The Rebuilding of Britain

Thursday, 7th May 2020, 6:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th May 2020, 6:00 pm
A man standing amongst the ruins of Brewers' Hall, City of London
A man standing amongst the ruins of Brewers' Hall, City of London
A man standing amongst the ruins of Brewers' Hall, City of London; Picture Historic England Archive

By Gary Winter and Emma Double, Historic England

In the years following the Second World War, out of the ashes of the devastation came a surge in building.Towns and cities saw some radical new designs and innovative town planning which continue to influence how we live today.

A scrolled capital amongst charred timbers at Montagu House, Portman Square, Marylebone, Westminster, London, which was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in the Second World War; (Herbert Felton (Historic England Archive))

Historic sites were destroyed across the country, especially during what became known as The Blitz.The heavy and frequent bombing raids carried out over Britain in 1940 and 1941 began with raids on London on September 7, 1940.

Picture by George Bernard Wood

Industrial sites and civilian centres from Plymouth to Liverpool and Portsmouth to Hull were targeted by the Luftwaffe, the German air force.

In September 1940 alone, 5,300 tonnes of high explosives were dropped on London in just 24 nights. Nazi Germany was intent on destroying morale before its planned invasion of Britain, and as part of this strategy they extended their targets to include the major coastal ports and other key industrial towns and cities throughout the country.

Culture under Attack

Historic sites are often casualties during wartime.

Notable casualties of the bombing included Coventry Cathedral, and an important exception included St Paul’s Cathedral in London, which was seen as a beacon of national hope.

It had been specially protected in both the First and Second World Wars by the voluntary St Paul’s Watch, the record books of which still exist today.

In 1942 the Luftwaffe deliberately targeted cities rich in historic buildings. Using the pre-war Baedeker guide book to target important sites, the “Baedeker Raids” or “Baedeker Blitz” destroyed hundreds of historic buildings in Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury.

Capturing a record

As the threat of aerial bombing became a reality, in 1941, a new recording body, the National Buildings Record (NBR), was set up to help protect England and Wales’ historic sites.

It set out “to make a record which will mitigate the loss by preserving the design for posterity…a set of measured drawings, a collection of careful sketches, or a series of well-taken photographs can do this and keep the atmosphere of the building in being for future generations to study and admire.”

Detail showing the clock and dome above the east end of the Corn Exchange, Leeds (Picture, George Bernard Wood (English Heritage))

The NBR drew on lists of buildings of architectural merit, including Roman buildings in built-up areas, ecclesiastical buildings, all medieval buildings, domestic buildings and institutional and public buildings, such as schools and town halls.

The NBR used photographers across the country who would travel around and capture sites before and often after they were bombed.

People standing in the street in front of the remaining facade of numbers 25-36 Southernhay West, Exeter, following bomb damage (Margaret Tomlinson - Historic England Archive)

Their pioneering first female photographer Margaret Tomlinson worked across the South West and supplied thousands of images during the war, including views recording the devastating raids on the cities of Exeter and Plymouth.

Caring for historic monuments

Following the war, the National Buildings Record was merged with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, a body that had been established in 1908 to produce an inventory of historic monuments by county and by parish.

This later developed into today’s heritage bodies - English Heritage, a charity that manages the portfolio of historic properties, and Historic England, the public body which advises the government on the historic environment and which holds the NBR photographs and drawings in its archive.

As a predecessor of the Historic England Archive, the NBR influenced the way we record and protect historic buildings and sites in the present day.

New types of building and military sites were created during the war and many of these are now designated (listed or scheduled) as part of the National Heritage List for England.

Only recently a rare Women’s Land Army hostel, a basic building designed to house the young “land girls” who worked on farms during the war, has been listed at Grade II to protect it for future generations.

Rebuilding England

In the years following the destruction of the war came innovations in building technology and design.Architects, designers and construction companies across Britain and Europe rose to the challenge of rebuilding cities and towns.

A key example of this was Sir Basil Spence’s modernist new Coventry Cathedral – built in 1951-62 alongside the ruins of the medieval cathedral in an innovative new style. It was built by the British construction company John Laing, which regarded it as an exceptionally important commission, to be made to stand a further thousand years.

Laing recorded the building process for their photographic collection, which can now be enjoyed online via the Historic England website at HistoricEngland.org.uk.

Following the Second World War, many new movements in art, architecture and design flourished, creating new, post-war aesthetics.

Further innovative methods of building included the creation of much-needed new social housing. Laing improved its cast concrete “Easiform” method, which enabled faster construction of houses in suburbs across England.

The evidence of post-war building innovation can still be seen across the country today.

To find out more about Historic England Archive visit www.historicengland.org.uk.To read about the National Buildings Record and more, visit Historic England’s blog at https://heritagecalling.com/ and https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/historic-england.