Gas decontamination centre, built in 1939.
Reasons for Designation
Horbury Gas Decontamination Centre, built in 1939, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as a rare surviving example of a Second World War civilian gas decontamination centre;
* one of the best preserved purpose-built civilian gas decontamination centres known in England, which retains original steel airlock doors, original windows, some fixtures, and a largely intact plan form;
* the design details include high clerestory windows to minimise injury from an external blast, whilst the plan form and structural details survive sufficiently for the flow of the decontamination process to be read in the structure.
* as a tangible reminder of the threat of chemical warfare and the dangers faced by Britain’s civilian population during the Second World War;
* as an important surviving example of the war effort on the Home Front, providing reassurance and protection in the event of a gas attack.
The use of gas in war was outlawed under the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, of which both Britain and Germany were signatories, although this did not include its production and development. Aware that such agreements could sometimes be broken during hostilities, the British Government developed gas weapons and ways to protect against their use. Specialised decontamination buildings were erected in both civilian and military areas to ensure that casualties could be decontaminated and receive first aid treatment in the event of an attack. These could deal with many of the gases that had been developed during the First World War, including: respiratory agents, lachrymatory agents and blister agents.
Some protection from gases was provided by wearing a respirator. The distinctive odours of gases could serve as a warning to seek cover in a building or shelter. However, mustard gas (sulfur mustard) only had a faint smell of garlic or mustard plant and the worst effects were not apparent until sometime after an attack. It was easily absorbed by the skin without being detected and by the time irritation occurred serious damage could have taken effect, such as chemical burns and swelling of the eyelids resulting in blindness. As a warning, special posts with metal paint that changed colour when exposed to mustard gas could be set up at decontamination centres. In the event of an attack it was necessary to get out of decontaminated clothing quickly and wash thoroughly before putting on fresh clothes; if this was carried out within 20 minutes of exposure then serious injury could be avoided.
Gas decontamination centres (also known as gas cleansing stations) were built on military bases and by local government for civilians where they were regulated by Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Wardens and civil police. Civilian centres could be created by adapted reuse of existing buildings or as purpose-built structures. Purpose-built decontamination centres were typically single-storey structures with a water tank tower extending above the main roof line. They were accessed through entry points with air locks. Internal arrangements could include: an undressing area, eye douche and showers, drying area and dressing room. Casualties would remove their clothes, place them inside bins for de-cleansing by boiling, and then shower and wash their eyes out in warm water. Once thoroughly cleaned they would receive first aid treatment. Bleach was used as an antidote with a specially prepared paste rubbed into affected areas and then removed within two minutes. Plant equipment within a decontamination centre could supply clean filtered air and raise the internal air pressure to prevent gas entering in the event of an attack.
Horbury Urban District Council met as early as 1937 to discuss air raid precautions in the event of a conflict. An Air Raid Precautions Organiser was appointed the following year and subsequent anti-gas measures included the distribution of helmets for babies. Committee minutes from July 1939 refer to the proposed erection of a ‘cleansing station’, which would be placed at the disposal of West Riding County Council on a 99 year full repairing lease with a nominal rent and used for storage in peacetime. The decontamination centre would have been built to Home Office guidance. By October 1939 two decontamination squads had been employed with a requirement for a further squad to come into service. The nearby town hall appears to have served as an Air Raid Precaution Centre with a control room and switchboard in the basement for alerting the various bodies in the event of an air raid, and an external warning bell on the south-east elevation. Horbury Gas Decontamination Centre is currently (2019) vacant but had previously been used for storage.
Gas decontamination centre, built in 1939.
MATERIALS: red brick laid in irregular English bond (five rows of stretchers to one row of headers) with blue brick cills. Steel I-beams support a flat asphalted concrete roof.
PLAN: a single-storey rectangular building, approximately 25m by 7m, orientated broadly north-south. At the south-east corner is a water tank tower with a flat concrete roof and a boiler room beneath it. Projecting airlocks provide access to the decontamination centre at the north and south. Plans of similar examples indicate that casualties moved through the centre from south to north: first to an undressing area and then to a shower area with eye douches, a drying space, and a dressing area where casualties were probably also given first aid treatment before exiting through the north airlock.
EXTERIOR: the decontamination centre is accessed through a projecting entrance and airlock under a flat roof at the west end of the south wall. Except for this entrance, which retains the original steel airlock doors (in what appears to be the green external wartime paint) and rubber seals, the south elevation is blind, without any openings. The lower half is rendered. There is a red brick parapet rising above the height of the main roofline and then, higher still, at the east end, the water tank tower and a square chimney stack to the boiler room beneath it. Sockets in the wall beneath the parapet appear to have supported the roof beams of a lean-to. The west elevation has six top-hung crittall metal windows, variously of four or six panes, forming a clerestory just below the eaves of the concrete roof. These were high up in the wall to minimise injury from shattered glass in the event of an external blast. At the north end of the elevation are steel double doors, probably inserted in the late C20. The north elevation is blind except for a projecting exit and airlock under a flat roof at the centre. At the south end of the east elevation is a flush timber door to the boiler room, which is walled off internally and only accessible from this single external entrance. There are crittall windows under the eaves matching those in the west elevation.
INTERIOR: the entrance is at the south where there may originally have been a lean-to or open shed, a foot bath or bleach tray, benches and possibly gas warning posts (see History). An airlock with a first, and then a second, original steel door with a rubber seal leads into the centre. The undressing area may have been external (under the lean-to) or internal but a shower and eye douche area is indicated by drainage channels in the floor of the centre. Narrow partitions may have separated this off from a drying space and the dressing room but have been removed. There is now (2019) an uninterrupted view into the dressing room; a large open space with steel I-beams running down the middle supporting the concrete roof. Plans indicate that the dressing room would originally have been furnished with benches, clothes lockers and protective clothing racks. There are black wooden frames around the windows that probably originally contained black-out blinds and angled metal frames or brackets which may have supported heating and water pipes. A low opening between the shower area and dressing room was probably for a hatch to transfer items between the ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ areas of the centre. Next to the boiler room at the south-east corner is a small room which originally contained the lavatories; it is entered through a flush timber door. Beside the door is a late C20 kitchen sink unit. At the north end of the dressing room is the exit, through another air lock, which retains the original outer door.