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The night World Museum nearly died

26 February 2016 by Emma Martin

The upper horseshoe gallery was home to the natural history collections in 1941. In pride of place was Don Pedro, the Indian elephant

The upper horseshoe gallery was home to the natural history collections in 1941. In pride of place was Don Pedro, the Indian elephant.

Over the next few weeks Lolo, a student working at World Museum, will blog about the events of the 3rd May 1941 – the night World Museum nearly died. Here at the museum we are preparing to launch an on-line exhibition on the 3rd May. We will recount what happened that night 75 years ago and Lolo will also be writing blogs that reveal in more depth what happened to some of the museum’s objects.

“Many of you will know that Liverpool was bombed during the May Blitz of 1941. But did you know that Liverpool Museum (now World Museum) was also a victim of the Blitz? Both the building and the collections that were still on display were turned to charred rubble. Those who saw the aftermath never forgot. Thirty years after the bombing in 1971, Frederick Wilkinson, a museum attendant spoke to the Liverpool Echo recalling what he saw when he arrived for work that morning:

When I arrived at 5.30a.m. on May 4, it was to find the museum in flames. The roof had collapsed and with it a lot of masonry, trapping the fireman’s hoses. The main hall with the ventilator shafts and wooden beams had gone up in flames, and I shall never forget seeing the flames sweeping around the galleries.

The upper horseshoe gallery after the bombing on the 3rd May 1941

The upper horseshoe gallery after the bombing on the 3rd May 1941

On that night objects from across the museum fell victim to the bombing – from Indian elephants to New Zealand carvings.”

 

  1. Chris Moseley says:

    In the early 1980’s I was told by an elderly gentleman that the pre-war museum had an aquarium in the basement which had a live seal. He believed the seal died when the museum was gutted by fire. Is there any truth in this recollection?

    • Emma Martin says:

      Sadly Chris, there is some truth to this. Sammy the seal who arrived at Liverpool Museum in the 1930s is believed to have died in the fire that spread through the museum that night. Although, his death isn’t recorded in the museum’s papers. There were also, surprisingly, some survivors that night too, including the fish who had been in tanks close to the museum’s outer walls. Some were let out into the Mersey while others found a new home in a pond at Galltfaenan Hall near Denbigh, the temporary home for the museum’s staff after the bombing.

  2. Marc says:

    Someone once told me that when the blitz started the fish in the aquarium were flushed down the toilet – can you shed any light on this?

  3. Emma Martin says:

    Hi Marc,
    Yes, there is some truth in that.. Frederick Williamson, the museum attendant who arrived to see the museum still burning recalled that, “Most of them [the fish] had been destroyed by fire and smoke. Some were still alive. When I was able, I freed them, swilling them down the drain. I hoped they would make their way into the river – it was all I could do.”

    • Marc Jones says:

      Fascinating! I was told that story when I worked in WML a few years ago, but had obviously partially misremembered it. Thank you for solving the mystery!

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