21 March 2021
Like many other British cities, Plymouth was a target for aerial bombardment by the German airforce during the Second World War with the most intense air raids taking place between 20 March and 30 April 1941. At least 1,140 high explosive bombs, 17 paramines and thousands of incendiaries were dropped. Behind these stark statistics lie the poignant stories of people.
One such story which we're planning to highlight in a new display in our 'Active Archives' gallery when we re-open is that of two young women who worked at the Westminster Hotel - Poppy Curwood, aged 19, a chambermaid, and her colleague Grace Guscott, also 19, an assistant porter. Poppy was from Torpoint, Cornwall. Grace was born in the Birmingham area, but was living locally on Coburg Street at the time of the Blitz.
On the night of 21 March 1941 the Westminster Hotel took a direct hit.
Sub Lieutenant J V Evans stayed at the hotel that night and gave this eye-witness account of the bombing in a letter to A E Cockerton, the hotel owner, dated 9 April. This letter is also in our collections:
I am glad to say that I am now quite fit again after the marvellous hospital treatment I received. As you may have heard my face was rather badly burnt by the blast of the first bomb, and a large amount of grit was blown into the surface, but a new treatment for burns has been recently produced and as a result my face is now normal again without a scar. I am certainly very glad to hear that practically everybody escaped, it seems a miracle judging from my own limited experience, that there was not a more terrible casualty list. I was very much afraid when I got out that those two maids (Poppy and Grace) who were in the corridor near me must have been killed, they probably never knew anything about it. This may be understandable if I tell you exactly what happened to me.
I was, as you know wearing my steel helmet and greatcoat and hearing a lot of bombs coming down I drew away from the fire escape into the main corridor. The two girls unfortunately apparently, drew away inwards to the lift whereas I moved slightly in the other direction. I can remember the sound of bombs coming close then there was a sensation of violent pressure and blinding flame and everything seemed to be collapsing around me.
I was probably stunned for a second or so because I next found myself completely buried in brick and plaster and unable to breathe. However, with a bit of desperate pushing I was able to get my head and shoulders clear and breathe freely… I got my legs free and found that though one leg of my trousers had been torn away and my greatcoat was in rags, I was not badly injured. Then I saw a gleam of light through the laths of this supporting wall and managed to tear them away, making a big hole big enough to crawl through. … and found myself on what had been the first floor corridor leading to a fire escape.
There was a loose door blocking my way but I lifted this aside and found myself about 10 ft above a pile of debris on the ground. I dropped this short distance and managed to join a party of people making their way out at the back and I believe we got out through the garage… I think my helmet saved me from some of the blast and debris although it was lost in the mess and this makes me think that the two girls must have been knocked unconscious before being buried. They probably never knew what hit them….
Grace and Poppy’s bodies were sadly never found and so, under regulation 30A of the Defence Regulations, 1939, death certificates were issued in June 1941. A. E. Cockerton testified to the coroner: “Poppy Emma Curwood was a chambermaid in my employ at the Hotel. On the night of 21st March 1941 she was definitely in the hotel. She was seen last on the second floor. The premises had a direct hit from a H. E. bomb — and were destroyed by fire afterwards. She has never been seen since. I am quite sure that she died there that night.”
The tragic story of the missing young women at the Westminster Hotel is just one of many stories about the Blitz held at The Box. To find out more about our wartime records, why not check out our online archive catalogue?
We look forward to sharing our collections with you again when The Box re-opens.
Thanks to Claire Skinner, Archivist