Sat, 28 Sept 2019
PART of Hungerford High Street was cordoned off and a building evacuated in a chemical weapons alert.
The drama happened soon after noon on Saturday and involved a biohazards team from the Government’s defence research facility at Porton Down.
Stewart Hofgartner, proprietor of the Below Stairs antique shop, revealed he and his wife had alerted the authorities as a precaution after a customer drew his attention to a Second World War item in a cabinet in his shop.
He said: “It was marked ‘ARP [Air Raid Precautions] Home Office Issue.”
On closer inspection, one of the phials inside was marked ‘Mustard Gas’ – a chemical weapon first deployed during trench warfare during the First World War.
Although mustard gas was not deployed during the Second World War, it was nevertheless a feared weapon and both the Nazis and the Allies retained stockpiles.
Mr Hofgartner was sceptical that the box contained actual chemical weapons, but said he did not want to take any chances.
He asked his wife Susan, a former Constable of the Town & Manor, to call the emergency services.
Mr Hofgartner said: “It had been in that box for around 70 years and in the shop for around a year.
“Susan rang the authorities and sent photographs.
“They called back and said not to panic, but they were on their way.
“She had barely finished that call when there was a knock at the door.”
Within minutes there were police cars, fire engines and officials in hazmat decontamination suits swarming in the High Street.
The area was cordoned off and the Below Stairs staff were advised to evacuate the shop.
Meanwhile, the box was taken to Porton Down for testing.
Mr Hofgartner said he received a call next morning to inform him that the box contained no chemical weapons.
It is believed to have been part of a kit issued to ARP wardens during the war to help them identify a range of dangerous gases.
Such kits contained glass phials and sachets of chemicals.
The wider civilian population were issued gas masks as protection against potentially fatal gas attacks.
Mr Hofgartner said he had not thought the item contained mustard gas, but was not prepared to take any chances.
He and Mrs Hofgartner praised the response of the emergency services.
Mrs Hofgartner said: “It was very impressive – we can’t commend them enough for such a prompt and full response. We should be proud of them.”