Now here’s an image to sum up the British blitz spirit: three smartly dressed men in hats and coats peruse the shelves at their local library, oblivious to the fact that it’s just had the shit bombed out of it. No need to panic, what? A stirring story but, as is often the case (and especially in war-time), not the whole truth.
For a start, it’s not a public library but rather a private one. The photograph was taken in Holland House in West London, residence of Lord Ilchester. Originally built in 1605, during the 18th and 19th centuries Holland House played host to all manner of literary and political soirees. When the Second World War started the family decamping to their country residence in Dorset, leaving only a skeleton staff in residence. They were the ones who witnessed what happened one night in late September 1940.
During a Luftwaffe raid on the city, Holland House was hit by over twenty incendiary bombs, including what The Times referred to as ‘a Molotov breadbasket’ (a name derived from the Russian Foreign Minister’s claim that they were not bombing Finland, but dropping food parcels; the Finns quickly developed their own ‘drink to go with the food’, the rather more infamous Molotov cocktail). In a letter to The Times the following month, Lord Ilchester described the event: ‘The bombs… dropped on the centre of the house. My steward… saw the bombs fall and at once tackled the fires with the help of his staff… Three high-explosive bombs fell in the grounds a few nights before and did material, though not serious, damage. Hardly any valuable books were destroyed; for although the large library is a total loss, none there was of special importance.’
It’s interesting that news of the bombing was kept out of the newspapers for several weeks, but perhaps not surprising given how heavily censored they were at this time. Photographs in particular were often stage-managed, to try and lessen the scenes of devastation they portrayed. Published photographs of bombed shops and houses would often include people, especially authority figures such as policemen, firemen and air raid wardens. The subtext implied by them was one of reassurance: it is awful, but now it’s under control and we’re going to put it right.
That’s exactly the idea behind this particular photograph, and the inclusion of the three men (although we’ll likely never know their identities). As it’s a private library they clearly haven’t just wandered in off the street to look for a little light reading. Rather, they’ve been placed here to do a specific job, to show that – despite the terrible damage that surrounds them – life should and must carry on.
I found reference to a contemporary print of the photo in the English Heritage archive; the online catalogue entry states it was originally taken on 23 October 1940 by a ‘Mr. Harrison’ of the Fox Photo Agency. If correct, this would put the image at about a month after the bombing actually took place, and a day after the damage was reported in The Times. The photograph is also described as having been being certified as fit to print by the government censor. A variant print, taken at the same time, was published in The Sphere on 2 November 1940, and other images of Holland House featured in the London Illustrated News of 26 October 1940.
Very few books of any value were destroyed in the raid, the most precious items having already been withdrawn and stored elsewhere. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Holland House itself – the damage it sustained was such that it remained beyond repair, and the site was eventually sold to the London County Council in 1952, which demolished most of the remaining ruins. Part of the East Wing has survived, and you can now stay in possibly the poshest Youth Hostel I’ve ever seen; and one entirely appropriate for one of London’s wealthiest and most exclusive boroughs. Hard to imagine the devastation wrought on it over 70 years ago; but as this photograph is testament to, first appearances can be deceptive.