurse who worked in Liverpool during the air raids, including duties on the docks, and so witnessed the onslaught, described feeling as though she was ‘coming home to Jerusalem’ whenever she reached the relative sanctuary of Billinge in wartime.


The Second World War affected every aspect of daily life for the people of Billinge, in their homes, schools, employment and socially.  At least 51 Billinge servicemen died in action and there were also civilian deaths, while many survivors of the war were physically and mentally scarred by their experiences.  The impact of the conflict is still powerful enough to upset some Billingers, 55 years after its end, and it is doubtful whether families of those who died ever fully recovered.

When comparing the experiences of village life in wartime with Liverpool, the people of Billinge were aware of their fortune in escaping the worst of the bombing, and being able to supplement their rations with their own produce.  Many Billingers admired and respected the resilience shown by the people of Liverpool, whose onslaught was visible from Billinge hill.

The people of Billinge showed the strength of character necessary to continue their everyday work in the mines and on the farms to help maintain essential supplies.  As a close-knit community, they coped through the difficult war years by mutual co-operation wherever possible.  The amount of courage necessary to continue normal patterns of life and simultaneously encompass extra burdens and problems during a World War is unquantifiable, but the people in North West villages did their utmost throughout the war to protect their communities, maintain supplies and help each other to survive.

(Sybil Lowery April 2001)


In May 1938 my newly married parents Harold and Gwen Renwick moved into one of six newly built semi-detached houses at the end of Upholland Road, close to it's junction with Wigan Road.  These six semis had been built by local builder Cyril Melling for Lancashire County Police, to house officers who were to man the new radio station on Billinge Hill round the clock.

This was a time of progressive development in policing.  Lancashire Police already had a VHF radio station at Barnacre Nr Garstang.  It had a 20-mile range and fed two cars using the latest two-way radios.  By 1938 new radio stations at Billinge, Higham (Nr Burnley) and Newhey (Nr. Rochdale) were serving 140 cars equipped with radio.

Also in 1938, the government set up 'Station X' at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.  This was a highly secret establishment where work on cracking the German 'Enigma' code was to take place.  Station X was fed by intercepts from what were known as 'Y' stations.

I recall my father telling me that in addition to their general police radio duties they were required to 'scan the dial' and record all coded messages, some, he said, from German U-boats.  These were then relayed to the Home Office.  My farther had been in the merchant navy before becoming a police officer and was trained in Morse code, as were his colleagues on Billinge Hill.

Recent television programmes, which told the story of the cracking of the Enigma code and the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing of Manchester University, who did more than anyone to break it, raised my curiosity.  I emailed Bletchley Park and asked if the radio station on Billinge Hill had been classed as a 'Y' station.

Their reply was as follows –

‘It has taken a lot of research to find out what your father was doing at Billinge Hill.

We know there were two police units of - one at Denmark Hill in SE London, the other at Manchester.  We are not certain but believe Billinge Hill was used to listen for illicit clandestine radio transmissions from Eire, where enemy agents were operating from 1938 to 1944.  They were also believed to be covering the Manchester area for ground wave signals.  They were to report to the Home Office and the Radio Security Service.  Their work was special intercept duties and not part of the military 'Y' service’.

David White Bletchley Park.

So, not a 'Y' station but clearly in that little wooden hut on Billinge Hill a part was played in counter espionage.

John Renwick.  Email

                                             The radio station as it was in 1938

Harold Renwick (nearest) and Eric Ketchel on wartime duty at Billinge Hill radio station

1 Asa Briggs, Go to It! Working for Victory on the Home Front 1939-1945, p.66, quoted from David Day’s The Bevin Boy.

2 Mike Brown, 1999, Put That Light Out! Britain’s Civil Defence Services At War1939-1945, p.3.

3 Marion Yass, The Home Front. England 1939-1945, p 16

4 Richard D. Lewis, The Road to Wigan Pier, p.5-6

5 Anne Valery, Talking About the War ... 1939-1945: A Personal View of the War in Britain, p.55.

6  Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then, p.141.

7 Mrs E Gibbons in Liverpool Women at War - An Anthology of Personal Memories, p.113-114.

8 Asa Briggs, Go to It! Working for Victory on the Home Front 1939-1945, p.63.

9 Asa Briggs, Go to It! Working for Victory on the Home Front 1939-1945, p.62.

10 Will Lawther, in Asa Briggs, Go to It! Working for Victory on the Home Front 1939-1945, p.62.

11 Peter Hennessy, Never Again, Britain 1945-1951, p. 25.

12 Frank Goulding, A North West Village at War, Winwick 1939-45, 1987, p 12.

13 Pat Ayers, Women at War. Liverpool Women 1939-45, p.22.

14  Jean Wynne, in Mavis Nicholson, What Did You Do In The War, Mummy p.201

15 Arthur Marwick, Total War and Social Change, 1998, p xiv.

16 Mike Brown, Put That Light Out! Britain’s Civil Defence Services At War, p 4.

17 Ministry of Information - Front Line 1940-41, 1942, p 144.

18 Anne Valery, Talking About the War  - 1939-1945: A Personal View of the War in Britain, p 7.

19  Michael Moynihan, People at War, 1939-1945, p 10.

20  W.R. Cockcroft, in James W. Gonzales, A Journey to Remember, p 167.

21  Richard Whittington-Egan, The Great Liverpool Blitz, p 7.

22 John Hughes, Port in a Storm, p 1-2.

23  Richard Whittington-Egan, The Great Liverpool Blitz, p 62.

24  John Hughes, Port in a Storm, pp 129, 130, 166