West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History



From my experience of researching my Family History most accounts and events involving our family, which were related to us when we were small children and often retold over the years, have been found to be half truths, often embellished and some times bearing little if no resemblance to the actual facts.

As children do though we took all these stories in when told them and believed them wholeheartedly even to the point of repeating the same stories ourselves. One such 'tale' was about how 'Kaiser Bill' and his Zeppelins tried to blow up Pontefract during World War One.

As I said, many family accounts of events and happenings have often turned out to bear little if no resemblance to the true facts that I began to treat even this story with more than a 'pinch of salt'. That is until I was reading through a diary written towards the end of 1916 by one of my grandmothers.

She was a teacher and would have been 23 at the time but still living at home with her parents and family at Carleton Terrace. It is from this diary that we can read an almost eye-witness account of the events of that night in December 1916 when Zeppelins really did drop bombs on and around Pontefract to the terror and consternation of the populace.

Grandmothers Diary Entry Wednesday 29th November 1916

"Monday was a much better day as Miss Neal was back. I spent the evening sewing and then went down home (Horsefair) for an hour or so. Ina walked to the top of Horsefair with me and I got home about 9.20pm. We then had supper and went to bed but neither Mother, Dot nor yet myself had gone to sleep when the fun began."

"We knew the Zepps were in England but never expected them anywhere near us until we were all given a terrible shock by the explosion of 3 bombs not far away. I jumped out of bed and saw the flash of another bomb dropping. Father got up, dressed, and went out. Dot went into mother’s bed and I got partially dressed and walked about from one room to another. First going to our window and shouting to Father for news and then going and giving it to Mother and Dot and trying to brace them up. It was terrible. For a minute or two the explosions were almost continuous and with them we could hear only too well the sound of the engines of the Zeppelins. Then they gradually got farther away and soon we could hardly hear any noise at all. But the quietness was not for long; they soon came back and began bombing again."

"Although the explosions and flashes were terrible and almost everybody saw one or more Zeppelins, no one seemed to think that they were very near and perhaps it was better so, as the panic would have been much greater. The road was alive with people and some of the women were screaming at the top of their voices when the bombs went off. However the Zepps left us and things got much quieter."

"Father told me to get into bed with Mother and Dot; he was not coming back. I did so and then Father went out. He was gone nearly an hour and when he came back he said he had been to the Police Station. He could not get to know much except that they had left our district altogether. The rest of the night was spent in a restless sleep or none at all."

"Next morning, Tuesday, everybody one saw looked tired and strained. The first news we heard was that bombs had been dropped in our Park and near the powder magazine at the Pit and also some at Featherstone. When I got to school however I found the latter was not true. Bombs had been dropped on the muck-stacks facing towards Ackton and also in fields at Sharlston."

"There were so few children at school that we closed and returned home. I then cycled to the Park and saw the four holes made by the bombs and also one in the field by the powder magazine. Seven were dropped altogether just about there;- one in the pit yard, one 30 yards from the powder magazine, one near Townend’s stack-yard and four in the Park."

"After lunch I again went to school only to come back as so few children turned up again. I spent the afternoon reading and in the evening Dot and I went to Gymn Class where everybody thought we should not possibly turn up. The evening was enjoyable as usual. We were 'jumping the rope’ and also learnt a new American dance."

"We got home about nine and found Mother had gone to bed. She had been ill all day owing to the terrible upset of the night before. We all spent a good night and today, Wednesday, feel much better although it will take days for most people to get over the shock."

Using the evidence of the diary I was then able to look for a corresponding account in the archives of the Pontefract and Castleford Express which, having the exact date of the event from my grandmother’s Diary, fortunately did not take too long. The raid took place on Monday night the 27th of November 1916 in the vicinity of Pontefract and surrounding villages and the report was published in the Pontefract and Castleford Express on the following Friday the 1st December under the title "The Zeppelin Raid on Yorkshire".

Although the Newspaper report had to be vague in it’s actual naming of places and locations because of security reasons during wartime it seems clear from the initial description that it is talking about Pontefract, I quote: -

" .....a Northern Town known far and wide for several possessions comprising ancient and medieval buildings, a public park etc, etc, etc. In all it’s long history the town which has borne the shocks and blows enough had not hithertoo been the object of attention of these modern murder machines, the Zepp, although more than once like engines have passed over the old Borough elsewhere on wicked slaughter bent, so that Monday nights visitation was at once a novel and altogether alarming experience."

The reporter then goes on to describe the events of that night and I quote most of it as follows: -

"The first intimation of the presence of Zepps in the district was assumed when the public gas supply was turned very low at about 9.15pm. At about 10.30 the doubts of most people were determined by the distant booms of bursting bombs. Then of course everybody began to be interested. Meantime the ‘specials’ were discharging their duty in a way that does them exceeding credit. At this time it was thought that the effort of destruction was aimed at distant munition works or at some large centre of population, but when at about 11 o’clock there were terrific explosions and loud reports accompanied by heavy gun shooting none needed to be told that at last the huns were upon them. As a matter of fact, proved next morning by many witnesses, one or more of the terrible visitants hovered over the town and the neighbourhood for a considerable time, dealing out had they been accurately aimed, sufficient bombs to destroy half the town and many of the dwellers therein, not to speak of several big villages at some distance...................

It was at this time that the effects of the explosions and the shooting were most telling making the windows of old properties rattle, smashing some, and rousing the townsfolk, the people of the countryside, and the villagers generally.

There is no need to say that many persons were scared, that many remained calm and cool, and that a large number of people risked going into the open to see the unwanted sight - a raider airship hovering, droning, throbbing with inward forces and threatening everybody and everything beneath it...................................

About 11 o’clock the shooting and bombing explosions, near or distant, became less frequent and shortly afterwards the droning gradually died away in the distance. Those who had taken refuge in basements etc came out to learn what could be learnt and others retired to their beds.

The visitation was not ended however for at about 11.30 the unwelcome sound of distant bombs was heard and in an amazingly short time bombs exploded quite near and the droning was again practically overhead accompanied by what sounded like cracks of ‘heavens artillery’ terrific and nerve shaking to quiet peaceable people.

The experience however did not last long and about 11.45 the visitors cleared off for good although explosions were heard in the distance, either of their making or the shots of airmen in pursuit. For the space of an hour or more there were many people in the streets curious to see all and learn all they might and some especially where children were concerned remained in what they thought to be safe places. Upon the whole it may be said that the townsfolk behaved bravely and that the ‘specials’ did their duty as brave folk would expect them to do it.

Next morning was given up by large numbers of people to investigation and gossip in regard to the visitation. Many persons without a doubt saw the Zepp, possibly two..............

A few persons had seen ‘the streak of light like lightening’ when the bomb was started on it’s devastating mission, and then seen the dread flash when the explosion followed. What they had seen, doubtless, was the internal light of the machine which is unshaded for an instant when a bomb is being launched downward..............................

No fewer than eight bombs had been dropped in close proximity to the town and yet not one person was injured nor one building, dwelling house or other struck.

One of the eight fell in a works railway yard within a short distance of the works, one fell in a field a little distance away on another side of these important works; others found billets - one in a field close to a farm stackyard, four at distances of some 200 yards in a wide stretch of pasture land, and the eighth also in pasture land at no great distance......................

As to the material effects the damage was as slight as could have been. Some of the bombs did not explode and some were incendiary but did not fire anything not even a rabbit hutch. In the clayey pastureland, however, huge holes were torn and the turf scattered - convincing evidence that in a confined space, where there was great resistance, the havoc would have been dreadful.

That thousands of people on Tuesday and Wednesday and since have inspected these evidences of the nocturnal visit needs scarcely be stated.

Hundreds have carried off souvenirs of the occasion in the form of bits of shrapnel etc. The prevailing feeling is astonishment - that the town should be thought worthy of attention and that so marvellous an escape from harm has been the townsfolk’s portion.

As regards certain villages not far distant we find that eleven or twelve bombs of both kinds were dropped. Five explosions fell into waste heaps, two incendiaries struck the ground close to an old residence, an incendiary which did not explode found its billet in a field and three incendiaries dived into an immense waste pile. In no instance was any damage of note done, no building was struck, and no person was seriously injured. Marvellous is the only word that fits the circumstances."

So there we are, the newspaper report backing up my Grandmothers diary and both lending credence to the family tale of the bombing raid on Pontefract even if it wasn’t the ‘Kaiser Bill’ himself trying to blow the town up.

Reading them both together and taking into account that the Newspaper report had to be vague in it’s locations whereas my grandmother was not, it is clear that they refer to the same event. My grandmothers first hand account although vivid and descriptive seems nothing like the dramatised and somewhat jingoistic report in the paper but then that was probably to be expected in the light of what was happening at that time. Whatever the feelings of those involved it must still have been a frightening experience and one obviously not to be forgotten in a long time. Although the Newspaper reported "astonishment" and "a marvellous escape from harm" of the population, this was not exactly true as may be witnessed from the following report again from the same paper and printed on the same page which highlights the relevance of the fear and shock the raid had on some: -


"On Thursday afternoon an inquest was held in a little northern village on the body of a woman who died from shock during the raid. The woman who was 49 years of age had for some time past been suffering from heart trouble, for which she had been attended by a doctor.

When the alarm was given on Monday night she along with other women and some children sought safety in a cellar in a garden near her home. She got over the shock of the first visit all right but when on the return journey an airship dropped an explosive bomb within 300 yards of her home she fainted and died in the arms of a neighbour a few minutes later.

Although bombs were dropping all round the countryside, the deceased’s daughter bravely set out on her cycle through very lonely country to fetch a doctor, but her mother had passed away before the doctor arrived. The coroner expressed his deep sympathy with the husband and family and later in summing up the evidence, said that the poor woman’s death was directly due to the murderous barbarity of the enemy, that it was a disgusting and cruel shame.

The jury unanimously returned the following verdict: - "Died from shock due to fright owing to bombs dropped by an enemy airship near her home."

Ted Brook


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