I have a confession to make. I enjoy researching the names on war memorials. I enjoy unravelling the facts behind the life …. and death, of the named person, where they lived, their professions and their family. At the same time I find it incredibly sad. I periodically have to take a break when my eyes get a little watery, when I discover their fate; on the battlefield, being shot down from the air or lost at sea. As a parent of boys myself I start to imagine what it must have been like for those parents to receive the harrowing news of the loss a son or in some cases two or three. Then after a minutes reflection, its back to it. Back to the immersive hobby of being a keyboard detective.
My old school Marlborough Road Primary have embarked on a year-long project looking at WWII. Not an easy topic to tackle though. To teach children about the history and horrors of war whilst at the same time not in any way glorifying it or sending them home with nightmares. I admire the way they are going about, travelling that delicate route. The pictures I’ve seen so far look great.
I couldn’t help them personally when they put out a plea for people who had lived through the war to be interviewed by the children. I’m too young for that category. All I remember is ‘playing soldiers’ in the playground at playtime and the old air raid shelters used in my time for storing the pungent remains of school dinners. Were they air raid shelters or just outbuildings? Who knows. Memories often play tricks
I thought however I may be able to assist in looking at a local example of how the neighbourhood was impacted by WWII. The school itself was bombed and badly damaged necessitating the main building to be demolished. Fortunately the bombs fell at night and no lives were lost. The same can’t be said however for the adjoining Agincourt Road. There lives were lost. Maybe that is too close to the school to pick as an example, plus I haven’t seen any pictures of that post-bombing damage or for that fact the school itself after the bombs fell. Instead I have looked at nearby Pen-y-lan Road.
The Pen-y-lan Road bombs don’t always get a mention in articles about the Cardiff blitz. Yes, the loss of life wasn’t as great as the horrific Hollyman’s Bakery in Grangetown where 32 people died in January 1941. But the Pen-y-lan Road bomb did kill eight people, five of them from the same family.
So where in Pen-y-lan Road are we talking about? The lives were lost in numbers 8, 10 and 12 Pen-y-lan Road which is near where if joins Albany Road, near the Bottle Shop (no.4) and da Mara (no.2). The bombs fell on 18th May 1943 in what has been described as the Final Blitz on Cardiff.
Widespread destruction was caused during the night raid involving no more than 50 German bombers which lasted only 83 minutes from 2.36am, dropping high explosives and parachute bombs and incendiary bombs. Over 40 people were killed that night in total with 52 seriously wounded.
Following the railway line from Llanishen Reservoir through Whichurch, Rhiwbina and the Heath to Queen’s Street Station and the Docks. Cathys Cemetery itself was hit. Houses were damaged in Pantbach Road, Llwynfedw Gardens and Mynachdy estate. A direct hit on houses in St Agnes Road killed six people.
The greatest loss of life in Pen-y-lan Road was in number 12. Here five members of the same family were killed; Elizabeth Wing (aged 82), her daughters Lilian Wing (aged 49) and Olive Margrett (aged 47) and granddaughters Mavis Rees (aged 9) and Patricia Margrett (aged 19). I first came across this family last year when researching the war memorial plaque in Albany Road Baptist church where Elizabeth and Lilian are remembered.
Elizabeth Wing was born in Leicester. She married painter and decorator John Wing from Pembrokshire in 1887 and had eight children, three of whom it appears died young. At the time of the 1911 census the family were living in nearby Moy Road and Elizabeth working as a dressmaker. John, her husband, had died in 1916 aged 63.
Lilian Wing was a shop assistant in a confectionery shop, presumably downstairs from where they were living and which appears to have been owned by her sister Dora, described in the 1939 register as a confectioner and tobacconist.
Olive Margrett was married to Archibald Margrett, a steam raiser on the Great Western Railway who died in 1953. They had just the one daughter Patricia Margrett. Archibald later remarried in 1945.
Mavis Rees, then aged 9, was the daughter of Dora and William J Rees who were married in 1925. Mavis also had a brother Colin J Rees aged 12, but I don’t know if he or the father William were in the house at the time it was bombed. The following extract from the Roath Girl’s school log (presumably Roath Park?). It seems to indicate Mavis as a pupil at Marlborough Road school.
The Head of Roath Girls’ reports Miss Hughes was unable to remain in school for she was suffering from shock after the early morning Raid, when her home was blitzed. Mavis Rees of 12 Penylan Road [a Marlborough girl and an evacuee] was seriously injured and taken to hospital. Later she died as the result of burns and shock. The pupils of her class sent a wreath and a letter of condolence was sent to the nearest relative, an aunt’.
In number 10 Pen-y-lan Road was Ivy Witts who lost her life aged 45. She was wife of Sidney Rowland Witts. Ivy Dwynwen Morgan was born in 1896 in Cardiff and grew up on Broadway, Roath. She married Sidney Witts at St Margaret’s church Roath in 1919 and had four children, Margaret, Eric, Patricia and Neville. In 1939 Sidney is working as an official in the British Legion for ex-servicemen.
Next door in number 8 Pen-y-lan Road husband and wife Edith Maud Davey and William Charles Davey were killed. William Davey was a hairdresser had been a hairdresser all his life. In the 1911 census we find him living in Harpur Street aged 17 and employed as a hairdresser.
Also living at 8 Pen-y-lan Road at the time of the raid was their son, 22 year old Trevor W C Davey, an apprentice electrical engineer. Two months after the loss of his parents Trevor gets engaged to Sylvia Perkins from Ely.
Six months after publishing this blog post I came across this message that our Society had received back in late 2017. It contains fascinating and sad detail of the events that night and how Ivy Witts was killed not in her own house but next door. It also describes how he was childhood friends with Ivor Novello:
On 18th May 1943 Patricia Witts (13yrs old) and her brother Neville Witts (10yrs old) were in the house in Penylan Rd with their Aunt, Sidney’s sister Elsie Morgan. She had been bombed a few years earlier so was living with them. Sidney Witts was out on fire watch with the neighbour, Mr Davey. There was an air raid on and Mrs Davey asked Ivy Witts to come and be with her in her house because she was scared.
The houses had been fitted with metal ‘Table Shelters’ in the cupboard under the stairs so there was limited space for people. Ivy WItts went next door to help her neighbour and to make room for Pat, Nev and Aunty ‘Esso’ to shelter in their house. The Neighbours house was a direct hit, killing Ivy Witts and Mrs Davey outright. The force of the explosion had shunted the party wall of the two houses towards the corridor opposite wall. Pat, Nev and Aunty were also pushed up against the corridor wall. They managed to wriggle their way out, gasping for breath amidst rubble and smoke. The bomb was an ‘Oil Bomb’ which scattered oil as it exploded so the houses were on fire.
Sidney and Mr Davey heard the bomb and came rushing back. In trying to help rescue people they were hit by falling rubble. Sidney Witts had a small injury to his back…Mr Davey was badly injured and carried away on a stretcher but died shortly after.
Ivy Witts nee Morgan , as a child, went to Penylan School and was a class-mate of Ivor Novello. They were childhood friends but of course too young to know that innocent ‘sweet-hearts’ who both loved music would not last. However, Ivor Novello remained a good friend.
Ivy Witts had a very good grand piano when she was married and she was a good singer. A group of singers, including Ivor Novello and Zoe Cresswell would regularly meet around that piano until the bomb! Some of those singers went on to form The Welsh National Opera, after the war.
In the book Cardiff – A City at War, Dennis Morgan recounts how another family in Pen-y-lan Road had a lucky escape:
Just across the road it was once again a Morrison shelter, which was under the stairs and protected with sandbags, that saved Mrs. Webber and her family. The house had collapsed on them and, “the next thing we knew was that things were cascading down on to the shelter’’. At first the rescue party saw little hope of finding them alive. Eventually their shouts were heard and their morale was uplifted when their dog, Kim, scrambled into the shelter with them. A flask of coffee was handed through a tiny hole but it was more than 6 hours before they were rescued. Like many, who experienced the terror of the blitz and lived to tell the tale, Mrs. Webber commented, “None of us would ever grumble about anything again”.
I must admit I didn’t know what a Morrison shelter was. It is not something purchased from your local supermarket. It is a steel cage with a flat surface on top that often used to double up as a table.
The Webbers lived at 1 Pen-y-lan Road, almost opposite where the lives were lost at No’s 8, 10 & 12. There is one blitz picture sometimes described as Albany Road and sometimes as Pen-y-lan Road that looks like it could well be No 1 Pen-y-lan Road, given the angle of the houses behind which would be Albany Road. Amazing to think that anyone survived that damage.
The Webber’s had two children, William Webber and Anne Webber who would have been 11 and 9 at the time of the raid. There is no mention of whether they too were also sheltering under the stairs at the time.
Looking at Pen-y-lan Road today it is easy to see where the houses involved in the raid were. All have since been demolished and replaced with new housing, though judging by the architecture I would guess that the sites remained vacant for some time after the war before rebuilding took place, but I admit I am no architect.
The other source of information available to researchers in addition to the traditional census records and birth, deaths and marriages is the Trade Directories. These weren’t necessarily issued every year so there are gaps. The Cardiff Trade Directories can be viewed in Cathays Library.
The Friends of Cathays Cemetery have issued a booklet listing the casualties of the Cardiff Blitz. As well as detailing their names and addresses it also lists where the casualties are buried in the cemetery. Armed with this information I paid a visit to Cathays Cemetery to see if I could find the graves of the Pen-y-lan Road casualties.
Finding the plots at Cathays Cemetery, even with a plot number isn’t easy. Plot maps are available on FOCC website but even then trying to work out on the ground which row and column is which is confusing. What I found helped a lot was the fact that Commonwealth War Graves are marked on the plot maps with a diamond shape. Then referring to another list of the Commonwealth war graves at Cathays it is possible to calculate where in relation to those graves is the plot you are looking for.
Unfortunately the plots I found of the people who died in the Pen-y-lan Road bombing, all except one, had unmarked graves i.e. no headstone present. The exception was the grave of Elizabeth Wing and her daughter Lilian. Here there was a headstone but it had become too weathered to read. I don’t suppose the absence of headstones should come as a surprise considering the burials took place in wartime, but a sad discovery nevertheless.
So next time you are in the vicinity of Pen-y-lan Road, spare a thought for those killed by one of the last bombs to fall on Cardiff; Elizabeth the dressmaker, Lilian the shop assistant, Ivy Witts and William the hairdresser and their families, just like the man in the photograph is probably doing. Then spare another thought for all those killed in WWII and indeed all other victims of war before and since.
After publishing this blog I received quite a bit of feedback, including this very moving recollection from Pat Laing who has given me permission to include it here:
Mr and Mrs Rees and their son Colin and daughter Mavis came back from South Africa in 1938 and rented 116 Marlborough Rd. I lived at 120 and being only one year younger than Mavis we quickly became close friends. We went to different schools but took ballet lessons together every Saturday in Charles St and played together in the afternoons and in school holidays. When the war started Mr Rees joined up and Mrs Rees and Colin and Mavis went to live at 12 Penylan Rd. I was there playing the piano and doing block designs with Mavis on the evening of May 18th. She was playing White Christmas as she had just got the sheet music. I said goodbye at about 7pm and added “See you Saturday at the bus stop”, but of course I never saw her again. By 1946 her father and mother were running a sweet shop in City Rd. I met up with Colin about 1948 and we played tennis together for a few years in Roath Park. He went to Bristol University. He a always bore burn marks on his legs.