Monday, 26 September 2016

Prudential Assurance Company Limited – A Hull Wartime Tragedy

Outside of London, Hull is thought to have been the most heavily bombed city in England during the Second World War. One of the worst German air raids on the city occurred in the early hours of 8 May 1941. Bombs rained down on the city centre and many lives were lost and buildings destroyed. 

One of the most well-known tragedies of this particular night of bombing was the destruction of the offices of the Prudential Assurance Company Ltd in Queen Victoria Square. After heavy bombing in the early hours of the morning, the Prudential building was left a smouldering ruin. Only the tower remained, leaning at an angle. This photograph, taken after dawn on the 8th May, shows the tower of the building standing at an angle, alone among the ruins, and has become an the iconic image of the Hull Blitz. The tower was demolished for safety reasons the following day.

Prudential Tower prior to demolition after sustaining heavy bomb damage [C TSP.3.387.27]

The discovery of the remains of the building during the recent redevelopment of the city centre, and its excavation by Humber Field Archaeology, has prompted us to look at the bombing again, and try to answer some remaining questions surrounding the events of the 8th May.

The Hull offices of the Prudential Assurance Company were built in 1904 to designs by the Prudential’s favourite architect Alfred Waterhouse, on a corner site at the southern end of the newly developed King Edward St. The focal point of the building was Waterhouse’s trademark tower, which dominated what was then known as City Square but what is now Queen Victoria Square. The tower was occupied by the main staircase of the building.

After the outbreak of war, the basement of the Prudential Building was designated as an air-raid shelter for the inhabitants of the surrounding area. Some of them sought refuge there when the air raid sirens sounded shortly after midnight on the 8th May. Probably about 3am – although the records are unclear as to when it happened – the Prudential was hit by a bomb.

Plan of Prudential building ground floor [C TAB/1894/M/2766]

Many rumours circulated at the time and in the seventy years since about the bombing of the Prudential, and many questions have been asked. It was thought that naval personnel, including members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) had been in the building when it was hit, as the Admiralty had offices there. It was believed that hoses had been turned on the flames and feared that people sheltering in the basement were drowned. Figures as high as two hundred were rumoured to be the number of casualties. It was said that rather than recover the bodies, quicklime was used to bury them in situ.

Because of the impact of the rumours on morale, the City Engineer’s Department, which was in charge of rescue, demolition and repair, investigated the incident very carefully. Their report, marked as Secret, recorded their initial findings: The building was hit by a High Explosive bomb which appears to have demolished the boiler room in the middle of the basement, fracturing the gas main. Within fifteen minutes the Prudential was “a white hot inferno.” In the opinion of the City Engineer there was no doubt that the people sheltering in the basement would have been killed instantly. All the remains subsequently recovered had been badly burned. Because of the heat it was impossible for rescue parties to enter the ruins for 48 hours. The ground and upper three floors had collapsed into the basement. Military help had to be called on to move the rubble before the basement could be accessed.

Trying to work out who had been killed proved harder. Identification of the remains proved difficult, and other means such as clothing and jewellery, as was usual in these circumstances, would have been used. The staff of the City Engineer’s Department took great trouble to try and establish who had been killed, making diligent enquiries and using other means of identification such as clothing and jewellery, as was usual in these circumstances.

It turned out that the Air Raid Wardens Service did not know how many had sought shelter in the basement. The Admiralty seem to have been actively unhelpful or strangely evasive. At different times the Rescue Service Leader was told at different times that there had been eight, five and then one of their staff on duty in the building that night, but no WRNS or civilian staff. The landlord of The Punch Hotel said that six of his guests, who were likely to have sheltered in the Prudential were missing. The caretaker of the building and his family were also unaccounted for.

Remarkably it was learned that one person had escaped from the building. This was Arthur Maslin, a staff member at Smailes Holtby & Gray, which had offices in the building, and also an Air Raid Warden, who had been fire-watching in the offices that night. He scrambled out of the blazing building but one of his colleagues was missing. 

The City Engineer concluded that sixteen people had been killed in the destruction of the Prudential Building. By comparing his report with the Roll of Civilian War Dead, together with the Hull Corporation Civilian War Dead Index Cards (our reference C TYD 2), it is possible to produce the following provisional list of sixteen named casualties:
  • Agnes Rita Boase, 33, of 10-12 Waterworks Street, wife of William Henry Boase.
  • Elizabeth Maureen Boase, 4, of 10-12 Waterworks Street, daughter of William and Agnes Boase.
  • William Henry Boase, 35, manager of Quartons florists, 10-12 Waterworks Street, husband of Agnes Rita Boase.
  • Catherine Christina Bristow, 19, of St Mary’s Avenue, Bricknell Avenue, wife of Vincent Bristow, guest at the Punch Hotel.
  • Vincent Bristow, 26, of St Mary’s Avenue, Bricknell Avenue, husband of Catherine Bristow, guest at the Punch Hotel.
  • Harold Desmond Hildred, 17, of 1 East Grove, Gipsyville, Fire-watcher, presumably Arthur Maslin’s work colleague, son of Walter and Hettie Hildred.
  • Mary Yvonne Maguire, 15, of Prudential Buildings, daughter of Thomas and Tilly Maguire.
  • Matilda Isobel (Tilly) Maguire, 43, of Prudential Buildings, wife of Thomas Maguire.
  • Therese Madeline Maguire, 12, of Prudential Buildings, daughter of Thomas and Tilly Maguire.
  • Thomas Ernest Maguire, 45, of Prudential Buildings, where he was caretaker, husband of Tilly Maguire.
  • Frederick John Stanley Rees, 45, of 103 Willerby Road, Admiralty Ship Overseer.
  • Dorothy Hayton Tennison, 29, manageress of Quartons florists, 10-12 Waterworks Street, wife of Cpl JP Tennison, Royal Army Medical Corps.
  • Barbara Jane Wallis, 11, of Punch Hotel, daughter of Frederick and Catherine Wallis.
  • Catherine Wallis, 48, of Punch Hotel, wife of Frederick Wallis.
  • Frederick Wallis, 54, of Punch Hotel, husband of Catherine Wallis.
  • Frederick Henry Wallis, 15, of Punch Hotel, son of Frederick and Catherine Wallis.

Other bombing incidents had higher casualty rates – at least 60 people were killed when the communal shelter in Ellis Terrace, Holderness Road was hit on 16 April 1941 – but the Prudential incident has a special resonance with the people of Hull.

Thanks to the work of Humber Field Archaeology and the generosity of Eurovia Contracting a small display of some of the finds from the Prudential Building site will be on display at the History Centre until 21 October.

Martin Taylor, City Archivist

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