On 15 March 1941, Leeds City Museum – as it stood in it’s original spot on Park Row – was struck by a bomb. Zoe Buckberry has been digging in the archives, and tells the story of that fateful day in Leeds Museums’ history.

For almost 200 years, Leeds City Museum has sought to bring the wonders of the world to Leeds. In 2021 the Leeds City Museum celebrates its 200th birthday, so we want to highlight some of the most prominent stories which shaped the Leeds Museums and Galleries service and Leeds City Museum.

a black and white photograph of rubble where the bomb has caused destruction.

Leeds City Museum bomb damage photo, 1941.

This year marks the 77th anniversary of the darkest day in Leeds City Museum’s history. In the early morning of 15 March 1941 during World War Two, the Museum was struck by a bomb. At the time it was thought that only a third of the building was severely damaged; the front portion of the building was damaged the most and the lecture hall got off lightly. On 17 March 1941 The Yorkshire Evening Post published an article reporting on the damage made to the museum by the bomb two days earlier. The reporter spoke to a curator, Mr Ricketts who said “I never thought we’d have to ‘dig’ inside our museum”. He also stated:

“We’re still looking for important specimens, and making every endeavor to retrieve them. Most of our valuable specimens were stored, and are alright, and the main portion of my zoological collection is intact, though knocked about.”

Even a 3000 year old mummy was affected….

 “The mummy cases — little the worse for their experience and the mummy if an unknown Egyptian of the late XX Dynasty, embalmed in the reign of men-ma-re (the Pharaoh Rameses XI). Which was brought to this museum in 1824.”

Fortunately no one was seriously hurt in the blast. Three members of museum staff were commended for their bravery in responding to the immediate aftermath of the Bomb. Two of the men were blown backward by the force of the bomb impact and were buried under debris and display cases: had they been a yard closer to the staircase, the bird room floor would have fallen on them. When the other staff member heard calls of help he ran to get a pick to dig out his colleagues and then returned to work the next day.

  • Repaired end of The City Museum on Park Row, following bomb damage, Spring 1942.

  • Repaired end of The City Museum on Park Row, following bomb damage, Spring 1942

Unfortunately many of the collections were not as lucky as the staff members; the more valuable specimens narrowly missed damage as they were luckily in storage. Some of the damaged artefacts included taxidermy, the bird egg collection and pottery. An army side drum that was on loan to the museum to uncover its history was completely destroyed and was thought to have belonged to a Yorkshire regiment and been at the Battle of Waterloo. This story was publicised by The Yorkshire Evening Post in a column called ‘Diary of a Yorkshireman’, with the comment “if in fact the drum did so figure, how strange a fate to have helped at the defeat of one dictator and to be blown to smithereens by the minions of another”.

The museum did not re-open its doors again until Tuesday 23 June 1942. Members of public and staff would have normally celebrated with afternoon tea, however with rationing still in effect people enjoyed a music concert instead. Lunchtime music recitals had been very popular before the bomb forced the museum to close and so the form of entertainment provided seemed only fitting.

By Zoe Buckberry, Bicentenary Project Placement

If you have a story, memory or photo of the air raid that hit Leeds City Museum, please email us.

You can also tweet @LeedsMuseums using #LCMBicentenary.

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