International Women’s Month: A Wartime Woman’s Story

Jennifer McDermott
Mar 31, 2015 · 7 min read

Today is the last day of International Women’s Month, and I like to celebrate the everyday strength as well as the celebrities and public figures we admire.

I have something very special to share with you today; the story of a strong woman in wartime Britain, written by her 80 year old daughter. The stories of individual women in our own immediate history are something we ought to remember — and we should celebrate the women we come from. So to mark the end of the month-long international celebrations of women, let’s take a moment to learn about one individual.

Born in York in 1905, the turn of the century, Lilian Heppell (nee Kay) spent her young working life at Rowntrees Chocolate Factory. You may recall the gorgeous smell of chocolate that fills the air in York, if you’ve been! Lilian was a hand piper of chocolates and met Jack who worked in the packing department, whom she married in 1927. They bought a three-bedroom semi-detached house in 1936, just before the war, and had four children; Kenneth (died aged 2), Raymond, Mary and David John (stillborn).Together, they enjoyed a happy life and Lilian loved and was proud of her Art Deco home. Their children were always looked after with love and Lilian enjoyed dressing them in lovely clothes too.

In 1939 life changed dramatically.

War with Germany was declared and Jack, being in the Territorial Army was called up for service two weeks before the official declaration. He was away for five years, returning home only when leave allowed him to.

This meant that it was necessary for women of working age to do work traditionally carried out by men in order for the country to survive. Lilian worked at the Railway Goods Warehouse — wheeling on a barrow, goods of all types to load onto the trains. It was dangerous and extremely hard work. She worked shifts — 6 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 10 pm and 10 pm to 6 am. The women wore dungarees and covered their hair with turban type scarves — the “landgirl” fashion you still see in retro throwbacks to this day.

Prior to 1939 most women did not wear trousers but in doing this kind of work it was essential for ease of working. This started a trend which has most definitely continued!

Lilian’s mother and sister lived two streets away in a two bedroom house, so it was decided to close up the semi-detached house and move to live with them where Raymond and Mary, the children, would be looked after whilst Lilian was at work.

Wartime life was extremely hard. This is something people often say but it is hard to appreciate. Food rationing and clothing coupons made it difficult to create nourishing, tasty meals. Making sure that clothes were made to last also brought problems as children continued to grow, despite the war! These household limitations for the things we now take for granted did not end with the war — coupons ended on 15 March 1949; rationing of sweets and chocolate ended in 1953, and food rationing continued until 4 July 1954.

Always, although hard to imagine, existed the threat of bombing raids or gas attacks.

The Bomber’s Moon Blitz of York

On 28 April, 1942, York was bathed in the cold bright light of a ‘bomber’s moon’. Bombers, with black and white crosses on their wings came over the North Sea at Flamborough Head and followed the glistening snake of the River Ouse to York. Mary was only seven years old at this time. (In later years Mary made a study of this night to share with school children around York, who listen with intense interest!)

Across from the Train Station were the Goods Warehouse and Stables on Leeman Road, (now the site of the famous York Railway Museum). Many women were working that night. Lilian was one such worker. She was on night duty, working the 10 pm until 6 am shift. Bomb shelters existed in the grounds of the Goods Warehouse and the women went there when the terrifying sirens sounded. Shire horses and huge Clydesdales were stabled at the top of the lane which rose up from the Warehouse grounds.

Suddenly, a bomb hit the stables. The horses were terrified but three men bravely rushed to the blazing stables to loosen their halters, giving them a hefty slap on the flanks to make them run from the building. The frightened animals lashed out with their huge hooves as the flames approached but one by one all nineteen were led out by the brave, smoke blackened men.

Lilian could hear the horses galloping round the Goods Yard as bombs fell and buildings blazed. Some sailors from the train came to help, but Lilian told them that all was under control. However, it seemed that her work friend Eva had completely passed out!

When the all clear finally sounded, Lilian collected her ‘sit up and beg’ bicycle to try and get home to her family. As she came along Leeman Road, everywhere was burning, houses, buildings, tracks — her world had changed before her eyes. Overhead wires had come down all along the road so Lilian ended up carrying her bicycle through the chaos.

At the time of the raid, Raymond and Mary were under their Grandmother’s stairs in Albany Street, four doors away from the huge Albany Methodist Church. The shelter was too far to run to so Raymond, Mary and five adults squeezed together and hid beneath the stairs. The back door to the house fell in and trapped all seven people where they were hiding, if no one had come to find them what would their fate have been? The Church took a direct him from a large bomb; nothing was left but a huge crater and a few fluttering hymn books. Eventually, the seven were freed and, covered in soot, taken to the still-standing Church Hall along with many others.

At the same time, Lillian turned the corner and could not believe her eyes. The Church had completely disappeared. Knowing that her children and family would be under the stairs, she was convinced that they had all been killed. She ran into the house, shouting their names. Can you imagine that kind of dread? Not hearing a response, she believed her worst fears to be realised, and, grief stricken, passed out in the house.

After coming to and decidedly finding her way to the Church Hall, she was unable to recognise her children as everyone was black with dirt. Quickly, Lilian found her family and the reunion was indescribable.

Houses were badly damaged and most people in the district had stayed in their homes. Astonishingly, only two people were killed. One man, a teacher from Nunthorpe School, died whilst protecting his wife with his body — so much courage.

Jack’s Wartime

Jack, Lillian’s husband, was in the Royal Artillery, manning huge guns and shooting down planes and parachutists. Lilian took Raymond and Mary to see their Father whenever possible. The guns made the world a deafening and dangerous place. Jack spent the last three years of the war on the medical staff at Woolwich Barracks, London. He was subjected to raids by V1 Flying Bombs (Doodle Bugs). No visits then!

The role of post-war women changed dramatically

Settling back into Civilian life in 1945 was difficult for many. Men came back to their previous jobs and women were told that they were no longer needed. A difficult and perhaps offensive decision. Women had been receiving wages of their own, experiencing independence and had worked on an equal footing with men (apart from unequal pay). They had heard raucous and colourful talk, swearing and enjoyed the camaraderie. Now, Lilian was expected to return to running a home with all the difficulties of managing with rationing — long after the end of the war. As was common in those days, women rarely knew how much their husbands earned. Lilian never ever discovered Jack’s wage throughout the whole of their marriage.

Lilian eventually went back to work part-time at Rowntrees when Raymond and Mary were older. She saw them both happily married and took much pleasure in her grandson, Christopher. Sadly, she died before her grand-daughters were born. Lilian missed the great joy of knowing Joanne, Helen and Elizabeth. Lilian enjoyed reasonably good health all her life, however, at 57 years of age, recovered from a mastectomy and breast cancer. She stoically faced this blow to her femininity and enjoyed wearing lovely, smart, fashionable clothes. Lilian was full of life, filled with sunshine and laughter despite the difficult circumstances she faced. And aged just sixty in 1965, after a short six week illness, resulting in a heart attack, Lilian sadly passed away.

Proud of her appearance to the end, Lilian asked Mary, her daughter, to put her lipstick on for her as she lay dying.

Lilian was a wonderful wife, Mum and a proud, strong woman. She was loved greatly and is still missed. 31 March 2015, today, marks the 50th anniversary of her death.

She leaves a legacy of strong women — Mary, a fiercely independent and proud daughter, Helen, Elizabeth and Joanne; three grand-daughters who know their own minds and handle life with the same powerful will, Jennifer and Hannah; two great granddaughters both forging lives for themselves after graduating from University and in careers — would Lillian be thrilled at the thought of her female descendants in the working world of their choosing? Definitely.

Lilian maintained her pride and self-confidence, her sunny disposition and sense of fun, right until the end of her life.

A woman to be reckoned with.


Product Owner. Previously SEO & Digital Marketing. Northerner in London. Favourite pastime is eating, followed by learning new stuff.

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