Museum exhibition offers a glimpse into wartime life

A baby doll inside a WWII old gas mask suit

WWII gas mask for new-born babies - Credit: Honiton Museum

By 1938 everyone in Britain had been issued with a gas mask to protect them if the Germans dropped poison gas bombs. This gas mask was for new-born babies and children up to two years old. It was airtight, so adults had to pump air into the mask. Concerns were raised on its safety and luckily, they were never put to the test in a real situation.

The first practical demonstration of the use of a gas mask in an actual gas chamber in Devon was held in Feniton Court in February 1938, courtesy of Colonel AD and the Hon Mrs Acland. A gas chamber had been prepared and members of organisations including the Honiton VAD, Police Force, and St John Ambulance attended. They were in the gas filled chamber for a few minutes then removed their gas masks and went through the chamber without them. The “effects of the tear gas on some people were very obvious”.

In April, Honiton Rural Council appealed for 250 men and 162 women to volunteer for the district's air raid precautions scheme. By October, Reg Dommett was the Group Air Raid Warden for Honiton. He reported that since the April appeal most of the people who had trained as wardens were ex-servicemen. 13 months after WWII had started, the Borough ARP organiser vigorously denied that ARP personnel in Honiton were paid a salary. He issued a press statement which said: "The personnel who are working consist of wardens, also 85 men, 49 women, 23 boys, and 3 girls, who are giving their time patriotically and gratuitously for the defence of their town and district. Only two are paid through the Borough and Rural Councils. They give all their time work, and their combined salaries amount to the munificent sum of 30 shillings a week. Even free petrol has not been granted to those who are enforced to use their vehicles for the service.”

In February 1939 there was a drama at the Honiton A.R.P. headquarters (now Allhallows Museum). Mr R T Delve, electrical engineer, arrived for duty and was almost overpowered by fumes as he opened the door. He found Mr R Eveleigh semi-conscious on a camp bed and a messenger boy named Crane was also discovered in a dazed condition. The chimney of an anthracite stove had become blocked during the night, and the shuttered windows and closed doors prevented the escape of fumes, which filled the room. They both quickly recovered on reaching fresh air.

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