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Bombed but unbowed: Senate House Library in World War II


Written by
Mark Piggott

6th June 2024 will mark the 80th anniversary of the D Day landings – the seaborne invasion of Europe by Allied Forces including the UK which helped win World War II. In the lead up to the anniversary, Senate House Library will explore the themes of conflict – and conflict resolution; militarism – and pacificism with a themed month on “War and Peace."

First, an evocative article by Curator of Rare Books and University Art, Dr Karen Attar, in which she details how Senate House Library remained in operation throughout the war – occasionally coming into conflict with the Ministry of Information, which occupied Senate House.

National Service: the University of London Library during the Second World War

This is an edited version of “National Service: the University of London Library during the Second World War” by Senate House Library’s Curator of Rare Books and University Art, Dr Karen Attar. You can read the full version at: Historical Research, vol. 89, no. 245 (August 2016)

In 1939, Senate House Library became the home for the new Ministry of Information, the wartime government department constituted to maintain civilian morale, conduct publicity campaigns and to release official news and to censor films and archives. Throughout the War, the university’s administration (apart from the library) was evacuated, and the Ministry occupied most of Senate House from the basement to the third floor inclusive. Continuing to function above the Ministry, and serving it, was the University of London Library. 

A book damaged by a bomb
One of the books damaged by bombing in World War II

Emergency procedures commenced eight days before Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Following on from the non-aggression pact signed on 23 August between Germany and the Soviet Union, on 24 August 1939 the principal recalled all senior members of the university staff from holiday; Reginald Arthur Rye, as chief librarian, consequently returned to work on 25 August. 

Also on 25 August, library staff addressed 1,756 envelopes and stuffed them with book recall notices, printed several weeks previously, and staff pushed the books tightly together on every bookshelf of the stacks, in order to reduce the possibility of burning by incendiary bombs or penetration by gas.

Arrangements were made on 1 September 1939 for blackout curtains for the library entrance hall, the Middlesex Libraries (North and South) and the catalogue hall, all on the fourth floor; the periodicals room windows, on the third floor, were to be darkened with brown paper by the library staff. The fitting of blackout curtains and lights and testing for their adequacy continued into at least January 1940. 

To reduce the impact of broken glass from an air raid, brown paper was pasted on the glass windows of the bookcases in the Goldsmiths’ Library, and it was arranged that at night all windows were to remain slightly open, with the heating left on so that the open windows would not cause moisture to harm the books. In tempestuous weather the windows could be closed, as ‘Normally on such a night a raid would not be expected.’

The air raids feared materialised in five hits during the blitz. The first two raids, of 18 and 22 September 1940, shattered windows and damaged the catalogue hall, the book lift, the Goldsmiths’ Library and the staff staircase leading from it to the stack above, but spared the books. 

Then, at 1.10 a.m. on 8 November: ‘a high-explosive bomb hit the Tower at the level of the fifth floor, completely destroying the staircase leading from the Reception Hall to the Music Library and causing much damage to the latter room. The windows were smashed and the temporary weatherproof coverings, which had been fixed after the previous raids, were torn away, both in the Music Library and the Goldsmiths’ Library. The stack on the sixth floor over the Goldsmiths’ Library suffered in a similar way. The Theses Room was less fortunate and received the full fury of the explosion. The room itself was wrecked, and the tattered parcels of theses and twisted steel cases, together with blocks of stone, brick and plaster from the walls and roofs, and broken glass from the windows, were thrown up in a mass of confusion. Doors leading to the library offices and the Librarian’s room have been split asunder, many windows have been broken and a considerable amount of damage has been done to furniture. The bombing of the Theses Room and Music Library has been more devastating than was at first supposed, and has led to bad flooding during the recent wet weather. All the books have been carried out of the Music Room.’

Senate House bomb damage
The Theses Room received the full fury of the explosion. 

To Harold Nicolson, in the building at the time as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Information, the raid of 8 November afforded entertainment: ‘A bomb had hit us just on the shoulder. It had broken through one floor and exploded on the floor below. It had done in the University library. Our windows on the courtyard side had been twisted into shreds. The courtyard is full of masonry. But not a single soul even scratched. It was all great fun and I enjoyed it’.

The University Library again suffered badly from yet another air raid, when on Saturday morning, 16 November, about 4 a.m., a high-explosive bomb crashed through the Harry Price Library and exploded in the strong-room below, where about 1,200 of the choicest books were kept. The wreckage in both rooms was extensive, and many books were damaged. Unfortunately after the previous bombing the rarer sets in the Music Library, such as the complete works of Beethoven, Bach, Purcell and Handel, and other nicely bound collections of musical works, were removed to the strong room on the 6th mezzanine floor for greater safety against flooding, and there they have met with disaster through the explosion of the bomb.

Yet comparatively speaking, enemy action affected the University of London Library only very lightly. The library lost far fewer books than its closest library neighbour, the British Museum (250,000 volumes), or, within the university, the libraries of University College London (100,000 items), Birkbeck College (completely destroyed) and King’s College (about 7,000 books). 

Michael Bonavia’s recollections reveal clearly the negligible nature of the damage by contemporary standards: ‘The Senate House in 1940–41 had five bombs within its cartilage, none of them, fortunately, very large ones. The serious catastrophe was in Malet Street beside the Senate House, where a huge bomb almost demolished College Hall.’

To a large extent, air raids were more of an inconvenience than anything else. They certainly affected commuting. For example, on 6 September 1939 staff could not get in until after 10.00 a.m. due to an early morning air raid for which the all-clear was not sounded until 9.00 a.m., followed by difficulty travelling owing to overcrowding in trains and omnibuses. The blocking off of streets after air raids made reaching work an obstacle race.

When war erupted the library remained open to users. It increased its hours in October 1939, staying open until 8.00 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to meet the needs of those affected by the reduced opening hours or complete closure of other libraries: the main reading room of the British Museum Library, for example, was closed between 3 and 18 September 1939, then re-opened only until 4.00 p.m. each afternoon, owing to the challenges posed by the blackout.

Bomb damage Bloom
Bomb damage from World War II can still be seen in Bloom

The rapport between the University Library and the Ministry on a day-to-day level emerges in two warm thank-you letters from staff of the Ministry’s reference division to the library in late 1945 and early 1946, referring to kindness, willingness, unfailing and generous help, ‘invaluable resources and highly-efficient personnel’, and stating: ‘Without your help our task would have been rendered almost impossible.’

Post-war demand for the library boomed, in tandem with the post-war expansion of the University of London in particular and of universities and their libraries in Britain generally. Opening hours were extended and statistics for all activity soared. The University of London Library was set to enter a new age.

A longer version of this article by Dr Karen Attar can be read at: 

Historical Research, vol. 89, no. 245 (August 2016)