Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Pre- Fab Four: The McCartneys in Knowsley (1944)

Roach Avenue, 
Knowsley Village,

Just 18 months after James Paul McCartney's birth his brother Peter Michael chose to be born, and with Mike, as he quite freely admits in his book Thank U Very Much "preferring to be brought up in Liverpool, Jim and Mary accomodatingly moved back across the water" from Wallasey. 

Peter Michael, like Paul, forever to be known by his second name, was born in Walton Hospital "at ten o'clock on the cold morning of January 7th 1944".

Peter Michael McCartney

Asked in 2015 what his earliest memory was Paul replied:

“I remember when we were living in Knowsley, Liverpool having my photograph taken with my brother.  I think it was probably by a professional photographer for the family album but I remember I was not all that keen on being made to pose. However, it stuck in my memory ever since.” (paulmccartney.com)

The McCartney brothers in 1944.  Paul looks overjoyed.

On leaving D. Napier and Son, and with the Cotton Exchange still closed because of the war, Jim found work at ROF Kirkby (Filling Station No.7), the Royal Ordnance Munitions factory in Knowsley. This was then a rural area on the outskirts of Liverpool specifically chosen as the site for the new works in the hope that it would reduce the potential damage from any accidental explosions.

Completed at a cost of around £8,500,000 the factory was quite staggering in scale, consisting of more than 1,000 buildings, 18 miles of roads (7 miles of which could be classified as main roads) and 23 miles of railway lines with a station for personnel and shunting sidings for goods. Due to the processes involved in explosive filling, the buildings were widely spaced and in some cases were mounded up to the eaves to minimize the effect in the event of an explosion taking place.

ROF Kirkby (above)

  A recruitment drive for ROF Kirkby outside Liverpool Town Hall

In July 1940 Lawrence Gale from the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich was appointed as  Superintendent, taking 9 staff with him to Kirkby. When the first munitions rolled off the production line in September 1940 there were only between 50 and 100 employees. This had risen to 10,000 by the summer of 1941 and by the time Jim McCartney started work here he was one of around 23,000 employees, most of whom were women (see below).


Medical treatment rooms were built onsite in order to cater to such a large workforce.  In order to house these employees, 200 houses for key workers were built in the area and a YWCA hostel was built near Kirkby station to house 1000 women.

With the new job came another kind of abode for the McCartney family. Whether they were allocated one of the new purpose built houses is unclear. What is certain is that following Mike's birth he was promptly taken to their new prefabricated bungalow home in Roach Avenue situated on the nearby Maypole Estate.

Roach Avenue in 1952

The pre-fab estate lay between School Lane and Knowsley Lane and was known to the locals as "the Bungalow Estate" or simply "The Bungalows". The roads were named Homer Road, Penrhyn Road, Wheat Road, Croft Road, Alt Road , Roach Avenue and the fantastically titled Tingle Peg Lane, and  sat behind Maypole Farm, close to where the green is in Knowsley Village today containing the war memorial.

Site of the Maypole Estate, today an industrial estate

The whole estate was demolished in the 1960s, obliterated by the industrial estate and  only remembered today by the small cul de sac of new properties off School Lane called Maypole Court, on the left of the screenshot below.

Pre-fab bungalows similar to the McCartney's home in Kirkby. These photographs were taken in Belle Vale near to where Paul and Mike would later attend school.
Jim would have found himself working the three shift system employed in the factory to ensure that continuous production was maintained. His arrival and departure from the site was assisted by a railway system which carried the workers to and from the factory as they began or finished their shift.

The McCartneys did not stop here long which probably was something of a relief to both Jim and Mary. Despite the aforementioned safety measures accidents did still occur.  Only a month after Michael's birth an explosion at the factory killied two people. A second explosion on September 15, 1944 left 14 dead, 11 injured and enough rubble to bury 4,000 bombs. It took three months of work to clear the site.

As a result of their short term residence very little is known about the McCartney's time in Kirkby, Paul and Mike obviously being too young to have formed any memories of it themselves in later years. Indeed, despite much research I've only been able to discover that their next door neighbours in Roach Avenue were called Hilda and Brian Rawson.  Neither they, nor any of the other residents appear to have retained any memories of the McCartney family as I'm sure somebody would have come forward by now.

Young Michael in the arms of his father Jim. Paul holds on tight to Mother Mary.
The ROF closed in March 1946, having been designated a War Duration Only ROF.  Remarkably it had produced around ten per cent of ALL the ammunition used by Britain during the Second World War. 

After the war the site was developed by Liverpool Corporation as an industrial estate and played a large part in the growth of Kirkby from a population of barely over 3,000 in 1951 to over 52,000 by 1961. Today only a few remaining factory buildings can still be found on the industrial estate and the surrounding area. 

The Girls of ROF Kirkby (above) and a poster promoting British ammunition manufactured at the factory (below)

 The aerial view near the top of this entry and the six below come from the incredible Britain From Above 1919-1953 archive. Photographed in 1947, the immense scale of the factory, and the impact it  had on the surrounding landscape is clearly evident.

By Spring the McCartney's were on the move again, returning to Jim's birthplace, Everton and another new home, a flat in a tenement block named Sir Thomas White Gardens.


McCartney family photos (C) Paul and Michael McCartney

Thank U Very Much: Mike McCartney's Family Album is an essential read, currently out of print (How about a new version Mike?)
Copies can still be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Thank-Very-Much-McCartneys-Family/dp/0586049207

English Heritage: Britain from above is an invaluable source of aerial photographs from 1919-1953, having recently completed the conservation, digitisation and cataloguing of the earliest 95,000 images in the Aerofilms Collection.  You can lose hours on their site here:   http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/

The site of ROF Kirkby today: http://nwex.co.uk/showthread.php?t=5567

 Thanks to Peter Hodgson for the map of Roach Ave (We got there in the end!)