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15 October 2014
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Fred McEwan and the Home Guard Rescue the Caretaker's Family at Hulme Town Hall

by Stockport Libraries

Contributed by 
Stockport Libraries
People in story: 
Fred McEwen of Hulme
Location of story: 
Hulme Town Hall, Manchester
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 January 2004

This story was submitted by Ann Doherty, the daughter of Fred McEwan, as published in the Evening Chronicle October 21st, 1957.

Fred McEwan and his colleague Joseph McKeown were serving in the C (Hulme) Company of the 46th Battalion Home Guard in 1940 when a massive parachute mine dropped next to Hulme Town Hall.

There are stories that there were massive casualties in the adjacent air raid shelter that were subsequently hushed up. In fact the only casualties there were a Home Guardsman called Shaliker and a reserve policeman both of whom were slightly injured by falling brickwork.

The bomb dropped on Trafford Street and rocked the Town Hall tearing away the outer brickwork of the Town Hall and wrecking several houses on the other side of the street where several people, including two children, lost their lives.

The C (Hulme) Company of the 46th Battalion Home Guard, under Major W.D.Lawson were stationed in the in the Town Hall. The 'baby' of the unit was 18 year old Frank Mills of Spruce Street. He said:

"A giant wind swept the room flinging me from my bench to the other side of the floor. The door of the C.O's room was torn out and as I got to my feet, there was Major lawson standing in the empty doorway, cool as a cucumber, and saying 'All right men. We'd better see if anyone has been hurt'
"As we pushed open the heavy door of the shelter the sight that met us astonished us all. There was neither injury or panic. the people had obviously had a shock - we all had - but they were just sitting there calm and quiet as if nothing had happened"

Anything approaching a miracle at Hulme Town Hall came not during the raid but late in the afternoon when the caretaker, a Mr Capper, his wife and married daughter were rescued uninjured from beneath tons of rubble - more than 12 hours after the mine had buried them.

CQMS Joseph McKeown, then a 65 year old Military Medallist of World War I, who kept a crockery and general shop on Stretford Road and Sergeant Fred McEwan, now a 60 year old cutter in a clothing factory, who had also served in that other war took charge of the rescue squad.

From inside the Town Hall they tapped foot by foot with a brick along the remains of the Trafford Street wall. At last came an answering tapping, its faint sound travelling up the fire flue. They began tapping outside and again came answering taps.

Then started a race against time, with heavy booted men treading warily for fear they sent more debris hurtling down.

Hour by hour the pile of debris grew less as bricks were passed from hand to hand along the human chain.

Sergeant McEwan called for a saw and cut away part of the timber. below him yawned darkeness -but there was no sign of rubble.

He wanted to lower a torch to the family trapped below, but the rope was too thick to secure it. He drew the adjusting silk tape from the waist of his underpants, fastened one end to the rope and the other end to the torch and lowered the light through the clouding dust.

The beam was not strong enough to light the cavern more than 16 feet below. He drew up the rope and prepared to go down, shouting a warning "Keep clear below; I'm coming down".

Not for the first time in the raids the reaction to escape from death was an immediate return to normality blessedly comic in its relief.

"Don't you dare come down here. I'm not properly dressed."

The Home Guard rescue squad had been on duty for more than 20 hours. Although it was just after afternoon closing time at the local, liaison with the licensee enabled Sgt. Mc Ewan to stand them a drink all round.

He collected his own immediate award - one of the many Christmas turkeys which the company intelligence officer, Charles Eccles, who lives at Chorlton, had been dressing in his Preston Street shop when the alert had called him to duty the previous evening.

Later came the great reward. Fred McEwan and Joseph McKeown, who has since died, were awarded the British Empire Medal and the official record states that they were on duty at fires and wrecked houses for 14 hours before they started the rescue.

Major Lawson accompanied them both to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. Today a narrow strip of silk tape keeps Fred's citation company in its envelope. It was too good a souvenir to thread back into his underpants.

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