Early in May 1942, the third year of the war, people of Richmond were rather surprised when this leaflet from the mayor, E. A Collings, dropped through their letter box.
POISON GAS WEEK
Dear Sir or Madam,
During the period June 15th – June 20th it will be necessary upon one or two occasions to liberate in the streets of the Borough a form of War-gas….
…it will cause extremely unpleasant symptoms if breathed without the protection of a respirator; and, since no warning will be given of the “surprise attack”, you will therefore required to have your gas-mask constantly with you.
This was the announcement of a week designed to raise public awareness of the dangers of an enemy attack with poison gas. Similar notices appeared on the front pages of the local newspapers with the warning…
DANGER – THERE WILL BE SURPRISE POISON GAS ATTACKS SO CARRY YOUR GAS-MASK – ALWAYS
In those days almost everyone knew about the dangers of poison gas. It had been used extensively in the First World War and over 90,000 soldiers had died as a result. There were still enough survivors around, coughing and wheezing their damaged lungs out, to keep the memory foremost in people’s minds. The council’s use of terms like “Poison Gas” and “Danger” was not a wise one as the Richmond and Twickenham Times reported on Saturday June 20th 1942…
“It had the effect of keeping people in their homes or away from Richmond….our own observation tells us that there have been fewer visitors to the town all through the week…The consensus of opinion seems to be that the organisers of this laudable attempt to induce people to carry their gas-masks, or at least to keep them near at hand, and to be sure that they are ready for service; was marred by excessive zeal and overstatement.”
Although the Chief Warden tried to reassure the population that only non – lethal tear gas would be used during the week the damage had been done. The “Daily Mail” picked up the story reporting criticism by local shopkeepers whose takings were down because “nervous shoppers were refusing to come into Richmond”. Posters stuck up all over town warning “Danger! Poison Gas” didn’t help much either. The manager of a shoe shop said, "_My takings yesterday were practically nil._ There are a lot of elderly retired people in Richmond, and you can understand how they felt when they saw posters about “Danger! Poison Gas.” Mr Louis Wilson, the manager of the Royalty cinema said that since the announcement of “Poison Gas Week” 60 percent fewer people had passed through his cinema. Mr Wynton, manager of the Premier cinema had a similar experience. “People are afraid to come out,” he said.
The threat of gas attack on the civilian population was one of the biggest fears of World War 2. By 1940 over thirty eight million gas masks had been issued to British people with special adaptations for children, babies – and pets. Although the public were constantly being encouraged to carry their gas-masks at all times and know how to use them, familiarity and the lack of any gas attack by the Nazis resulted in gas-mask apathy. Many people just couldn’t be bothered. All the Air Raid Precautions (A.R.P) authorities were trying to do with ‘Poison Gas Week’ was to make the public more aware of the dangers, give them an opportunity to test their own gas-masks and distribute information on what to do if caught in a gas attack.
The climax of “Poison Gas Week” took place with a gas release in George Street on the morning of Wednesday 17th June 1942. This is how the “Rich and Twick” reported the event…
Efforts had been made to keep the time and place secret, but everyone was on the look-out for this surprise attack and most people seemed to have an idea when it was imminent.
To begin with Mr Dudley Sutton, perched aloft on one of the mobile towers that is used for repairing electrical cables, was broadcasting to the shoppers from about 10.00pm and some smoke was released to give the effect of gas.
Then two ‘casualties’ were seen to collapse on the pavement and wardens and ambulance attendants gave them the first-aid treatment for phosgene gas poisoning, rolling them in blankets and keeping them still,
As zero hour approached wardens appeared at all the entrances to George Street and quietly warned elderly and infirm people and anyone with babies or dogs, so that they could get away if they wished.
Traffic was diverted, meat and fish shops brought down their shutters to protect the food. Some people without masks, realising what was happening hurried away, so that when the tear gas was released at various points along George Street and the rattles were sounded most of the public was well prepared and there was no panic. They quickly put on their gas masks and stood listening to a commentator who was also in a gas mask…
After about 20 minutes the “All Clear” hand bells were sounded by wardens. For a long time afterwards, however, the gas hung about, and nearly an hour and a half later people’s eyes watered slightly when they went into shops where the gas had collected and had not been dispersed.
For all the initial fears about poison gas – odourless, colourless and deadly – wafting through the streets, Richmond ‘Poison Gas Week’ was declared to be a success. It was estimated that between 4000 and 6000 people tested their gas masks by walking through a tear gas chamber, including many mothers with babies and children in “Mickey Mouse” masks. Over 200 faulty masks were found and repaired and 33 “baby helmets” were issued.
Mr Dudley Sutton, the broadcaster up the mobile tower, signed off the week with a pop at the Daily Mail…
“Anybody, any newspaper that suggests that the people of Richmond are very jittery or afraid of a mere gas test, is encouraging the enemy to try with real gas. What sort of people does this “Daily What’s-its-name” think we are? Richmond proposes to show Hitler by her readiness and knowledge that gas will get him exactly nowhere, and such discouragement for the enemy is one way shorten the war"!
Amateur colour footage of children and adults trying on gas masks
I did what I could with gas mask – George Formby
— from Martyn Day
Credits: Photographs taken in George Street, Richmond are from the ‘Daily Mail’. The Mayor’s announcement of “Poison Gas Week” are from Richmond Library – Local Studies Collection.