Leeds City Museum

Bomb damaged city museum in 1941

...we were all thinking ‘what’s happened to the tiger?'

Doreen Woods
News item reporting damage to Leeds City Museum

Havoc at a museum Contemporary news report on the damage.

What happened?

Leeds City Museum was one of the worst damaged buildings during the raid. The bomb census carried out afterwards explained that it had suffered a direct hit from a 50kg high explosive. The bomb penetrated the roof, crashing through the internal structure and exploded on the ground floor. It caused extensive damage, demolishing much of the first floor and the front of the building.

Inside the building, two firewatchers, Tom Dean and Edgar Scott, were blown backwards and buried under debris. Fortunately, they escaped with only minor injuries: if they had been any closer to the entrance the collapse could have been fatal.

Dean and Scott were rescued by John Wilson, a volunteer ARP warden whose story is told in the ‘heroism’ section.

The force of the explosion was also felt outside of the building. Firefighters tackling a nearby blaze were struck down as the bomb hit. Solomon Belinsky, a volunteer firefighter, was hit by shrapnel and sustained a serious leg injury. He was transferred to the Leeds General Infirmary but died on 1 April following medical complications.

The museum also lost many irreplaceable artefacts in the raid. Most damage was done to collections of birds, medals and ceramics. However, the most famous objects damaged were the Egyptian mummies, which had been at the museum since 1824, a stuffed tiger and an army side drum that was thought to have belonged to a Yorkshire regiment at the Battle of Waterloo. A notebook listing many of the items that were salvaged from the rubble has recently been rediscovered in the museum’s archives – and is the focus of this blog on the museum’s website.

After a year of repairs, the museum reopened to visitors in June 1942. The bomb-damaged building was demolished in the 1960s.

Exterior of the Leeds City Museum followin the bomb damage

Leeds City Museum after the air raid

Bomb dame inside Leeds City Museum

Leeds City Museum The damage of the 'Bird Room' falling through the floor.

How did the damage affect morale?

The City Museum, like the Town Hall and markets, was a source of civic pride and its damage does seem to have had an impact on morale. Museums help to build public culture by collecting objects that tell stories about the past (Shapley, 2012, p.312). It would have been hard for the people of Leeds to see this destroyed. At the time of the 70th anniversary, the BBC interviewed Doreen Woods, who had lived through the raid. She recalled that ‘we were all thinking “what’s happened to the tiger”’ (Doreen Woods, BBC, 2011).

As well as being a source of civic pride, the closure of the museum also shows how ‘normal’ activities were disrupted by bombing. As we have explained, historians have shown that morale was worse in places where bombing stopped people from going about their ‘normal’ lives (Beaven and Griffiths, 1999). Leisure activities were particularly valuable ‘as signs of normality at times of danger’ and the closure of the museum would have highlighted the painful impact of the war (Taylor, 2018, p.316).

Today, though, the museum’s collection – including those items damaged during the raid – can help us to make sense of what happened to Leeds in 1941.

Bomb Damage at Leeds City Museum

Leeds City Museum Looking at the damage from Park Row