Today’s Findmypast hero, prison officer John Joseph Meehan, was kindly submitted by his daughter, Winifred Meehan.
Terror in Liverpool during the blitz
On the 18th of September 1940, German bombers filled the skies above Liverpool. This was the nineteenth air raid the city had experienced, however that night the bombs fell particularly hard. A nurses’ home in Fazakerley was badly hit, railway lines at Brownlow Street and St Michael’s station were badly damaged, and five people were killed on Gloucester Road in the Tuebrook area of the city.
The most dramatic incident of the evening was caused by a single high explosive torpedo bomb that landed on the remand wing of HM Prison Liverpool in Walton. The bomb caused terrific damage and partially demolished the wing, killing 22 inmates. The damage was so great that the body of one prisoner was not found until 11 years later when the last of the rubble had been cleared.
The surviving inmates who were trapped in the damaged upper tier were quickly removed, but one prisoner could be heard crying out, buried alive beneath tons of rubble in the prison’s basement. Prison officer Joseph Meehan sprang into action.
Gas and water mains under the wing had burst and the basement was rapidly filling up. The roof also posed a significant risk as the damaged structure could have collapsed at any moment. The situation was growing increasingly dangerous and no time could be spared as the only way to free the man was to manually smash a hole in the adjacent wall, before tunneling through the fallen masonry.
Along with police superintendent Edward Nicholas, Meehan agreed to stay behind and set to work demolishing the wall, using only brute strength, picks and a sledgehammer.
A dramatic rescue
According to the official report,
“the rescue was effected in the worst imaginable conditions; in darkness apart from the light of pocket lamps, with the danger of the roof and wall collapsing, in a gas polluted atmosphere, amid flooding from fractured water mains and with enemy aircraft overhead”.
After three and a half long hours, the prisoner was finallly freed, exhausted and frightened but otherwise unhurt. Meehan and Nicholas were awarded the George Medal for their bravery and were among the first civilians to receive the award. By 1940, the events of the Blitz had led to a strong desire to reward the many acts of civilian courage. On September 24th that year the King announced the George Medal be instituted to recognize both civilian gallantry in the face of enemy action and brave deeds more generally.
After the war, Meehan continued to work for HM prison service. A capable and popular officer, he eventually rose through the ranks to become a prison governor. His daring deed was covered by a number of newspapers and inmates he later worked with at Dartmoor affectionately wrote him a poem entitled ‘Meehans Medal’.
A heroic ancestor fondly remembered
His daughter Winifred says;
“At the time my sister and I were too small to understand what all the fuss was about. My father never talked about it so it was only when we found the press reports and the poem the Dartmoor prisoners had written. Then we realised what a very special person he was. We asked him about it. What upset him was the fact it was the remand wing which housed debtors and those awaiting trial. He would have still fought hard for any prisoner. Everyone is a human being. But these were innocent people as well. ”
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