Books and Bombs: The London Library and the Second World War

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Giles Milton unveils the wartime exploits of the covert sabotage unit – the Special Operations Executive

Last night, historian Giles Milton treated a packed audience in the Library’s Reading Room to a captivating talk from his book Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat. Helen O’Neill, Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian takes the opportunity to dip into life at the Library during the Second World War.

The Library started preparing for the Second World War in April 1939 by purchasing tarpaulins, blankets, black paint and sand “in readiness in case of necessity”. By October 1939 skylights had been protected with sandbags and the Library was closing earlier than normal to ensure the building was cleared by Blackout time. By 1940 the Librarian Christopher Purnell (1940-1950) and other staff were sleeping overnight in the Library basement so that they could, as The Times put it, “protect the books by night, that they cherished by day.”



Christopher Purnell, Librarian from 1940-1950, was awarded the CBE in 1950.

“I spend my nights here as well as days” Purnell wrote in a letter to the Boston Athenaeum in 1940, “sleeping in the basement.  Guns crash out and bombs fall.  One holds one’s breath when the whistling variety is coming, wondering where it will fall… The staff struggle home as best they can.  I wonder how the girls can stand it after six or seven hours in underground “Anderson” shelters in their gardens in the night, but they are very brave.”

The Library survived in a state of ready watchfulness experiencing several near misses that involved putting out fires on the roof with buckets of sand and extracting splinters of glass from books after one hundred panes of glass were shattered during the Blitz.

In May 1941 the Library reached its centenary. Celebrations were muted, but E.M. Forster, an active member of the Library’s wartime committee, marked the occasion with an article  in the New Statesman and Nation:

“In May 1841 the London Library was launched on the swelling tides of Victorian prosperity.  It celebrates its centenary among the rocks.  It is unharmed at the moment of writing …but the area in which it stands is cloven with the impacts of the imbecile storm. Buildings are in heaps, the earth is in holes.  Safe among the reefs of rubbish, it seems to be something more than a collection of books.  It is a symbol of civilisation…Perhaps the Nazis will hit it, and it is an obvious target, for it represents the tolerance and disinterested erudition which they so detest.  But they have missed it so far”

The Central stacks – five floors were severely damaged by the bomb strike in February 1944

The Library’s good fortune ran out at 10.30pm on February 23rd 1944 when it took a direct hit from a high explosive bomb to its north-east corner.  The blast caused severe structural damage to five floors of book stacks, two reading rooms and the “exhibition room” (now the Art Room), designed in the 1930s by Mewes and Davis, architects of the Ritz Hotel.

Christopher Purnell and a long serving member of staff, David William Kelly, a veteran of the First World War, were on night watch duty when the bomb hit. Both were unhurt in the blast, but 16,600 volumes of biography, theology, periodicals and fiction were damaged or destroyed and a mass of masonry crashed through the roof of the Back Stacks, which damaged books in the science and history collections.

Madeleine Henrey donated over thirty books to the Library between 1946 and 1982 – mostly biographies

The aftermath of the bomb was witnessed the following morning by French writer, Madeleine Henrey, a refugee in London during the War. In The Siege of London (1946), she gives a first-hand account of the scenes of devastation in the Library.  Her testimony records the attempts of twenty female members of staff to salvage the books amidst twisted girders, broken glass and debris:

“What had happened to the Library? … I pushed the door open and found myself in a terrible mess of broken glass and torn volumes.  The girls who had just arrived were standing around, too awed to speak.  Some of them looked like weeping …  When I returned later in the day I found nearly twenty of the girls already at work.  Eleanor Rendell, her hair clogged with brick dust, and her arms black with dirt, was climbing over the debris with no thought for her own safety. ‘For thirteen years I have put the biographies away,’ she said. ‘I must save what I can.’”

Purnell paid tribute to the volunteers who helped the staff sort and salvage books.  The volunteers included Library members calling into the Library to exchange books, passing Allied soldiers and a squad of schoolboys sent by the Headmaster of Marylebone Grammar School. Book loans to members were suspended for four months while the demolition squad removed debris and cut through broken girders, causing a fire in the Art Room in the process. Many books were temporarily housed in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery, who also provided a room for the Library’s Committee to meet, while the Library got back on its feet.

The Library was exceptionally busy during the War. 153,280 volumes were issued in a single year between 1942 and 1943 when the membership reached 5000: the largest number in its history up to that point.

E.M. Forster’s wartime article on the Library remains as pertinent today as it was in 1941. “Knowledge” he wrote in 1941 “will perish if we do not stand up for it, and testify.  It is never safe, never harvested. It needs to be protected.”