NOSTALGIA: The six sisters wiped out in a shocking tragedy of war

The grave of the Wilkinson girls. The Wilkinson sisters and baby Tony lie at rest together in Kingston cemetery.

In my second book Portsmouth, City of Gallant Hearts, I told the story of the seven Wilkinson sisters. Six of them lived at 16, Cowper Road, which ran between Manor Road and St Mary’s Road, Fratton.  It is now just a cul-de-sac.

Another sister, Lilian, always known as Lily, lived a short walk away in Moorland Road. 

Irene Wilkinson, aged 17, who died, aged 90, in February.

On the evening of December 5, 1940 six of the sisters – Lucy aged 25, Mary, 21, nineteen-year-old Nellie, Ivy, 15, Irene, 12 and Kathleen, who was 11 – were sitting in the front parlour when there was a knock at the door.

On being answered the girls see that their married sister Lily aged 23 had arrived with her one-year old son, Tony.  

A short while after Lily arrived, the house received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb, completely destroying it.

All but Kathy, Nellie and Irene were killed outright.

About 12 years ago I began to research the girls and found out Irene was living in Epsom, Surrey.

I managed to find her number and rang hoping she would speak to me about that evening but she refused point blank.

Nothing to do with bad memories, it was just that she was a private person and did not want to talk to me. 

Some six months passed and I finished my research and wanted to publish, but thought I would give Irene a call with a promise not to publish her married name or an up-to-date photograph.

I am glad to say she agreed to talk to me. She also let me have photographs of all the sisters.

Respecting her wishes, I have not revealed her married name then or now. She did agree to let me publish a photo of her as she was aged 17 though.

She told me: 'The week before the bombing we had buried our mother Kate. After the service our only brother Harry, who lived in Woking, had returned home. 

'We were all knitting and talking in the front parlour when there was a knock at the front door and it was our Lily with her baby son, Tony.

'She came in and parked the pram in the hallway with Tony asleep.

'Lucy put the kettle on for tea and then there was a second or two of strange silence and then a terrific explosion and everything went dark.

'There was no air-raid siren as I remember. I regained consciousness and found myself lying among the rubble of what had been our house. I couldn’t move.

'We must have been there sometime before rescue workers arrived. I was put in an ambulance along with Kathy and Nellie and we were driven off to the Royal Hospital.’ 

In fact it took six hours to dig all the girls from the rubble. Sadly Kathy died in the ambulance and Nellie died five days later, her injuries were so appalling.

Baby Tony had been blasted over the rooftops and found a mile away lying dead in a bed of nettles.

All six girls and Tony were buried in one plot in Kingston Cemetery which I visit on the anniversary to lay flowers, from myself and Irene. 

Irene went on: ‘I was in the Royal for a month and then taken to another hospital far from the bombing where I remained for another year.

'Unfortunately they had to amputate one of my legs, but at least I was alive.’

I recently received a letter from Irene’s daughter Sue, who lives in Kent, telling me that Irene died aged 90. The girls are together once more.

It is a miracle she lived so long, considering the shock of the bombing and losing her sisters.

Sue told me her mother kept the whole story to herself and she knew nothing of the bombing until she read my book and how her mother had suffered. 

There are so many stories like this, where whole families wiped out.

Just one of the forgotten horrors of the Blitz on the city of Portsmouth.

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