Thursday, July 6, 2017

Sheffield Blitz: lost eyewitness account from Marples Hotel survivor comes to light in archives

Marples Hotel ruins after Blitz, 13 Dec 1940
(Picture Sheffield: s02100)
An exciting discovery has recently been made at Sheffield City Archives - a lost eyewitness account from a Sheffield Blitz survivor of the bombing of the Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square.  At 11.44pm on the night of 12th December 1940, the Marples Hotel suffered a direct hit from a 500 lb Luftwaffe bomb which sent all seven stories of the building crashing down, killing an estimated 70+ people who were seeking refuge from the air raid attack in the cellars below. It was the single biggest loss of life sustained in the Sheffield Blitz.

The eyewitness account is that of Lionel George Ball, a 27 year-old lorry driver, who lived at 180 Badminton Road in Bristol, one of just seven people recorded as having been pulled out alive from the hotel ruins. The account was found in a Sheffield City Coroner’s inquest case file into a presumption of death from enemy action.

Part of Lionel Ball's statement, July 1941
(Sheffield City Archives: CC1/5/2)
The inquest in question was held specifically into the ‘alleged death’ of Frank Dalton of 20 Popple Street, Sheffield, who was believed to have been killed in the Marples but his body (like so many of those sheltering in the cellars of the hotel when the bomb struck) was never recovered and identified. The inquest was not held until August 1941 (eight months after the fatal Luftwaffe attack). Dalton was serving as a sergeant in the Royal Air Force at the time but was thought to have been back in Sheffield on leave on the night of 12th December 1940 where he is understood to have gone to the Marples.

Just seven Sheffield City Coroner’s inquest case files into ‘alleged deaths’ of individuals thought to have been killed in the Marples Hotel have survived in the Sheffield City Coroner’s collection at Sheffield City Archives where they are stored in bundles respectively dated 1940 and 1941 (ref. CC1/5/1-2). The newly discovered inquest case file had evidently been misfiled many decades previous, in a bundle from a different year. The file has now been reunited with other inquests from 1941. 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 the night of 12th December 1940 but was one of the fortunate few to surface the next day from the rubble alive. The inquest confirms how on the morning of 13th December, seven men were rescued from the cellars and statements were obtained from five of them, one of whom was Lionel George Ball.
Marples Hotel as it stood in 1905 (Picture Sheffield: s03284)

In his statement (dated 29 July 1941) submitted to the Sheffield Police and passed to the inquest, Ball relates how he had arrived in Sheffield from Bristol on the night of 12th December 1940 and had gone for a drink at the Marples Hotel with a fellow lorry driver William Wallace King who was also employed by the same Bristol-based firm (King is listed as another of the seven survivors from the Marples).

Ball recalls how the air raid that night started around 7.10pm but became so intense that it was felt unsafe to leave the hotel and so he and King took refuge in the cellar bar (known as the ‘Tudor Lounge’) where he estimates there were 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. This would have been a bomb known to have been dropped at 10.50pm which hit C&A Modes Department Store (standing opposite the Marples Hotel), the flying debris from which struck the hotel. Ball tells of how he and King helped to take some of the injured into the ‘Bottle Stores’ adjoining the cellar 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. After the bomb hit, in Ball’s words:

Public-house entertainment at the Marples Hotel,
Fitzalan Square, 30 March 1940 (Picture Sheffield: s02038)
“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...”

Ball goes on to tell how 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 following morning. Ball says: “We were digging ourselves out all night by using our hands and pipes which we wrenched off the barrels”.

When shown a photograph by the Sheffield Police of the missing man at the centre of the particular inquest, Frank Dalton, Ball was able to confirm how he was the same man (wearing an RAF sergeant’s uniform) he had spoken to earlier on that fateful night in the Tudor Lounge cellar bar, thus confirming that Dalton was in the Marples shortly before the hotel was struck. Ball recalled how Dalton had told him how he had flown several missions over Germany in the course of the war. 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 Pickett left the Marples around 11.30pm, he noticed the man he identified as Dalton sitting in the Tudor Lounge. 15 minutes later Dalton and the some 70+ people with him were dead.

Marples Hotel – ruins with survivor on stretcher,
13 Dec 1940 (Picture Sheffield: s02104)
There were no survivors recovered from the Tudor Lounge cellar bar. The Bristolians Ball and King evidently owe their chance survival to the fact that they had helped to take those injured in the earlier blast into the adjoining Bottle Stores, the roof of which somehow held whilst the main cellar roof collapsed, killing all those sheltering underneath. 

The Sheffield Blitz Facebook page:
Blitz exhibition at the National Emergency Services Museum, Sheffield: