Bomb Damage and Resilience

Portsmouth was bombed heavily in WWII, in fact it was the third most heavily bombed city in England. Not surprising given its long standing military function. At some level it is seen as a mark of strength – ‘look what we survived’ But for most people its just been absorbed, its rarely talked about.

As in many other cities, the areas of most intense bombing were already areas of deprivation, and reconstruction merged with clearance to restructure the city. (With the usual mixed results). But there were bombs scattered through the whole city and houses were repaired, altered and replaced piecemeal within existing streetscapes.

Recently I’ve been doing a community heritage project with a local school, Goldsmith’s Infants. The site was bombed quite early in the war and the bombing had all sorts of complex effects on the history of the school. So we’ve talked a good deal about the bombings in general. When I show the bomb map to people who didn’t live here at the time they are amazed and intrigued. 


Even people who were here weren’t always aware of the extent of damage. Last year I spoke to a woman who didn’t know the school she went to was bombed two years after she left it. She lived in the neighbourhood her whole life, but never noticed its absence.

Walking home from school today and noting the ‘gap tooth’ houses that replace the bomb sites within terraces I had a strong sense of the ghostly nature of the destruction. The replacement houses are usually smaller than the lost houses, less well finished.


Melancholy rose above resilience in my experience of that past. 

How does the heritage of war persist in daily life? Is there room for the full range of emotional responses? Is resilience more valuable than melancholy? 

Resilience is a very important response during wartime. Melancholy can be dangerous in a time of crisis. But we can’t live forever in the frame of crisis. My sense is that allowing and exploring the wider range of responses is a better way to both keep touch with the reality of the war, and to move on to maintain or rebuild strong communities.



3 thoughts on “Bomb Damage and Resilience

  1. Interesting post Sarah. One point I would make is that while the replacement houses might seem meaner and worse to us now, at the time the older houses were not seen as desirable as they do to us now. They wanted cleaner, modern design inside and out – viz the first DIY shows, which taught us how to hide banisters and panelled doors by nailing hardboard over them. Plainer was seen as modern and better, easier to clean and heat. We think they look worse, but my parents would have seen them as an improvement. You can tell I was brought up in a 50s house, can’t you?

    • Thanks Brian. Yes, I agree that the newer houses aren’t necessarily worse. The melancholy was in response to the ghosts of the bombsites, the hole that had been filled in. I’ve collected some lovely oral histories from women who were bombed out: full of spirit and pluck but also hinting at the horror of walking through town not knowing what and who had survived. It was the awareness that these houses were and are perfectly good homes that made me critical of my own melancholy. As we’ve discussed before, perhaps the panelling and the enclosing of the 50’s wasn’t just about cleaning and heating.

  2. Pingback: Cemetery : Bomb Site | Heritage for Transformation

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