A wartime heroine who saved more than 30 lives after an air raid shelter was hit by a bomb has been honoured after years of campaigning to win the recognition her bravery deserved.
A blue commemorative plaque to Mrs Ellen Lee has been unveiled in George Street in North Shields – the site of Wilkinson’s lemonade factory, whose basement was used as an air raid shelter by 192 people on the night of May 3-4 in 1941. A bomb from a lone German raider destroyed the factory. A total of 107 men, women and children were killed in what is believed to be the largest single bomb loss of life outside London in the war.
Mrs Lee was an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden in charge of the shelter. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, she found the exit door blocked with fallen rubble.
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Mrs Lee was 6ft tall and weighed nearly 18 stone. Using her strength and weight she shoulder-charged the wall repeatedly until it gave way sufficiently to make an opening on to the street. Despite her own injuries she manned the escape route until 32 people had managed to get out.
Although she had suffered burns, Mrs Lee remained on site for the rest of the night, helping to look after survivors who had been taken into a nearby school. Two men received a George Medal and a third a British Empire Medal for their bravery that night.
But Peter Bolger, who has written the book North Shields 173: The Wilkinson’s Lemonade Factory Air Raid Disaster, said: “Mrs Lee received no official recognition for her actions.”
Mr Bolger designed and maintains the website northshields173.org. The telephone number of the factory was 173. He said: “In the course of researching material for this site, many survivors and local residents mentioned the bravery of Mrs Lee. None, however, could provide any details about her other than that she was a large lady and a local ‘character’.
“By complete chance the last person we spoke to happened to mention that Mrs Lee was her aunt. With her information we managed to interview Mrs Lee’s son, Albert, himself a survivor of the bombing.”
Albert supplied information about his mother and the night of the raid.
“The information is essentially a tale of extraordinary personal courage. Mrs Lee deserves to be widely remembered,” said Peter. “The plaque is the culmination of years of work by myself and other 173 members to get Ellen Lee the recognition she deserves. It is time to honour a local heroine whose actions saved lives during the air raid disaster and I am so pleased to get that recognition.”
On June 18, 1941, during the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Tynemouth, Ellen Lee was part of an ARP parade inspected by the royal couple. Mrs Lee, her face still marked from the bomb blast, was introduced to the King and Queen who expressed her admiration and said: “You were very brave indeed”.
Mrs Lee continued as an ARP warden until the end of the war. She died in 1951, aged 56.
After the unveiling of the plaque at Kettlewell House in George Street, near the site of the former factory, North Tyneside mayor Dame Norma Redfearn said: “The behaviour of Mrs Ellen Lee in 1941 is one of the greatest examples of humanity and selflessness that I can imagine. It is a great honour for myself and the council to recognise Mrs Lee with this blue plaque.”
The Mayor was joined by Mr Bolger, relatives of Ellen Lee and two survivors, now in their nineties, who helped with the unveiling. Milly Matthews, 96, and her cousin, Robert Sutherst, 94, were led to safety by Ellen Lee after the bomb fell. Robert lost his mother and a cousin in the disaster.
Milly said: “I appreciate that at long last, after 82 years, there is a recommendation for Mrs Lee because she deserved it. 107 people died that night, and I think about 60 of us got out. We all went through the mill but we’re here to tell the tale.
“I was in beside the kids. I was only 14 and sort of looking after them. Mrs Lee was shouting, ‘If you can see a light, put your fingers through the wall’, which I did. Around my hand she created a hole to pull people out.
“I got two or three of the little kids out through the wall. My brother came and he was shouting for me and wouldn’t go without us. For two years I had to hang on to my mother, if it was thundering or something like that. I was in complete shock.”
Robert said: “I knew Mrs Lee very well. She was very popular and friendly with everyone. What sticks in my memory is that she always hated wearing her tin hat. I was thrown in at the deep end and the memories will never go away.”