Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Home Front – Blackout Accessories

The clocks went back by an hour this weekend here in Blighty, which meant a lovely extra hour snuggled up in bed, sadly it also means as much as I hate to concede to it, the gloaming wintery nights and dreary early mornings will gradually be drawing themselves tighter around us over coming weeks, so I thought it would be the perfect time for  another Picture Post from the Imperial War Museums archive collection. This time, we are going to take a glimpse at what life was like during the wartime blackouts and see what precautions people could take to keep them safe and sound in the blackness.

Preparations for war had begun as far back as 1937 the Air Ministry predicted that if war was declared, Britain would be subjected to sudden night air attacks from Luftwaffe bombers, which would lead to high levels of civilian casualties and mass destruction to towns and cities. To counter this threat the government decided that if all man-made lights were extinguished, this would mean that the enemy who was identifying their targets using pre-war maps and up to date reconnaissance photographs would find it much more difficult to hit their intended targets as any identifying landmarks would be shrouded in the blackness. Blackout rehearsals became routine from early 1938, householders were told to check their homes for chinks of light while the RAF monitored the areas from above, these test showed that vehicle traffic was the main problem, even vehicles driven with just sidelights were still clearly visible from above and highlighted the road pattern below.
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To achieve this nationwide blackout it was necessary and a patriotic duty for every citizen to play their part. Ensuring that the rules were strictly followed was vital, so the home office appealed for 300,00 ‘citizen volunteers’ to be trained as A.R.P wardens to enforce the rules and impose fines to those who did not comply. So at sunset on the 1st of September 1939 two days before the official outbreak of WW2  the UK was plunged into complete utter darkness.

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Street lamps were extinguished, homes were fitted with blackout curtains and paint to ensure that no ambient light escaped from chinks in their windows, trains were fitted with dingy blue lights which made it barely possible to see your fellow passengers and because the stations were also blacked out it became increasingly difficult for passengers to determine firstly what station they were at, and secondly, which side of the train they need to alight to actually step on the platform. On the roads, vehicles were permitted to use lights as long as they were properly  covered with a metal hood, which only allowed thin slits of light to shine upon the approaching road and even the amber glow from a cheeky night time cigarette was banned. The people did what they were told and ‘put that light out’!

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A consequence of the new blackout regime was that road traffic incidents increased dramatically, so the government decreed that thick white lines must be painted on kerbs and lamp posts, but this proved to make little difference to the number of collisions. It's interesting to note that by the end of 1939 a mere three months into the war, a reported 4000 civilians had been killed in blackout related accidents, a sobering thought when during the same period in combat only 3 of the British Expeditionary force had been killed in action. In the Jan of 1940 the government relaxed the laws and allowed low powered torches -as long as the were covered with 3 layers of brown paper with a hole the size of a half-penny cut in the middle allowing only a tiny beam of light – to be used to hail buses by shining the torch on to you palm or feet, however, batteries supplies soon became scarce so eventually even this was no longer an option.

To make people feel a little safer during the blackouts the government urged pedestrians to ‘wear something white at night. Policemen were issued with white capes and shops had a run on white coats and macs as well as other accessories and it is at one such shop that we pick up today's Ministry of Information story at the ever so stylish blackout counter in Oxford Streets Selfridges.
A sales assistant, using a stuffed toy, demonstrates a blackout coat for dogs to a customer at Selfridge's department store in London. The coat would make sure that the dog was visible to car drivers and pedestrians during the dark nights of the blackout.
A female sales assistant helps a customer to choose a blackout collar at Selfridge's department store in London.The various styles available were an attempt to make the functional collars a bit more fashionable. The collars would help to ensure that the wearer was a bit more visible to cars and other pedestrians in the blackout.
A blackout walking stick on sale at Selfridge's in London's Oxford Street.
The light in the tip of the walking stick would illuminate the ground sufficiently for the user to see more clearly in the blackout, and to make the user more visible to pedestrians and vehicles. These walking sticks sold for 14/6.
A woman pins a luminous disc to her jacket lapel at Selfridge's department store in London.
These badges were to be worn in the blackout, as a way to make the wearer more visible to fellow pedestrians and motorists on the dark streets of the blackout. These discs were on sale for 2d per dozen.
A female shop assistant displays a white raincoat for use in the blackout. The colour of the fabric of the coat would mean that the wearer would be clearly visible to other pedestrians and to motorists in the dark streets of the blackout.
A display at Selfridge's department store in London advertises the various accessories available for use in the blackout.  Included here are two types of luminous armband, luminous discs and button badges, and luminous adhesive tape which could be added to the edges of clothing. The aim was to make the wearer more visible to pedestrians and vehicles in the blackout
A stand at in the umbrella department of Selfridge's department store in London displays a selection of blackout walking sticks.  These sticks were painted with luminous paint to make the user more visible to pedestrians and motorists on the darks streets of the blackout. These sticks sold for 2/6 each.
A luminous gas mask case on sale at Selfridge's department store in London. These gas mask covers were on sale for 2/11.
A woman pins a luminous flower onto her jacket lapel and consults her reflection at Selfridge's department store in London. These flowers were prettier than the plain button badges and luminous discs that were also available but did the same job: making the wearer more visible to other pedestrians and motorists on the dark streets of the blackout.
A woman looks at her reflection in a mirror as she examines a selection of blackout collars at Selfridge's department store in London. The various styles available were an attempt to make the functional collars a bit more fashionable. The collars would help to ensure that the wearer was a bit more visible to cars and other pedestrians in the blackout.
A shop assistant shows a customer a luminous flower in Selfridge's department store, London.
These flowers were one of numerous blackout accessories available in 1940 to make pedestrians more visible on the dark streets of the capital.
At first people avoided going out at night, but once the winter drew in and the days became shorter it was harder for people to avoid, life must have been extremely difficult for those who had to navigate the streets at night, even with your snazzy new collar or illuminated cane, I don’t think that I would have felt much more at ease at all, it must have been quite an eerie let alone dangerous time, not only did you have the dangers in the dark to contend with there was also the little matter of the bombs!
In case you fancy your very own blackout accessories, I have the perfect pattern for you taken from Home Notes November 1942, are these 'Safety First Gloves'. Knitted in a striking navy blue and white  combination, these snazzy gloves will ensure that you are not overlooked in a blackout!

Be safe, be seen!
Wendy x


  1. your article is timely, as there have been rumors of a blackout in the u.s. they have been doing blackout drills, national geographic channel showed a movie called american blackout sunday night and some news stations are giving tips on how to prepare for a blackout. different sort of blackout i guess but still very interesting. thanks for sharing!

  2. Really interesting post - thanks! I've often wondered and tried to imagine what it would have been like getting about in a black out - I just find it so hard to fathom. It must have been truly unsettling. But it would certainly have made getting back indoors all the more cosy and relieving!

  3. That's a fascinating post. Most informative!

  4. We've had powercuts here already in rural north yorks...nothin to do with weather!...every sept I always make sure..candles matches torches lanterns calor gas camping stove supplies firelighters batteries...non perishable foodstuffs..powdered milk!!! SAD i know...but it has turned out to be jolly useful even in this modern day age....we don't seem to be able to cope at times!!!so I make sure we do!!

    1. I can't imagine having power cuts on a regular basis, that must be very frustrating, thought I love how organised you are, its true in this modern day we rely far to much on technology so panic when were hit with a bit of strong wind or snow, you would think living on an island we all would be a little more prepared for weird weather!

    2. We have the same problem here in the welsh valleys, although I think that's mostly weather related. Every winter we get quite a few blackouts, sometimes for hours at a time. Personally, I think they divert the power to Cardiff when there's problems, blacking out everywhere else ;) I quite like it, with the Aga going I still get tea, toast and cosy warmth, so it's like a little adventure!