The day Churchill asked me to save St Paul's

It was just another day in the office for wartime firewoman (and The Lady reader) Beryl 'Billie' Morris...until the phone rang
As a London firewoman during the Blitz, Beryl ‘Billie’ Morris was used to the phone ringing off the hook at the headquarters of the National Fire Service. But when a call came one morning, a little after 10 o’clock, she never could have guessed who would be on the other end of the line.

The voice, she remembers, was impressive, powerful – and immediately familiar. It was Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself.

‘Is that Mrs Morris?’ he asked. ‘This is Mr Winston Churchill. And I have a very important message for all the firemen. Will you please make sure they get it…’

‘He was very clear,’ recalls 96-yearold Billie. ‘He wanted us to save St Paul’s Cathedral… at all costs.

‘When I hung up the phone, I thought I’d imagined it. But it was in all the papers the next day.’

Despite the intense German bombing raids between September 1940 to May 1941, the cathedral did indeed survive the war intact. Much of the capital, however, did not – and thousands of civilians lost their lives.

But many more would have been killed had it not been for the bravery and professionalism of the National Fire Service, which had as many as 370,000 members, including 80,000 women, at its peak. These fi remen and women came from a variety of backgrounds. Billie, for example, was working for Dorothy Perkins in 1939.

‘And then the war came round,’ she says, ‘and I thought, “Right, I’m going to have to do something.” So I went to join the fire service. I had to fill in all the forms; what I’d done and what I hadn’t done and who I was. I joined straight away.’

‘I remember the uniform: navy with brass buttons – it was lovely. I still have it all these years on. I also remember that the ladies started off wearing skirts, but they swapped the skirts to trousers during the war.’

Billie lived through the war as a firewoman, and has reached the grand old age of 96. But the doctors – and her parents – didn’t think she would survive when she was born, weighing just 3‹Œlb on 21 March 1917.

‘My father, who owned a carpet business, never thought I’d be much use,’ she giggles. ‘In fact, that’s why I’m known as Billie rather than Beryl. When I was young, he used to joke that all I’d do is cost the family money – I’d just be a “bill”.

‘The name stuck because most people think that Beryl’s too la-di-da a name for me anyway.

Billie-Morris-02-590Beryl 'Billie' Morris with editor of The Lady, Matt Warren. Inset: Billie worked for the London fire service from 1942 to 1945
‘I also remember my mother, who was a member of the Conservative party, reading The Lady. In fact, I first bought my own copy when I was 11 years old. I’ve read it ever since – I might even be your most loyal reader.’

After the war, Billie returned to Dorothy Perkins and became manager of the Chingford branch, before moving to a cottage in Roydon with her husband Tom, who died in 1985. After using tennis as an escape from the rigours of serving in the fi re service during the Blitz, she played golf into her 70s, bowls into her 80s and only gave up driving at the age of 93.

And, finally, she has now been rewarded for her wartime service, receiving her rather belated Defence Medal earlier this year, the day after her 96th birthday.

‘I’ve led quite a life,’ says Billie. ‘But I will never forget that call from Winston Churchill.’

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  • The National Fire Service (NFS) was formed in August 1941 by the amalgamation of the wartime Auxiliary Fire Service, bringing together the 16,000-plus fire brigades within the country. A single service was deemed necessary to cope with the unprecedented wartime demands on Britain’s Fire Service.
  • At its peak strength, the NFS had 370,000 personnel. Of these, some 80,000 were women, the majority of whom were employed in administrative duties.
  • When enemy action tailed oŠff, spare manpower performed manufacturing work in nearby workshops on a voluntary basis. Duty could often lead to high-risk situations, with members of the NFS being called to locations where bombing raids or coastal shelling were still taking place. When peace was announced on 8 May 1945, 327 women of the London region of the NFS had been killed in action, the youngest on record to have died was aged just 19.
  • The NFS was disbanded in 1948, when fire services reverted to local authority control. With only one per county and per county borough, there were far fewer brigades than before the war. At present there are 63 brigades in the United Kingdom.