A Library at War Time
Library roof after bombing. Illustration from AP Cawadias, ‘The Royal College of Physicians of London, on the occasion of its recent bombing’. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 1941:34;811-822.
Library roof after bombing

Following last week's post about evacuating museum collections from the RCP during the Second World War, today library volunteer Kate So looks at how the book collections were protected during the bombing of London in the 1940s.



When a reader comes to the library to look at special collections material, having ordered their book or item ahead of time, the book or item will be given to them by library staff. The reader might be forgiven for thinking of their reading material as still, or stagnant, that it sits in its carefully organised spot in the collection waiting for the next curious researcher to call it up, and that it has been still since it entered the library. In reality, special collections material gets around more than you think. Through the routine tasks of library management, material is moved, cleaned, conserved, put back, or weeded out of the collection when no longer required. Collections will also be affected by significant moments in history.

This was the case during the Great Plague of 1665, when an unusually quiet College of Physicians was broken into and money and silver stolen from an iron strongbox, or more dramatically, the following year, when the grand college site on Amen Corner (near St Paul’s Cathedral) was razed to the ground by the Great Fire of London. Although the aforementioned strong box was rescued, this time with its money safe inside, most of the College’s library collection was lost in the blaze. The College was rebuilt on Warwick Lane, designed by scientist Robert Hooke, with a purpose-built anatomy theatre. Its library remained empty until Henry Pierrepont Marquis of Dorchester (1606–1680) bequeathed his own library collection to the college in 1680. As a result, renowned architect Christopher Wren designed a new library space to house the collection.


Iron chest.
Iron chest used to store the College’s valuables in the 1660s. X1118


During my PhD placement at the RCP Heritage Library, one of my tasks was to transcribe the accessions register, a document recording the entry of items into the library. I transcribed a section of this document from the early twentieth century, which got me thinking, how did the Second World War affect library operations?

At the time of the Second World War, the College was located at Pall Mall East, overlooking Trafalgar Square. It had been there since 1825, and the grand location and lack of anatomy theatre, signalled the College’s pivot from a site of medical experimentation to one of examination and administration.

[[IMAGE: Felix Kelly. The old building of the Royal College of Physicians, Pall Mall. Oil on canvas, 1960. X171]]

In October and November 1940, the College was damaged due to enemy action. A bomb struck the building, crashing through skylights which lit the building’s double storey library. Luckily, the bomb caused minimal damage. Portraits of notable members of the College and three of its oldest and rare books, such as a 15th century manuscript of The Canterbury tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, had already been prioritised and pre-emptively removed to The National Library of Wales in 1939, but in the face of such a close call the library now had to find safer location(s) for its remaining collection, and find them quickly. At the library committee meeting on 15 January 1941 (MS2000/97), the damage the library had sustained was reported and a discussion took place about where to store the collection for the duration of the war.

Library after boming.
Bomb damage to the RCP library in 1940. Illustration from AP Cawadias, ‘The Royal College of Physicians of London, on the occasion of its recent bombing’. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 1941:34;811-822.


Today, heritage institutions, whether they be libraries, archives, galleries or museums, must have emergency preparedness plans, in order to preserve as much of their material in the event of disaster or incident. One aspect of this planning is creating a priority list, sometimes known as a ‘grab list’, for the evacuation of the material they deem most precious. Having already sent three of these items to Wales, RCP library staff had to select what material to prioritise for removal. The most precious, including early examples of printed books (known as incunabula), books presented by the Marquis of Dorchester in 1680, and books of outstanding historic value interest or rarity, were moved to the countryside.


RCP Finance committee minutes concerning the evacuation of collections. MS4707
RCP Finance committee minutes concerning the evacuation of collections. MS4707


On the 23rd of April 1941, the first move, consisting of 1,526 volumes, was to Apethorpe Hall (now known as Apethorpe Palace) in Northamptonshire. The Jacobean hall, the seat of Lord Brassey, had previously been assessed by library secretary Horace Mallinson Barlowe just two weeks prior, reporting that the library had no space for their books, but the Spencer Room on the ground floor would be “suitable accommodation”. It was “dry and airy” and as Lord Brassey stores his own valuables there it was “under lock and key”. The books would be stored on "two extremely long refectory tables will hold all the books which now remain in the College, if packed in parcels” which would be "preferable to placing them where they are exposed to view and easily individually on shelves, subject to removal”. For extra security, Barlowe escorted the 71 most treasured items personally from the strong room at the library to the Spencer Room on 1 June 1941. A further 3,822 volumes were taken to Apethorpe later in June.


RCP Finance committee minutes concerning the evacuation of collections. MS4707
RCP Finance committee minutes concerning the evacuation of collections to Brockenhurst Park. MS4707


The rest of the removed collection was split between Brockenhurst Park in the New Forest, Hampshire, and the care of a Mrs Lloyd in Cynghordy, Carmarthenshire. By July 1941, 18,070 library volumes had been removed to the countryside, accompanied by objects from the museum collection and College archive documents. To Brockenhurst Park went leases and charters pertaining to the College secured safely in the same iron strong box rescued in 1666, during the Great Fire of London.

The evacuation of collection material was successful. After the war, not a single one of the incunabula (early printed books) was missing, and only 34 printed books published in the 16th century. The annual report of the library committee in 1951 celebrated that the loss of printed books during the war was estimated at around 2.5%. By this time, the most seriously (but still salvageable) damaged books had been repaired and 1,250 books had been rebound and restored. Due to the demand of such conservation work after the war, progress was slow, with a further 6,000 books still needing attention by 1951.

So the next time you are in the reading room ponder, perhaps, that material you are consulting may be much more well-travelled than you think!

Kate So, PhD placement volunteer


There are various opportunities to volunteer with the RCP archives, heritage library and museum team. Kate So’s placement was on the project ‘Recording the 20th century library’, which is available to PhD students with funding to undertake work placements as part of their degree.


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