Blinds Up In Britain
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 8 Jan 1942, p. 199-212
Snider, C.H.J., Speaker
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Item Type
This address introduces us to Tennyson's words describing waiting for a train at Coventry. The speaker offers us a modern-day view of waiting for a train at Coventry, during a bombing raid, in the mode of Tennyson. The description allows many subjects to be addressed, including the following. The damage caused by such a bombing raid. The people killed from the bombs, and the people killed from trying to help others. The damage to buildings. The work of the people of Britain. The spirit and nature of the British people during this war. Changes in social convention due to the war. "The new Briton." The sacrifices being made by the British people. Daily life of the British in war time. An explanation of the new Briton. The issue of conscription. The work that women are doing during the war. Employment and income tax. The determination to fight, and to win.
Date of Original
8 Jan 1942
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, January 8, 1942

MR. C. R. SANDERSON: It often falls to the lot of a Chairman to introduce or to present to an audience a speaker who is perfectly well known to everyone who is listening to him. That is the case today when Mr. Snider comes and talks to us. But for purposes of our official and printed records, may we just remind ourselves that, as everyone knows, he is Associate Editor of The Evening Telegram; that he also has a reputation as a novelist, as a naval historian, as a sailor; that in peace times he is a recognized authority on yachting; that at all times he is a recognized authority on getting out a newspaper. As far as getting out that newspaper is concerned, he has formed the precedent of going himself as a special correspondent whenever there have been outstanding international events. He spent last month in Britain, where he went to see how this wonderful, this almost amazing million-and-a-third dollars fund which has been raised by The Evening Telegram was being applied to the British War Victims. That is the story that he is coming to tell us today. Two years ago he talked to us on "War with the Blinds Down"; today he will talk to us on "Blinds Up in Britain". Gentlemen, it is my privilege and my pleasure to give to you "Jerry" Snider. (Applause.)

MR. C. H. J. SNIDER: Mr. President, Fellow Members of The Empire Club and Honoured Guests

"I waited for the train at Coventry,
And hung with grooms and porters on the bridge
To watch the three tall spires; and there
I shaped The City's ancient legend into this"

So Tennyson, the better part of a century ago, when trains were still such a novelty that the poet did not know whether the tracks were T-rails or U-shaped, but wrote "Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change!"

Tennyson never rated a railroad man's union card. But he was an inspired poet. He saw far enough into the future to envisage pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales, and the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue, and he saw far enough into the past to make a noble legend of a great lady "clothed on with chastity", out of what his twentieth century heirs might render as a strip-tease.

I, too, waited for the train at Coventry last month, after pilots of the purple twilight had dropped me down with costly bales of radium and heart's blood dried for transfusions. There were no porters but girls, and the only groom was a grizzled damosel who had driven her own car (at 2 shillings and 5 pence a day, which did not pay for the petrol) from Birmingham, on the order of the Ministry, to help me shape the city's modern legend into this

It was the night of November 14th, 1940.

The moon was at the full, so brilliant that in the blackout air wardens read over their night's orders with ease, by her light.

From a heaven so serene it seemed tuned to the crystal clarity of the music of the spheres, invisible destruction suddenly sifted down.

The audiophones had picked up the tone of hostile planes. The sirens had sounded and people had gone to their nightly aid-raid shelters, as a matter of routine, for Coventry had had a hundred alarms and many raids. Mingled with the sirens' wail was the growing thudding of far away anti-aircraft guns. Then shrapnel began to whistle down from the crystal dome of the sky. It was followed by the tin-can rattle of incendiary bombs-all invisible until they struck something and began to burn. And then the crash of high explosive bombs, bursting in harrow-tooth lines across the city. And still not the slightest mote in the sky to show whence death came.

Death, invisible, miles up in the moonlight, was circling unseen, fed by oxygen in zero atmosphere, hunched over a chart, on a split-second schedule, blotting out lives with the touch of a frozen finger on 'a freezing button.

That is how a target is bullseyed in war in the air. Blindly, automatically. On this occasion Hellfire Corner in Coventry was blitzed again as it had been thirty-seven times before. It was once a row of innocent retail shops. After the first bombing it was just a mass of broken brick. This mass was churned up for the thirty-eighth time. It must have been at the turning point of each raider's death map.

Even in the brightest moonlight Coventry was only a dim blur of silver, sprinkled with red sparks spreading to jets of flame as the incendiary bombs did their work.

Soon the red sparks united in a great rose of flame, but the bombing went on, hour after hour, from seven till midnight. A lull, and another wave broke and broke and broke from midnight till seven. Then our gallant band of sky angels literally got the upper hand of the invading hordes and the clouds dropped shattered Germans on land and sea as we chased them home.

Five hundred and ninety-seven fires burned that night. Four thousand fighters-five hundred hired men, thirty-five hundred trained volunteers, eight hundred of these women-fought them. They fought till the water pressure failed from the blowing up of many mains. The Coventrians fought on. They had a canal, a silver direction-arrow in the moonlight, which no blackout could conceal, while the moon was shining. If it brought death, it frustrated death; for they pumped from the canal when the water failed. And at last they overcame. Thirty-five schools were gone, a dozen churches, thousands of shops and tens of thousands of homes. The gas-works were blown up, the electric power off, waterworks and sewage disposal burst and intermingled.

Five hundred dead were in the ruins.

A holocaust, yes, a human hecatomb. Yet for a city of a quarter of a million inhabitants to escape with half a thousand killed, in twelve hours of destruction, seems marvellous. It is attributable to the mercy of God and the wisdom of the municipal authorities, who made their public air shelters many, small, and widely scattered. Almost every house also had its own shelter. One family of nine was dug out, unconscious but alive, from the ruins of their home. It had been completely destroyed but the shelter under the stairs had saved them.

I came by a three-gabled overhanging house of great antiquity, leaning like an old blind woman on a crummoch with her bonnet askew. Its roof was gone and its leaded windows were lightless. This had been one of the showplaces of Coventry. In summer its courtyard was gay with flowers. Its timbered walls had been sanctuary, generation after generation, to old souls who did their own housework and looked after themselves and one another under the direction of a matron employed by the municipality. It was the famous Ford's Hospital, a survival of ancient piety, a bequest by William Ford, a rich Coventry merchant, for the maintenance of seventeen poor old women. It had been functioning since 1529, the year of the fall of the great Cardinal who had served his God less faithfully than he had served his king.

When the November sky mingled death with the moonbeams the surviving sixteen would not budge. So the matron could not leave them. A bomb crashed through the roof. Brave A.R.P. workers and firemen carried out all of the ancient Godivas-the youngest was over seventy. The steed each rode was not the white horse of legend but a wire-meshed emergency stretcher, with a grey blanket covering grey flannel night gowns and grey hair. Seven of the grey forms were still on their stretcher. They had been killed in the explosion. And the good matron had been killed trying to save them.

Next I came to red brick walls, scorched but standing up under pieces of mansard roof. All the windows were out, some of the floors had fallen in, the walls showed gaps. Opposite a tumbled heap of sandbags, once defending an entrance against shellbursts, I read an imperative sign "Keep This Door Closed", but there was no door to keep closed. There were no doors left. This had been the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital.

When the heavens rained hellfire three hundred patients were in it. Incendiary bombs struck the roof and evacuation began. It was doubtful whether the patients would survive removal, so they were taken from the fifth floor to the fourth at first, and then down as matters became worse. The situation grew worse all the time. Before morning two hundred and forty patients had been carried away to safety. But before morning the roof and floors had collapsed under the continued burning and bombing.

The ruins killed and buried sixty patients, too ill to be moved, and ten nurses and four doctors. The dead nurses were found spread over the bodies of their dead charges in a last effort to protect them. One of the surgeons had his operating equipment on and his scalpel clutched in his hand. He had been engaged in an operation critical for himself and the patient. Both died in it.

The three spires-St. Michael's, Trinity, Christchurch -still raised blistered fingers to heaven. To the tallest of these, St. Michael's, I was taken. It is a beautiful spire of stone, nine storeys high above its tower; said to be the finest in England, just as St. Michael's was the largest parish church in England until it rose to the dignity of a cathedral.

Escorted by the Lord Mayor and the Sheriff. we went through the groined archway of red sandstone; and found ourselves, not in the expected cathedral, but in a roofless barn, with nothing between us and the sky but the smoke-blackened walls above mounds of rubble and fallen stone. We could see the spires of Trinity and Christchurch stark against the clouds. Shattered windows still displayed exquisite Gothic tracery. Their glorious glass was mingled with the rubble. The stone floor had been cleared in many places down to the memorial inscriptions; but all the holy furniture which remained was one tall chancel cross, bolt upright as on Golgotha, with its members all burned into the rectangular embossing of charcoal.

The Hun had done this, in a night when the devil was let loose from a heaven so serene, so pure, it seemed tuned to the crystal clarity of the music of the spheres.

The cathedral burned all night. All night long the wound-up clock in the tower told the time and struck the hours. After midnight the quarters ceased to chime be cause the electric power was off. But the clock ticked on and boomed the hours above the burning and crashing and the scream of yet more bombs. It kept heart in the people.

"O ye fire and heat Bless ye the Lord,
Praise Him and magnify Him for ever",
chanted the Provost.

The work people of Coventry-in Coventry every man is too proud not to work-responded with music as noble their quota of the million marching feet where'er there was a turning wheel. War workers who had fought fires all night trudged doggedly by dawnlight to the factories which, by God's grace, had escaped destruction. Production! Production! Production! was the uninterrupted anthem. They left to their women the task of digging their homes out of the debris-if they had any homes. If they hadn't, they left to their well tried civic organizations the task of finding shelter for their families.

The Lady Mayoress had her dust cap on and was sweeping fallen plaster out of her dining-room when someone tapped on the front door. "Come round to the back", she cried. "That door has been blown off its hinges and is only propped up". He came around to the back, a tall, spare figure in military greatcoat.

It was the King.

My last appearance before The Empire Club was to receive from the Honourable Howard Ferguson your cheque for the British War Victims Fund. It may not be amiss for me to tell you how your money has been spent.

While His Majesty was interviewing the Lady Mayoress behind her dustpan, she was preparing an appropriate address for her husband for letting royalty in on her with her house in such a state. The Lord Mayor of the year, James Moseley, retired engine driver, had been out all night in the bombardment, coming home occasionally to see how his family fared in the garden shelter. He had gone back to the Council House to provide food, billets, and clothing for his battered citizenry.

Scarcely had the drone of the last hostile plane died in the sky when Sir George Wilkinson, then Lord Mayor of London, got him on the restored trunk line and said in effect, "I have placed $50,000 to your credit this morning. Let me know how much more Coventry can use". Sir George was able to do this because you had poured your money into his great national air raid distress reservoir, through The Evening Telegram British War Victims' Fund. (Applause.) For Coventry's wounds, it was the balm of Gilead. That is true of every one of the blitzed centres which I have visited for our readers. In each the swift, unhesitating succour which your generosity makes possible was what had put fresh heart into the people to go on with their work of fighting the Hun on the ruins of their homes.

God speed the grand work His Worship, Mayor Conboy, of Toronto, and the Attorney-General, the Honourable Gordon Conant, of Ontario, are doing in fostering civilian defence by means of A.R.P. training and all kindred activity. God grant the City of Toronto shall never suffer as Coventry has suffered. God is more likely to grant this if the City of Toronto takes the same interest in the things that pertain unto her peace and makes the same provision to relieve the possible distress that Coventry had done for itself, and you have done for Coventry.

When the war was a hundred days old, I had the honour of addressing you, after a return from Britain and France, and I spoke, as your President has said, on "War With the Blinds Down". That suggested to the consciences of some, "War With the Brakes On", and it suggested to our American- friends, a "Phoney War". Well, our friends have since learned better.

Times have changed and my topic has changed, as you have heard, to "War With the Blinds Up", and I have been trying to show you something of what one sees with the blinds up in Britain, taking the specific case of a specific city.

British folk say, "If you have seen one blitz you have seen them all". They consider it bad form to talk about their own particular bombing, but they eagerly insist that their area has had it worse and oftener than any other. After an examination of eight bombed cities, I am inclined to agree with the second proposition. London, Coventry, Lambeth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Bristol, Hull, and Liverpool, each seemed to me to have suffered most when I learned the particular circumstances of their heroic defence.

One would expect, with the blinds up, a scene of carnage and destruction unparelleled in the history of the Island, and one gets it. Forty-two thousand, four hundred and eighty-seven had been killed by bombardment, and fifty-three thousand, four hundred and two wounded had been treated in hospital, when I left England last month. A frightful bill for a frightful battle. More, I suppose, than perished in all the battles in the Island's previous history, unless we accept the dubious story of Boadicea's revolt having cost seventy thousand Roman lives.

But, apart from the great destruction which is very evident to anyone who goes about and which impresses itself on you when you encounter people who have lost their property and who have lost their relatives by this means, apart from that, the most arresting thing with the blinds up is the new Briton. John Bull has been tried in the furnace. For two years and four months it has brought out the fine gold of character. He has developed a hardness, a toughness, a ferocity which he has not known or not shown since Waterloo, and it bodes ill for those who cross his path. This is no "phoney" war for him. It is a fight for life. For him there is no half-way, no merry making of snowballs for someone else to throw in his defence.

If that was ever Canada's idea, let us repent for having entertained it even for a moment. Let us repent, not in the dust and ashes which should be our portion, if it were so, but in deeds and deeds and deeds worthy of the great salvation being wrought for us.

This new Briton has enlisted children of seventeen. He has thrown his sons and daughters into the fire to save us. Us, here in Canada. Without the sacrifices of the British soldier, the British sailor, the British airmail--all boys in their twenties-and the British taxpayer surrendering half of his daily bread, and the British women drudging on the land and in all war services save shooting -without their sacrifices we might all be in quicklime graves by now or working under Gestapo gauleiters like most of Europe. Make no mistake, the Monroe Doctrine could not have saved Canada from slavery if Britain had not stood between us and the Hun for 1939, 1940, and 1941. Our own effort could not have saved us. Neither we nor they have bombers, fighters, tanks, ships, and soldiers ready to do it. Uncle Sam could not have defended Toronto any more effectively than he defended Pearl Harbour.

This arresting figure of the new Briton is twice the man he was three years ago. If John Bull was forty million strong in 1939, he is eighty million strong in 1942, and it will take more than eighty million Germans, plus all the "utensils" of the Mediterranean and all the insect pests of the Pacific, however deadly, to beat him, so long as we do our part.

The background of this new figure is also impressive. England and Scotland are an armed camp. It is a fortress garrisoned by keen Canadians while millions of hotneborn train to fight for their firesides, and do fight for their firesides, everywhere in the world. The whole Island is thatched with barrage balloons and it is ringed with minefields through which endless convoys enter and leave, merchant ships shepherded by men of war with Spitfires in the clouds above to protect both.

From far out at sea to milestones far inland, the Island bristles with steel and concrete and electric defences against invasion, some very obvious, some very subtle. Every commons, every pond, every golf course, may be a death-trap for an invader. Sign-posts have been removed, roads are barricaded and defended, and inhabitants are trained to say nothing, but to welcome the invader with bloody hands to hospitable graves.

And the peace of the people reflects the new tempo. Each walks with purposeful stride, heart high and clan up. Time killing, clock watching, lateness, and lazin--ss, has given way before the new, yet not new, instinct of self-preservation.

There, to my mind, is the explanation of the phenomenon of the new Briton. Churchill has not said, "Let there be a new Briton'", and there was a new Briton. The Briton has seen that, if he is to survive, he must help himself, and he is helping himself. There is less of "The Government ought to", and more of "WE must". True to his race instinct, the Briton has not snatched at some other race's experiment as a life-belt or parachute. He has used the tried, perhaps antiquated, machinery with which his grandfather was familiar,-his football and cricket clubs, his trade unions, his borough councils, his parish organizations. Parliament has set up Ministries of this, that, and the other, with greater power than the Czars of all the Russias ever wielded, and the new Briton humours them with obedience, so long as they serve his new-old end, self-preservation-nature's first law.

So he has accepted--no, demanded--conscription for everyone up to 51. He will gladly raise the age limit to 101. Everybody wants to fight for his country, and, if the old boys have to stay in the home guard, that is their hard luck. "And the home's", adds the Briton with delayed-action humour.

He has no romantic notions about woman's place in battle being the high tower from whence she waves on her knight with a silken scarf and sighs for his return "His arms for her defence, her arms his recompense". If his father had such ideas, he lost them in 1918, when he came home and found his lady knocking off more money in munitions than he had been able to earn in the army. And then his daughter got the vote!

So the new Briton has, with perhaps suspicious cheerfulness, conscripted women from twenty to thirty to do all the work they are told to do. He has done this after they have, in hundreds of thousands, voluntarily done the dull and dirty work of the war and of the land, feeding the pigs and milking the cows, greasing the trucks and driving the generals and keeping the books and darning the socks.

Self-preservation again. Perhaps a little of job-preservation, too. He relied on his trade union to see to it that the munitions jobs stayed in the right, that is, in trade union hands-"Reserved classes". It may be that, since women are good enough for all the work of the army, except fighting, they may prove good enough to release some of the fighting material now moored in munition work and reserved occupations.

The young have thriven on the new regimen. In a quarter of a century's visiting of Britain I have never before seen so many physically fit, mentally alert, quick moving, resolute-countenanced, hard-working young men and young women as I saw last month. Such used to be outstanding. Now they are the rule, the type.

Older men-always excepting Churchill-show the strain of two years of financial anxiety, restricted diet, heavier work, longer hours, broken rest, and uncomfortable quarters. They think they, too, can take it, and they do, but it hurts. And the mothers! They tell me it is all a matter of makeup, and they are putting theirs now into war savings, but they seem to me flat-cheeked and shrunken. One and all, they are eking out, by their own abstinence, the narrow milk and butter and bacon and jam rations, so that their men will be strong and their children plump.

There is food for all in Britain. Nobody will starve. Meal by meal I made a point of faring as my fellows while I was there, and I got plenty to eat, but not what I wanted. No salads, no milk, no fruit, to satisfy. At home I have two oranges every morning. In England I could find none. The only bananas were cardboard fruiterers signs. While apples were rotting or freezing in Ontario orchards where workers would not pick them and growers could not afford to market them, apples were selling at 75 cents apiece in English railway stations.

This fighting-fit Briton has not been formed without Churchill's promised blood and sweat and tears-his own and others. The war dynamo has had to run while it is being built, and it may still develop hot bearings here and waste power there. Compared to the machine of 1939 its effective horsepower is as Niagara Hydro to the Kleinberg milldam of my boyhood, which used to turn the wheels only when Ben Hogben remembered to pull the stop-log. But it is going and it is going with still more power. Everybody has a job-and everybody is paying an exceedingly high income tax.

Here is a club story of why an exciting action at law was dropped.

A rich plaintiff had a good case for damages. His friend, an eminent Counsel, told him offhand he was certain to win. The retaining fee would be one thousand guineas.

"A thousand guineas retainer for an open-and-shut case, with your costs beside? Do I hear you aright, old chap?"

"Quite. Like you, I pay high income tax, nineteen shillings in the pound. If you pay me a thousand guineas, I shall have only fifty for myself".

"Umm. Well, to have a thousand guineas to pay you I shall have to make twenty thousand more than I do, and pay nineteen thousand more to the government. It is cheaper to stay out of court. As they might say in America, let us skip the whole thing, old dear".

Let us do likewise for the rest of my remarks, if any. As a matter of fact at this time that is all there is. There isn't any more. I am afraid of talking myself into paying more income tax. (Applause--prolonged.)

MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Mr. Snider, you have given us some lasting pictures. That picture of the bombing of Coventry is something that will remain with us, especially since it was drawn with that particular gift which you have for picturesque phraseology. The spires reaching up like blistered fingers to heaven-the clock going on striking the hours whilst its church burned-the inhabitants of Britain waiting to welcome the invader with bloody hands to hospitable graves. It is this kind of phraseology that makes a picture live and last. And it is this kind of phraseology, Sir, if I may take this opportunity of saying so, that makes your articles in The Evening Telegram so fascinating. May I presume to comment, too, on your brilliant mingling of tradition, of history, with the present? When you build up the present against its own background in this way, one realizes that the human bodies which you speak of in Coventry are carrying on the traditions of the past, and the human hearts that are still surviving in Coventry are also carrying on those same traditions for the sake of their own firesides-and ours. This talk today, Sir, we shall cherish and remember. Your pictures will stay with us. On behalf of this audience, and on behalf of the people who have been listening to us on the air today, Mr. Snider, I say, "Thank you, very, very much". (Applause.)

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Blinds Up In Britain

This address introduces us to Tennyson's words describing waiting for a train at Coventry. The speaker offers us a modern-day view of waiting for a train at Coventry, during a bombing raid, in the mode of Tennyson. The description allows many subjects to be addressed, including the following. The damage caused by such a bombing raid. The people killed from the bombs, and the people killed from trying to help others. The damage to buildings. The work of the people of Britain. The spirit and nature of the British people during this war. Changes in social convention due to the war. "The new Briton." The sacrifices being made by the British people. Daily life of the British in war time. An explanation of the new Briton. The issue of conscription. The work that women are doing during the war. Employment and income tax. The determination to fight, and to win.