Sheffield Archives discovers lost evidence from wartime inquest into the worst single loss of life of the Sheffield Blitz
Sheffield City Archives have recently uncovered a lost eyewitness account from a Sheffield Blitz survivor of the bombing of the Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square.
The account from 27-year-old Bristol lorry driver Lionel George Ball refers to the worst single loss of life of the Sheffield Blitz on the night of December 12, 1940, when the city came under a sustained bombing attack, lasting several hours, that devastated the city centre and surrounding areas.
At 11.44pm that night, the Marples suffered a direct hit from a 500lb Luftwaffe bomb which sent all seven storeys of the building crashing down, killing an estimated 70-plus people who were seeking refuge from the air raid attack in the cellars below.
Lionel was one of just seven people recorded as having been pulled out alive from the hotel ruins.
According to the Sheffield Libraries website, the account was found in a Sheffield City Coroner’s inquest case file into a presumption of death from enemy action.
The inquest looked into the ‘alleged death’ of Frank Dalton of 20 Popple Street, Sheffield, who was believed to have been killed in the Marples. However, his body was one of many never to be recovered or identified from the ruins.
The inquest, held in August 1941, heard that Frank Dalton was an RAF sergeant believed to be home on leave.
Lionel Ball’s statement to police, presented to the inquest, tells how he had arrived in Sheffield from Bristol on the night of December 12 and called for a drink at the Marples Hotel with a fellow lorry driver, William Wallace King, who worked for the same firm.
He is listed as another of the seven survivors.
He told how the air raid started around 7.10pm and became so intense that it was felt unsafe to leave the hotel.
Both drivers took refuge in the Tudor Lounge cellar bar with between 60 and 80 other people.
He recalls an earlier bomb blast in the vicinity of the hotel which injured several people in the cellar bar.
The website says this was the bomb which hit the C&A store opposite the hotel at 10.50pm, sending debris flying into the hotel building.
Lionel Ball said he and William King helped to take some of the injured into the bottle stores adjoining the bar, where they remained with five other men.
An eighth man joined them moments before the hotel received a “direct hit”. This was the fatal bomb which fell at 11.44pm.
He said: “The place seemed to collapse but the roof of the part of the cellar where we were held. A fire started and it was like a furnace all round us. The exits were blocked by debris...”
He said that one of the eight men in the bottle stores later died from his wounds and the seven remaining survivors were “cut off” in the cellar until 10am the next morning.
Lionel said: “We were digging ourselves out all night by using our hands and pipes which we wrenched off the barrels”.
He was able to confirm from a photograph that Frank Dalton, who was in uniform, was the same man he had spoken to earlier that night in the cellar bar.
He recalled how Frank told him how he had flown several missions over Germany in the course of the war.
The website recounts: “Another witness for the inquest, Alfred Pickett, a 28-year-old plumber, who lived at 133 White Lane, Gleadless (and who had a lucky escape after he left the Marples Hotel just minutes before it was bombed) told of seeing an “RAF air gunner” he believed to have been Frank Dalton coming down the stairs to the Tudor Lounge who had been cut by “flying glass” from the earlier blast which struck C&A Modes.
“He heard Dalton say, ‘Fancy me having been over Germany so many times and having to put up with this’.”
When Mr Pickett left the Marples around 11.30pm, he noticed Mr Dalton sitting in the Tudor Lounge.
The website said that just seven Sheffield inquest case files into alleged deaths of individuals thought to have been killed have survived in the Sheffield City Coroner’s collection at Sheffield City Archives.
It added that the newly-discovered inquest case file had evidently been misfiled in a bundle from a different year. The file has now been reunited with other inquests from 1941.
The website notes that, unlike the other coroner’s inquest case files, this new file includes a clear and compelling witness statement from someone who took shelter in the cellars of the Marples on that night and was one of the fortunate few to survive.
The Sheffield Blitz Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/SheffieldBlitz75th
The National Emergency Services Museum in West Bar, Sheffield also has an exhibition on the Blitz.
The website referred to is: Sheffield Libraries