Southampton suffered terribly from heavy air raids in 1940 and 1941, particularly on November 30 and December 1, 1940. This became known as the Southampton Blitz.

The morale of the population inevitably fell but gradually recovered from 1942 onwards when it became clear, despite the secrecy, that the town was going to play a key role in the fight back.

Some of this may have been in the mind of local historian, Elsie Sandell, when, whilst surveying the ravaged buildings of the High Street one day in 1947, she had the happy inspiration of creating a memorial of Southampton’s contribution to D-Day.

She decided that it should be the work of the women of the town and as women are traditionally skilled at needlework, it should be a tapestry. In some ways it would be a mirror image of history.

New Forest Post:

Nearly 900 years before the women of Normandy had produced the Bayeux Tapestry showing the invasion of England. Now the women of Southampton would record the launch of the invasion of the Normandy beaches.

The idea was taken up by several local women’s organisations and a design by Miss C. Christison was adopted.

The first stitch was worked by the then Mayoress, Mrs Blanchard, on May 3, 1950 and the last stitch was put in by another Mayoress, Mrs Burrow, on February 4, 1953.

New Forest Post:

In between these dates, seventy-six women put in several thousand hours of work to produce a unique panel which celebrated Southampton’s part in the success that was D-Day.

Central to the scene is the solid, grey Bargate with the Civic centre behind it in the distance.

To right and left are other important buildings which survived the bombardment – the Tudor House, St Michael’s Church, the Royal Pier, the tower and remaining walls of Holy Rood.

The sky is crowded with aircraft of all kinds and silver barrage balloons.

Columns of British and Allied troops march past ruined buildings towards the waterfront where there are vehicles of all kinds including trains and tanks.

New Forest Post:

Parts of the Mulberry harbour and of PLUTO are shown and, in the foreground, are camouflaged ships.

Centrally the emblem of Southampton is shown, flanked by ships from days gone, a reminder that ships from Southampton had set out for previous triumphant battles

The unveiling ceremony took place in the presence of her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, on April 2, 1953.

The tapestry then hung in the Art Gallery entrance hall before being moved to the Bargate Museum.

When the Bargate Museum closed, the panel was moved and placed in the passage leading to the Mayoral Suite. This inevitably meant that it was inaccessible to vast swathes of the public and led to controversy in the shape of Southampton born pensioner, Frank Willis.

He was shocked when visiting the Civic Centre in 1997 after a 25-year absence, he discovered the whereabouts of the embroidery and that if he wished to see it, he would need to obtain a viewing appointment.

New Forest Post:

Understandably annoyed, he wrote to a city councillor and to the Daily Echo.

He called for a permanent home in “our splendid Art Gallery from which I feel that Southampton’s citizens and the next generation would secure much benefit and a sense of history.”

The Echo published his letter and followed it up with an article.

The retired architect’s campaign hit home when civic leaders promised to review their decision to hang the art in a publicly restricted place.

They added, “Its size (nine feet by four and a half feet) does make it difficult to find appropriate wall space”.

Whether the panel ever emerged into the metaphorical sunlight is not clear but certainly for the last several years it has languished in the basement of the Civic Centre.

It remained there for the 70th anniversary of D-Day - hopefully it will not be the case for the 75th anniversary.

By Ally Hayes - tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk.