The Ghosts of Cold War Sheffield

MA students in the School of English are provided with the opportunity of taking a work placement as part of their degree programme. This year James Throup is working at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library as a social media assistant. He is writing a series of blog posts highlighting the city’s fascinating archival treasures. This post first appeared on Sheffield Libraries’ blog on 30 March 2016.

It seems strange now to think that, in the not too distant past, the people of Sheffield lived under a constant cloud of possible nuclear annihilation. Today, Europe has fresh fears and threats of terror to contend with; nevertheless, they pale in comparison with the level of anxiety evident during periods of the Cold War – a time when the mutually assured destruction of the earth seemed a distinct possibility.

nuclear sheffieldNotwithstanding my awareness of the more renowned global events from this period, it was through delving into the materials available at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library that I came to a greater understanding of the effect the Cold War had on people on a more local and day-to-day level.

Luckily, a number of documents from the period were collected by Sheffield resident May Mirfin (1901-1994), and they offer a palpable sense of what life was like at the time. May was a founding member of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organisation, prior to and during World War Two, and a member of the Civil Defence Corps (CDC) until 1967; consequently, her collection paints a broad landscape of how the city prepared for disaster.

One of the documents in the collection is a set of instructions for ‘Exercise Talbot’ (1952) – an emergency simulation to ‘teach simple operational procedure’ in case of an aerial attack. Section 3 of the document sets out a chilling narrative for this exercise:

It is 19:42 hours – the alert has sounded – small explosions are heard almost immediately in the centre of the City, followed by a tremendous explosion three minutes later towards the East end. After a short pause the Wardens start their patrol and at 19:50 hours the ‘Raiders passed’ is heard.

As much as in its official capacity, the CDC also aimed to promote camaraderie and social cohesion, attempting to maintain the collective spirit of the Home Guard after the Second World War. Elsewhere in the collection are several issues of the ‘Headquarters Chronicle and Diary’, the monthly magazine of the CDC. These publication feature upcoming training events and recruitment programs for specialist roles, forthcoming social events and quiz matches (extremely popular it seems), as well as letters and contributions from members of the organisation.

Poems are popular in the contributions section, and sometimes feature a distinctly troubled tone, evident in these stanzas from a poem entitled ‘The Unquiet Mind, in the Darkest Hour (after a C.D lecture and quiz)’:

Trouble, Trouble, blocked with rubble,

Gamma Ray and heat flash bubble!

Worthy men, of good intent

Gather round the incident…

Agonised we turn and twitch

Nerve or blister? Which is which?

Another night is thrown away

Comes the dawn now, cold and grey.

Throughout the collection, many of the pieces convey a strange, mixed sense of the mundane and the life-threatening. One piece seems to perfectly encapsulate this incongruity: an index of the Civil Defence training syllabus – featuring training sessions on High Explosive Missiles, Atomic Warfare, and Chemical Warfare – on the back of which is a handwritten recipe for chocolate ‘Snowballs’.

NationalWomensPeacesWeekendflyerAlthough the precautionary measures of the CDC were viewed as a priority by the government, many argued against them in light of the fact that the destructive capabilities of the hydrogen bomb rendered defence moot. Instead, many chose to focus their energies on campaigning for peace and against the use of nuclear weapons.

Sheffield also has a long and proud history of campaigning for peace throughout the Cold War. In 1956, the city was twinned with the Soviet city of Donetsk (formerly Stalino) in an effort to promote ties of mutual goodwill and calls for a more peaceful resolution; the agreement resides in the Sheffield Archives. One clause perfectly sums up its twin aims of opposition and solidarity:

Our twin cities declare their absolute opposition to the use of nuclear weapons as the means of settling differences and are of the opinion that their very existence constitutes a serious threat to all humanity.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was also very active in Sheffield, staging many protests and holding many events in the area. One curious item I unearthed in the Local Studies Library is ‘Poems for Peace’, a CND associated collection of verse which provided an artistic platform for Sheffield residents to voice their feelings on the Cold War. This is from ‘Peace seeps slowly…’ by Stephen Pacitti:

Peace Seeps slowly from the raw wounds of war,

Must be caught quickly, each drop, at the time of pain

Before slick words soothe and anoint the sores:

It is the loss of memory, not of blood, that kills

And would kill again

Though we may feel the Cold War is far behind us, many of its spectres still haunt the discussion tables of today. Recent political disputes surrounding the Trident missile system show how we still grapple with conflicting ideas of defence, deterrent, and disarmament. Recent warfare in both the Middle East and in the Ukraine also threatens to re-entrench divisions between Russia and the West. The artefacts maintained in the Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library serve as a timeless reminder, lest we forget the mistakes of the past and doom ourselves to repeat them.

James Throup

‘May Mirfin (1901 – 1994)’ Sheffield Archives: MD7348

‘Sheffield/Donetsk Agreement’ (1956) Sheffield Archives: CA 617 (2)

‘Poems for Peace’ (1986). Edited by Linda Hoy (London: Pluto Press) Local Studies Library: 341.67 SST

‘Letters and Flyers’ in Local Studies Library: Miscellaneous Papers folder 3

See also: https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/libraries/archives-and-local-studies/research-guides/cold-war.html

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