Rescued: The story of May Blakemore Harman

Related to Sylvia Brown by Stephen Kerr

My great grandmother, Mary Ann Owen, was the first of my family to join the Church, in 1903 in Birmingham. She was a small lady, born in Brecon, Wales, and was married to Harry Blakemore. Harry never joined the Church, but his heart was as big as a house and he loved his wife; from Elder Creer’s missionary journals we know that he allowed the Mormon missionaries to hold Sunday school in his little house. Imagine that house filled with people of all sorts, with the missionaries teaching the gospel. Was Harry even in the room? One day I will find out.

Mary made sure that her children were baptised and went to church. They were among those present when the Handsworth Chapel in Birmingham, was opened in 1912 in a service presided over by Elder Rudger Clawson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time. But such was the animosity which had been stirred up among the people of Birmingham by local clergy and newspapers, that policemen on horseback were deployed to protect the small band of Mormons from their persecutors. We know from newspaper reports that there were threats of violence and that stones were thrown. It must have been a traumatic experience for everybody in that little congregation, but it probably only strengthened testimonies.

One of Harry and Mary’s children was my maternal grandmother May, who married Thomas Harman. They lived in Birmingham with their growing family in a small house in a street next to St Andrew’s football ground. The Harmans were an ordinary family, except they were Mormon; which marked them out for more than the usual amount of attention, especially the children. My mother remembers being made fun of. Other children at school ‘called her names’ because she was a Mormon as well as a Harman, and they played with the words to come up with little chants and songs which sometimes upset May as a little girl.

May Blakemore Harman
May Blakemore Harman Stephen Kerr’s mother Sheila, and her mother May Blakemore Harman

War broke out in September 1939. But the first few months of WWII are well known as the ‘phoney war’; not much changed on the home front – other than gas masks and the blackout, while British forces were already engaged in a number of campaigns and actions abroad. Finally, in the spring of 1940, the war came fast and furious and, soon enough, it ‘visited’ the towns and cities, and the homes of ordinary British families – including that of the Harmans.

My grandfather volunteered as an air-raid warden and was given a role which I understand was called a ‘spotter’. He and his mates would finish work, go home for their ‘tea’ and then assemble, to sit in an assortment of high places that looked over part of the city, watching out where bombs fell, and providing information to the emergency and rescue services. It sounds like a dangerous job – sitting on a high building on a raised platform with the anti-aircraft guns thundering, while the black shapes of enemy bombers hummed above, and explosions and fires surrounding them. There were safer war-time occupations.

One night before my grandfather left to perform his war duties, as was customary he called his family around him and family prayer was offered. My grandfather went off and the family went back to various activities around the house. My mother has a particularly bright recollection that evening of her mother ironing. The children meanwhile were in different parts of the house.

Suddenly, with no warning, my grandmother May put down her iron and began to shout instructions to her children – get out of the house and into the shelter at the bottom of the garden. (Every family with a garden had been given corrugated metal sheets and the instructions to build a rudimentary bomb shelter. It really was no more than a hole in the ground with corrugated metal-sheet lining.)

The children saw the shelter as exciting and novel. It was like camping out. But they were startled by the behaviour of their normally mild-mannered mother. They offered some protest and resistance, there had been no siren; but she did not relent. Why should they suddenly be sent to that hole in the ground at the bottom of the garden. But she pushed, prodded and dragged them to the shelter.

Just as they entered the shelter, they heard loud explosions. A German raid was underway without any prior warning. It must have been terrifying, sitting in a rudimentary shelter at the bottom of their garden while mayhem broke out on the street where they lived? My mother was only six years old.

Whether a deliberate attempt to terrorise people or the result of a mistake, the bombs dropped on that street that night, and killed and injured just about everyone that was home. Except for one mother and her children.

The shelter took the force of the blast and though badly shaken, the family were still alive. My mother remembers that a water pipe had fractured and the ‘hole’ in which they were now trapped, due to the rubble that had fallen around the shelter, was filling up slowly with water. My grandmother was determined to give them hope which led her to play a game with her children; she asked them to imagine how they would design and decorate their new house. My mother also remembers that they prayed.

It must have been awful for my grandfather to rush back to the street in which his young family lived and see the devastation. Someone told the rescue services that there was a family trapped in a shelter at the bottom of their garden. What my grandfather must have gone through is hard to imagine, as he and others scrambled to remove the rubble to try to rescue his wife and children. But my mother remembers being pulled out of the hole and being passed along a line of arms, at the end of which was her father. What a moment and what a memory!

The story does not end with the rescue. The local newspaper asked my grandmother how she knew to take her family to the shelter. There hadn’t been any siren to warn her. Her answer has inspired me and the other members of our family, and I’m sure will also inspire future generations who embrace the restored gospel and its blessings.

“I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have the gift of the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost told me to get my children out of the house and to save them.”

May Blakemore Harman

This is the heritage I enjoy as a Latter-day Saint. It teaches me that if we will live our lives in accordance to God’s commandments, and put the things of the kingdom first in our lives, He will not desert us in times of distress; we are entitled to the ministering of angels, the gifts of the Spirit, and the love of God for his children.