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Refugees of Hartlepool Bombardment, 1914

On 16th December 1914, the towns of Hartlepool and West Hartlepool came under attack by three German warships, causing many people to flee the town at short notice. In the face of losing their homes and loved ones, some chose not to return.

A drawing from the front cover of a magazine depicting the Bombardment of Hartlepool. Image courtesy of Hartlepool Museum Service.

For Refugee Week, we are looking back at a time when, if only briefly, Hartlepool citizens became refugees from their homes as a result of the First World War.

On the morning of 16th December 1914, three German warships rained down shells on the towns of Hartlepool and West Hartlepool, killing 130 people and injuring 443 others. It was the first time in the First World War that Britain had been attacked on their own soil. You can read more about the Bombardment of Hartlepool in a previously published blog here, which has also been updated with access to more images.

At the time of the attack most people were getting dressed, having breakfast or on their way to work. With the realisation that some of their neighbours were being killed on their own homes or on the streets, many civilians tried to leave the towns, either on foot or by trying to board the next trains departing –

Many people feared that this was also the beginning of a German invasion of Britain and wanted to get as far away as possible. In the end this was not the case, but in the midst of the fear and confusion of the attack it can be understandable why many people believed this.

There was also a false alarm a few days later on the 18th which caused Hartlepool citizens to hurriedly collect as many valuables as they could and leave the towns. Special constables and military personnel who were stationed in the towns did manage to return most people to their homes on both occasions.

Notices were made available to the people of Hartlepool by the Local Emergency Committee and the County Borough of West Hartlepool. They both stated that an invasion would be very unlikely but also gave some advice on what to do if another attack happened –

Image courtesy of Hartlepool Museum Service.

The attack on the Hartlepools – and Whitby and Scarborough which were both also bombarded by the same German ships – were widely talked about in the press. This was the first time that the War had reached British shores, and the first instance of soldiers and civilians losing their lives as a result.

Although this attack had not resulted in an occupation of Britain, comparisons were drawn with Germany’s invasion of Belgium which had occurred only four months ago –

There was much empathy for the people who had lost family and their homes, and those who had faced the trauma of the attack. The bombardment of the Hartlepools stood as an example that anyone could become a refugee.

With their homes destroyed many families decided to leave Hartlepool and stay with relatives nearby. And there were some families who chose never to return and start again elsewhere.

Those who decided to stay however decided to try to continue on as normally as possible. Some business owners had damaged windows either covered or replaced within hours of the attack and those that had sustained little damage opened as usual. The engineering works of Westgarth and Richardsons also began the process of repairing damage to their premises as well.

The Mayor of West Hartlepool, J. R. Fryer, (who was also working as a Special Constable Commander) directed the Constabulary to return most people to their homes, find warm clothing for those who had fled into the cold December morning with little clothing, and provide help for those who had become homeless or had lost relatives. He also ensured that the main roads were kept open for the seriously injured to be taken to the hospital in Newcastle. And he issued proclamations in the newspapers calling for calm.

Despite this horrific attack, the people of the Hartlepools carried on in one way or another, whether it be to pick up and start again in a new home, or to stay and repair a broken life.