Exhibit of the Week: ARP wardens had brave and hazardous duties

The ARP wardens appointment card in the Scarborough Collections.
The ARP wardens appointment card in the Scarborough Collections.
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Look carefully at the wording on the inside of our exhibit this week – an Air Raid Warden appointment card.

It tells us that the bearer ‘has been duly appointed as an Air Raid Warden. This is his authority to carry out the duties laid upon wardens by the Chief Constable of Scarborough’.

The italics are ours – ‘his authority. And yet the bearer of the card was, unless we’re very much mistaken, definitely a woman – Doris M Mollon, of 27 Queen Street, Scarborough.

Doris was appointed as a Warden on July 23, 1940, and this card was issued on June 25, 1943, so she’d held the post for almost three years.

Doris was one of an apparently unknown number of women who volunteered to serve for their country under often hazardous circumstances in the late 1930s and early-to-mid ’40s – but there were many of them. The Women’s Voluntary Service (later the WRVS, and now just the Royal Voluntary Service) was originally set up in 1938 to involve women in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) service. At the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, the WVS had over 300,000 members, a number which rapidly rose to over a million.

The Air Raid Wardens’ Service had been set up in April 1937 in response to expert military opinion which estimated that, based on casualties suffered in World War I and increasingly sophisticated technology, German air strikes on this country would result in huge casualties. By the outbreak of war, the government had stockpiled at least a million coffins against the predicted devastation.

By mid-1938 around 200,000 people had enrolled for the new service, with another 500,000 joining during the Munich Crisis of September 1938. By the outbreak of war there were more than 1.5 million men and women in the ARP service.

What most of us think of when the ARP is mentioned is Air Raid Wardens – ordinary people like Doris Mollon. ARP posts were initially set up in the Warden’s own home, in a shop or in an office, but they were later purpose-built.

Each post covered a certain area, varying across the country: in London, there were around ten posts to the square mile. Each was divided into sectors, with each sector having perhaps three to six wardens. ARP Wardens were ideally local – it was essential that they were as knowledgeable as possible about both the geography of their sector, and the people who lived there.

At first, there were no significant German air raids, so the Wardens’ main duties at first were to register those living in their sector and to enforce the ‘blackout’: making sure that no lights were visible which could be used by enemy planes to help locate bombing targets.

Their regular cries instructing people to turn out lights or cover windows didn’t contribute to their popularity – they were often seen as officious, as parodied by Bill Pertwee as ARP Warden Hodges in the 60s TV series Dad’s Army.

In truth, however, they were often heroic, especially during the Blitz. When the air raid sirens sounded, wardens would help people into the nearest shelter and then tour their sector, usually in pairs, putting themselves at considerable risk. They would also check regularly on those in the air raid shelters.

In the aftermath of a raid, ARP wardens would often be first on the scene, carrying out first aid if there were minor casualties, putting out small fires and helping to organise the emergency response.

For a stunning and heartbreaking fictional representation of just what ARP Wardens, both male and female, often went through we highly recommend the novel Life After Life, by York-born writer Kate Atkinson.

And Doris M Mollon, of 27 Queen Street – we salute you.

The Air Raid Warden appointment card is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.