On September 1, 1939, just two days before Britain officially declared war against Hitler’s forces, Brighton and the rest of Britain began darkening their windows and doors with blackout curtains and blackout blinds to ensure that no light was able to be seen from the air, where it was soon expected that German air raids would begin bombing towns and cities across Britain.
At 5pm on the 2nd of July, 1940, Brighton’s beaches were officially closed. The beaches were lined with barbed wire and landmines and sections of Brighton’s Palace and West Piers were removed to prevent the enemy from landing and invading the town. Brighton was deemed to be a likely location of an invasion, and the town was declared no longer safe. Over 30,000 people were evacuated.
For those who remained in Brighton, the blackout continued to have unpleasant consequences. Not only home windows were darkened by blackout blinds in Brighton, but also places of work and entertainment, making it difficult to socialise or perform certain aspects of labour. The ARP wardens, who patrolled neighbourhoods to ensure that no light leaked through the blackout curtains, were barely tolerated with much grumbling. Worse, anyone who failed to fit their blackout blinds correctly faced steep penalties.
While the blackout curtains were effective in keeping light in, they also made life in Brighton harder on the inside. The blackout shutters that could keep out light were also unfortunately air-tight, keeping fresh air from circulating inside homes, increasing indoor air pollution and reducing the quality of life across much of Britain. This was exacerbated by the fact that blackout curtains also couldn’t be washed, as washing would weaken and loosen the fibres, making them more likely to let light through.
It was correctly thought that darkening all windows via blackout curtains and extinguishing street lamps would keep the enemy from targeting British cities – but the effect on civilians was less than pleasant. Pedestrians and motorists alike had trouble finding their way, causing accidents across Brighton and other areas of Britain. By the time the war actually began, blackout was nearly total. One Londoner, Phyllis Warner, wrote in her diary, “For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched.”
Nor did civilians grow used to the total darkness with time. In 1943, four years after the blackout blinds first went up in towns like Brighton, one Frank Forster described how difficult it was to find his way while walking round his familiar hometown of Chester, a much smaller town than Brighton. “Every journey one makes across the city during the blackout, especially on a very dark night, is a great adventure – although one is aware of certain landmarks, many of them are no use whatever, unless one is possessed of a good torch. One never knows what is in front of one beyond a distance of about three feet.”
In July 1939, Brighton would face its first night air raid by enemy forces. Yet neither the fear of these attacks nor the difficulties imposed by the blackout blinds in Brighton would be enough to quell the people of this town.
Read part one of the history of blackout blinds in Brighton during the Second World War here
And read part three of our history of blackout curtains in Brighton during the Second World War here