Memories of Lancaster Castle

18/09/2013 16:37

Sometime during 1938 or perhaps 1939, I was on a school visit to the Castle. Everywhere was open to the public, including the Magistrates Court when not in Session. We walked round the ramparts and down into the dungeons - little did I know that a few years later I would be more than a visitor to the dungeons.

On day in April 1943, ages 17½ years old, I stood outside John O'Gaunt's great gate at 9.00 am along with three other young girls waiting to be admitted and begin training as members of the Royal Observer Corps, plotting aircraft movements in the north west of England. That day, for me, began my 40 years service with the Corps, albeit part-time from 1947. On that day we were met by Obs Lt Stuart Prewett and taken through the main gate across the area between that gate and the inner big metal gates, and after going through these we walked up through the gardens to the huge open area in the centre of the Castle. Here we did a sharp right turn across this open area and then passed under an archway with rooms right across the top. We were now in a very much smaller, enclosed courtyard and we turned left through a big open entrance and walked right through the dungeons situated at ground level; these were lit by one very small light bulb. At the far end some stone steps appeared and as we went up the first two or more went to the left to a little doorway completely sealed off with concrete. This is where the pre-war visitors had come through to view the dungeon areas and also the little courtyard, the place where all the hangings were carried out. As we entered the courtyard, the women's toilet was situated in the place where the underground dungeons had been and I can safely say that none of us ever went down those stone steps, then or very much later, by ourselves. Anyway, to carry on that first day in 1943, we carried on past the sealed up doorway and came to a huge room on the first floor. This was fitted as an Operations Room with the main plotting table, the magnetic, almost vertical, long-range board. There were other items about at that level too. All this was overlooked by a raised balcony and on some of the walls were what looked like traffic lights amongst other things. This Operations Room and the offices above the archway into the courtyard were, or had been, the Headquarters of No 29 Group Royal Observer Corps, Western Area. The ROC had Group status with RAF Fighter Command Headquarters alongside Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory. The Castle premises had been vacated at this time and removed to new premises in a bank building in Church Street. A very much smaller Ops Room, but much more facilities etc, not to say more comfortable. However, the four of us recruits spent about 3 or 4 weeks basic training; telling and recording was carried out on the job. We were measured for our uniforms and then posted to one of the three full-time crews. I was lucky and drew 'B' Crew. We had done a couple of watches in each of the three crews and I found the 'B' Team much the easiest to get accustomed to, plus the fact that Obs Lt Prewett was the Crew Duty Controller.

So that concluded by second visit to Lancaster Castle.

In 1947, all ex-wartime members of the ROC were recalled; we had stood down in June 1945. We duly reported back to the bank premises. Also a recruiting campaign was being carried out, particularly amongst ex-service personnel who were Z reservists. If they joined the Corps on a part-time basis, as we were, only the Air Ministry Admin staff and the full-time officers were in situ all of the time; these Z reservists would be exempt from any call-up to the Armed Forces in the future. The ROC was beginning to play a major role in the defence and survival of this country as we were to discover in the early 1950s. So there we were back at Church Street but not for very long; we were soon marching back up Castle Hill and the old premises from wartime, all still intact and no less scary. The full-time Air Ministry Admin staff and ROC full-time officers had their offices in the rooms above the archway at the entrance to our courtyard and opposite to the Ops Room. The staircase leading to the offices was haunted, just to add to the many delights of the castle. We had the REME for company in that courtyard in wartime, but now we were all alone in the whole Castle, apart from the Magistrates Court when working, and visitors on the other side of the sealed up areas. We were not left to ourselves for very long. I cannot remember just when it happened, but the Castle was completely closed to the public and we found ourselves with some very scary residents - they were the hard-case prisoners from Strangeways in Manchester and there we were right in the middle. We had to walk right through our new neighbours at very close quarters and we were told not to look at them, to keep our eyes on the ground. God knows what the prisoners thought. When any of us arrived at the John O'Gaunt Gate, day staff as well, a Prison Warder would emerge, count us and let us through a small gate set into the large one; he would then count us again, then open the huge iron gates and escort us to the entrance of our courtyard. When it was time to leave, the whole procedure was reversed until we were set free on the other side of the small main gate and I would like to bet that the Prison Warders said, "Thank God for that". We were there on different training nights, weekend exercises, all-night and the day-time staff must have been in and out all the time.

That was my third visit.

Just after the ROC was reactivated, I had commenced working at Manchester Airport and of course getting to Lancaster Castle to carry out my service was well nigh impossible on a regular basis so I requested a transfer to the Manchester Group (19) Operations Room. When I was eventually posted to Preston (NATCC) in 1948, I transferred back to Lancaster Group and so started a fourth term in the Castle.

About 1950, we packed up all our gear and removed to a brand-new purpose-built Headquarters and Ops Room etc, on Willow Lane at the back of Williamsons down by the River Lune. There we remained for many years until the Home Office took us in hand and we changed course from being the eyes and ears of the Royal Air Force and became the first link in the battle for survival in the event of a nuclear attack on this country.

Whilst we were domiciled in the Castle, and more or less within prison walls with the rest of the inmates, No 29 Group HQ and Ops Room had the distinction of being the only unconnected body of people to function daily, evenings and weekends, all night on occasion, within prison walls. Better to be known for something I suppose than not at all. I wonder how many ghosts we left behind inside the Castle walls.

Pat Fernihough née Harper, July 2013.