How Sheffield's National Emergency Services Museum is keeping stories of World War Two alive

On September 3 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany and the world was plunged into a six-year conflict that would claim over 60 million lives worldwide, including more than 60,000 British civilians killed in bombing raids.

Wednesday, 11th September 2019, 4:24 pm
Preserving wartime memories at National Emergency Services Museum

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II.

As the war begins to fade from living memory, the need to preserve the experiences of those who lived through this historical conflict - both overseas and on the home front - becomes ever-more important.

The National Emergency Services Museum in Sheffield is determined to do its bit to ensure that these stories are remembered and shared. Among the more-than-200 years of emergency services history that is celebrated by the museum, the role of wartime fire, police and ambulance services still plays a prominent part.

Preserving wartime memories at National Emergency Services Museum

Just last month, the museum launched a new book celebrating the hidden history of Sheffield’s female ambulance drivers during World War II.

The book, written by local historian Mike Dyson, tells the story of the women and men who served in the city’s Air Raid Precautions ambulance service during the war.

The book, which is available exclusively from the museum, was developed to complement NESM’s major exhibition, Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights.

This exhibition celebrates the history of the ambulance service and includes historic vehicles, first-hand accounts, and stories of those who served during World War II - including our very own Queen Elizabeth II, who worked as an ambulance driver, joining the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service when she was just 18 years old.

Visitors to the Museum's Vintage Village learned what it took to become a wartime firefighter. (Credit: Ian Spooner)

Another dynamic display in the museum tells the story of the Sheffield Blitz, which devastated parts of the city in December 1940.

Visitors can climb in the back of a genuine National Fire Service vehicle, sit inside an original Anderson shelter, and hear recorded memories of those in Sheffield who experienced the bombing itself.

Taking pride of place in the exhibition is a Barnsley Fire Brigade engine, which sped to the assistance of its neighbouring city when it was overwhelmed by German bombs, and is the only engine remaining today to have served in Sheffield’s Blitz.

The exhibition also takes a prominent role in a popular workshop for schools, delivered by the museum’s learning and discovery co-ordinators. Primary school pupils can visit the museum to learn about the attacks on Sheffield, find out how they affected everyday life, see the impact they had on the emergency services, and handle objects from the museum’s collection that bring the history of World War II to life for those visiting today.

NESM’s efforts to share the knowledge and experiences of war aren’t confined to the museum itself. A star attraction of its outreach fleet, travelling to events around Yorkshire and beyond, is an original Austin K2 heavy pump unit, made in 1941 and used by the NFS in Scotland. It’s the only complete vehicle, with the original pump, still in existence.

Much of what the museum does in preserving the history and heritage of the nation’s wartime experiences came together last week when, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of war, NESM hosted its first ever Vintage Village as part of the Sheffield Fayre. A host of historic vehicles were on show at this 1940s-inspired event, both from the museum’s collection and as part of displays by other re-enactors such as the Ambulance Heritage Service.

NESM’s new NFS training workshop, launched at the event, proved particularly popular with the hundreds of visitors to the village. This gave people the chance to see the Austin K2 fire pump up close as well as take part in training exercises to learn what it took to be a wartime firefighter. This included finding incendiary bombs in a smoky building and bringing them to safety, using a stirrup pump, handling and extinguishing bombs, and even learning to roll a fire hose in double-quick time.

There was also the chance to learn about being a wartime reporter, find out more about rationing on the home front, handle objects from the museum’s collection, and even enjoy some 1940’s tunes.

Matthew Wakefield, the museum’s chief executive, said: “We had huge numbers of visitors to our Vintage Village and it was great to see so many people, of all ages, engaging with the history of World War II. The emergency services played such a big role in the conflict, especially on the home front, and as we pass 80 years since it started we want to help make sure their contribution is remembered.”

Email info[email protected] for details on the museum, and school workshops.