Race to save the RCP: The evacuation of the RCP collections during the Second World War
Council meeting 1943
Wartime council meeting, 1943

In the weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War in August 1939, the Royal College of Physicians, joined a gigantic, covert effort to evacuate its historic collections from London to the countryside ‘for safe custody during the war.’

The RCP’s wartime preparations saw paintings, books, manuscripts and even an entire room - the 17th century Censor’s Room -  leave London for the safety of the countryside, in the hope that they could one day return to a more peaceful future. Finance minutes from the archives reveal the order of the evacuation, and where the collections were headed.

The first evacuees from the collection were ‘16 selected oil paintings’ that left the RCP’s Pall Mall headquarters for the National Library of Wales on August 16, 1939. This list of  the ‘16 selected’ tells us which artworks the RCP then valued the most in prioritising them for evacuation. The artworks are of famous figures in the history of medicine by leading European artists.


List of paintings
16 selected oil paintings, the first collection evacuees


It is unsurprising to see that the portrait of William Harvey made the list, pioneer of the circulation of blood theory and famous RCP alumnus. The painting was already an extraordinary survivor as one of the few RCP artefacts that survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. The attribution of Cornelius Jenson as artist has been queried since but the painting still hangs at the head of the Dorchester Library.

Library at Pall Mall
Library at Pall Mall, William Harvey painting above mantlepiece
Dorchester Library, William Harvey painting on left hand side
Dorchester Library at 11 St Andrews Place

Alongside artworks by the big name artists and Royal Academicians (RA) such as Sir Thomas Gainsborough, Johann Zoffany, Sir Thomas Lawrence, and Sir John Millais, is the relatively obscure woman artist, Mary Black. The portrait of the eccentric, royal physician Messenger Monsey by Black is a treasured painting on display in the Osler Room today, but when it was painted it was hated so much by the sitter, he refused to pay her for the work. The Committee must have valued Black’s artwork to include it in this initial selection.

Another interesting detail is how artist and sitter attributions change over time. From as early as 1925, the attribution of the painting of Andreas Vesalius by Johan Stephen Von Calcar was called into doubt. Despite research questioning both the artist and sitter, the attribution was not totally discounted, and ‘Vesalius’ was still a priority evacuee.

Also joining the 16 paintings in the safety of the National Library in Wales were some of the rarest books and manuscripts of the collection. Two days before the outbreak of the Second World War artefacts listed as: ‘The Caxton’ (Histories of Troy), The ‘Wilton Psalter’ and ‘Chaucer MS.’  were evacuated.

11 days into the war, the College Annals Vols 1-56 – a record of events year by year dating back to the college’s foundation in 1518 – were also evacuated to the National Library. Again, these important objects were already remarkable survivors of London’s tumultuous past. They had survived plague, looting, and the Great Fire of London, thanks to the RCP’s 17th century librarian, Christopher Merret.


Newspaper cutting about post war bomb repairs at Pall Mall
Post war repairs to the RCP headquarters at Pall Mall, 1947


After this initial urgent evacuation of collections, the Autumn of 1940 saw the German bombing of London during the Blitz reach its peak. The books that until then had remained on site at Pall Mall in London, did not escape unscathed. After the library’s near miss, over the course of 1941 the library collection left London. Like many other historic collections and artworks evacuated from cities during the war, they were temporarily housed in the country estates of the aristocracy. The library collection was dispersed between Apethorpe Palace in Northamptonshire (the seat of Lord Brassey),  and Cynghordy Estate in Llandovery (residence of a ‘Mrs. Lloyd’).

Some of the historic furniture that can still be seen in the Censor’s Room today were ‘sent to Lady Ethel Wickham, Cotterstock Hall, Peterborough’, including the 17th century Spanish oak panelling that decorates the Censor’s Room, along with the armchairs donated by Sir Hans Sloane.


Censors Room Interior
Censors Room at Pall Mall, showing artwork, and historic furniture including the Hans Sloane donated chairs.


A further 167 portraits, not part of the initial selection of 16 oil paintings, also went to Apethorpe Palace, as did college treasures such as the Prujean chest of surgical instruments.

The anatomical tables -  then known as the ‘Harvey tables of blood vessels and nerves’, the gold headed cane, the College Mace, Caduceus, and Harvey’s demonstration rod all spent the remainder of the war at Brockenhurst park (the residence of John Morant esq.)

Walking around the RCP’s London headquarters today, we can be thankful that due to some effective emergency planning, the collections did survive the devastation of war, and eventually did return from various countryside locations to a peacetime city.  Visitors and members can continue to enjoy and be inspired by them. This unassuming committee document shows us how humanity, culture and art endures, even in the worst of times.  


Liz Douglas, Collections officer

Further Reading

Elizabeth Douglas ,
Collections officer

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