Seaton 70 years ago this week: Five dead after bomb blast

Seventy years ago people were facing their first winter of war. Three years later they were still dying in bombing raids. This week in 1942 Muriel Hawker lay among the dead in Seaton. Four days before she died in 2007 she told her story to GEOFF ELLIOTT.

Seventy years ago people were facing their first winter of war. Three years later they were still dying in bombing raids. This week in 1942 Muriel Hawker lay among the dead in Seaton. Four days before she died in 2007 she told her story to GEOFF ELLIOTT.

It was lunchtime in the big house. The major and his wife were finishing a light meal in the dining room, and I was making myself busy in the kitchen.

At the age of 14 I was in service, a maid on a household staff of three, working seven days a week, from early morning until the washing up was done after dinner in the evening.

I worked for retired Major and Mrs Cartwright, whose palatial home was on Seaton seafront. In the kitchen, I had begun to clear away the pots and pans. It was 26 October 1942.

A terrible explosion ripped through the house. In my fright, I dashed into the hallway. I didn't know where I was going. For some reason, I flung open the drawing room door and the blast caught me.

Four hours later they were digging me out of the rubble. I had been buried alive. Five people died at Seafield House that day, and I had been presumed the sixth. Searching for survivors, the rescuers' sound detectors had picked up nothing. Then a man from Beer heard me shout.

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I had thought I was a goner. I was sure I would be suffocated. One of the men's shovels caught my outstretched arm locked in the rubble. I remember telling them to mind my hand or they would have it off.

There was an army of men trying to free me. One eye was out of its socket on my cheek but, apart from lacerations, I was otherwise all right.

The soldier carried me to the Homestead nursing home along the front because there was no hospital in Seaton, and for a week or two the nurses there cared for me. Then they sent me home. I walked the mile or so back to Eyewell Green.

Whatever they did with the eye, they got it back again. I was very lucky. Major Cartwright and his wife were both killed; her body wasn't found until the following day. Three others also died, including a young Wren who should have left the house that morning. Two others were luckier. Neither the cook nor the cleaner had turned up for work that day.

Years later, perhaps around 1970, the soldier who had dug me out came back to Seaton to find me. He joked that he wanted to make sure he had done the right thing that wartime day. We laughed about it and I thanked him. I don't know his name and I've never seen him again. But I owe him everything.

After all these years, the bomb that might have killed me remains a horrible memory. Even now I can't bear water trickling down my face. I get flashbacks to being trapped in that house thinking blood was running from my head. It wasn't blood but dust and sand. Water feels just the same.

The house, of course, is no longer there. Where it had stood on the corner of Seahill and Castle Hill is now the site of the Jubilee Gardens. Behind stands the clock tower, whose time long stuck at 1.20, as if offering a memorial to those killed by the bombs.

Yet, for all the drama of this terrible event, it merited just four paragraphs in the local paper under the headline, 'House demolished, five killed'. Censorship was strict then. The paper could only refer to Seaton as 'a small South-West coast town'.

My job with the major and his wife had not lasted long and had ended tragically. It had been a brief glimpse into an age that was soon to pass. Few would live as my employers did, or work the long hours expected of me.

The war changed nearly everybody's lives.

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