London in the Blitz

Inside ruined London library after bomb damage in 1940. Piles of rubble, wood and books lay on the ground.
© IWM (HU 131395)
Inside ruined London library after bomb damage in 1940.

London remained the centre of the publishing industry and literary life during the Second World War, despite the ‘second great Fire of London’ on 29-30 December 1940 during the Blitz when storehouses and 27 publishers’ premises were hit destroying five million books. Paper was also in short supply with publishers reduced to just a quarter of their pre-war supplies initially, and later on in the war they were still below 50% of what they had been used to before.


Shopping in Wartime

A female customer reads a book in the Book Department at Selfridge's department store. She and her male companion are looking in the 'New Novels' section. Other customers can be seen browsing the shelves behind them.
© IWM (D 6590)
A female customer reads a book in the Book Department at Selfridge's department store.

Unsurprisingly, the number of published books declined from around 14,000 in 1939 to just 6,700 in 1943, remaining at that low level until the end of the war. But relative scarcity seemed only to add to the desirability of books, for at the same time the reading public’s expenditure on them rose dramatically, from £9 million in 1939 to £23 million in 1945. New books were selling out quickly and going out of print in a matter of weeks. Libraries, too, were in greater demand, and sale of second-hand books was booming.


Reading Habits

A rating enjoying a book in a quiet corner. He is surrounded by books piled up high and is engrossed reading with his legs up on one of the book piles.
© IWM (A 23074)
New London Headquarters for Royal Naval War Libraries, 3 May 1944.

This appetite to read spurred on the appearance of new publishing houses, which thrived in wartime. Founded in the 1930s. Penguin Books based in Harmondsworth, west of London, had helped democratise reading through the innovation of the affordable paperback and wartime played to the company’s strengths. There was a huge demand for the ‘Penguin Specials’, the paperbacks priced at sixpence and covering recent history and current affairs. For the 87 titles produced in 1941, Penguin sold over 100,000 copies collectively. An earlier title, Harold Laski’s Where Do We Go From Here? (1940), sold more than 80,000 copies alone – quite an achievement for a work on left-wing political theory.

In wartime the habit of reading enjoyed a resurgence from the classics of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope to popular thrillers and crime fiction.



Conductor Charlie Shadwell (right) laughs at Tommy Handley and Dorothy Summers during the recording of an episode of 'It's That Man Again'. The BBC Variety Orchestra is visible behind them on the stage.
© IWM (D 24429)
Conductor Charlie Shadwell (right) laughs at Tommy Handley and Dorothy Summers during the recording of an episode of 'It's That Man Again'. The BBC Variety Orchestra is visible behind them on the stage.

Among the mass-market publishing genres, thrillers, crime fiction and detective stories remained popular, from the American hard-boiled detective fiction such as Peter Cheyney’s Slim Callaghan series to James Hadley Chases’s violent thrillers, or the novels and London characters of authors like Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot), Margery Allingham (Albert Campion), Ngiao Marsh (Inspector Roderick Allen), Nicholas Blake, pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis (Nigel Strangeways) and Georgette Heyer (Inspector Hemingway).  

Escapism was also popular on the wireless with many rushing home from work to hear the latest episode of Frances Durbridge’s Paul Temple mystery in the pre-war London world of cocktails, beautiful women, expensive cars, London flats and murderous villains, later parodied in the BBC radio programme It’s That Man Again as Peter Tremble. In addition, every Friday evening there was a Paul Temple short story in the Evening Standard.

Writers in London

John Lehmann
© IWM (D 9562)

The poet and critic Stephen Spender helped edit Cyril Connolly’s literary journal Horizon, which first appeared in 1940 and continued throughout the decade, as did John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing. Lehmann, who was in the Home Guard and worked for various newspapers as well as the BBC and the Ministry of Information (MOI), had founded New Writing in 1935, before persuading the Penguin founder Allen Lanes to put it out as a monthly renamed Penguin New Writing – thus preventing its demise because of paper shortage.

However, a lack of paper did force the journal to become a quarterly in 1942. For a relatively rarefied literary periodical, it had unprecedented popularity, selling out a print run of about 75,000 for each issue. It published new work by nearly all the leading authors, essayists, critics and poets of the time. Many of them drew on their experience of living and working in wartime London.

Writers in Service

Henry Yorke
© IWM (D 7799 )

George Stonier, for example, wrote wry, humorous sketches about the character ‘Fanfarlo’, which later appeared in book form as Shaving through the Blitz. This was not quite the uplifting Ministry of Information-type view of the Blitz:

‘I think the Blitz makes people better somehow, don’t you?’ She says.

No I don’t I think it kills a lot of people; I think it makes a few brave and others mad, and the rest more interested, forthcoming and sly. Do I like that? In a way (and this distresses me), I do.

As Lehmann pointed out in his autobiography I Am My Brother, ‘Fanfarlo’ was one of the most popular features of Penguin New Writing and if the character missed an issue, Lehmann would receive anxious letters. It was Lehmann’s view that he would rather have been in London during the war than anywhere else; that feeling was echoed in the work of many who wrote for his periodical, such as Henry Green, whose short stories ‘The Rescue’ and ‘Mr Jonas’ reflected the author’s experiences in the London fire service.

Poetry in London

Poetry London
© IWM (LBY E. J. 293)

Horizon was slightly more highbrow than Penguin New Writing, its aim to maintain cultural standards despite the war. Connolly, assisted by Spender and backed by a rich patron, Peter Watson, did not see Horizon as a vehicle for first time writers. But the journal also rejected the writing of some of the more popular authors, such as Somerset Maugham.

A question posed in the literary journals at the beginning of the war was: ‘Where are our war poets? The war poets of the Second World War were civilians as well as servicemen, and the journals sought to give them a platform. As well as Horizon and Penguin New Writing there was Poetry London amongst a number of other literary journals.

Poetry London was edited by Meary James Tambimuttu, a poet originally from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). ‘Tambi’ as he was known, was a charismatic figure, who led a sort of underground literary scene in Soho and Fitzrovia. He published both established and first-time poets, and his roster included Idris Davies, Keith Douglas (d.1944), Laurence Durrell, Glyn Jones, Alun Lewis (d.1944), Dylan Thomas, Kathleen Raine, Herbert Read, Keidrych Rhys, Lynette Roberts, Stephen Spender and Vernon Watkins. However, the periodical, with covers drawn by Henery Moore and Graham Sutherland, appeared erratically, in just ten wartime issues, though its circulation rose to 10,000 copies in 1942. ‘Tambi’ seems to have been a rather elusive character, who had a knack of raising money and impressing patrons, while dodging creditors. He held court in Fitzrovia, until he left for Ceylon in 1949

While Stephen Spender did a lot of reviewing, his own poetic output was actually somewhat stunted by the war, as he acknowledged much later in 1990:

"I did write a bit during the war but you felt that everything, and ideas that we stood for in 1930, had been taken out of our hands. A kind of huge machinery of armies and democracy replaced them, which one supported, as we were after all in a democracy, and had good aspects – but entirely negative for writing as far as I was concerned."

However, Spender did a lot for other poets’ careers. According to Connolly, as co-editor of Horizon Spender was responsible for the good war poetry that was published in the journal in 1939-41 – work by writers such as John Betjeman, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas. The period, and the London Blitz in particular did produce some stand-out poems that reflected the times: David Jones’s ‘Prothalamion’, written during the Blitz, which appeared much later in the volume Wedding Poems: T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding in Four Quartets; and Dylan Thomas’s ‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire of a Child in London’.

An issue faced by poets, though not just poets, was that war made it difficult to be a full-time writer. Just like other civilians, writers were required to contribute to the war effort. They easily found work during the war. George Orwell worked at the BBC, who cast the building the Ministry of Information (MOI) was in the University of London’s imposing Senate House as his Ministry of Truth in his dystopic Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Blitz Writing

Painting by Leonard Rosoman showing two firemen trying to escape a collapsing wall during an air raid
© IWM Art.IWM ART (LD 1353)
Leonard Rosoman, 'A House Collapsing on Two Men, Shoe Lane, London, EC4' (1940).

Many worked for the MOI which in its early years became an object of ridicule, exemplified by the Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags.  Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene were Air Raid Wardens, and both Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) and Greene’s Ministry of Fear (1943) and The End of the Affair (1952) were set during the Blitz. T. S. Eliot was a fire watcher at his publishers, Faber & Faber, Even Dylan Thomas, who was in London for long periods during the war and who declared ‘I want to get something out of the war, & put very little in (certainly not my one & only body)’, ended up writing film scripts for the MOI.

Henry Green, William Sansom and Stephen Spender all served in the fire service. Green, pseudonym of Henry Yorke, wrote up his experiences in the novel Caught (1943), in which he captured the tensions between professional firemen and the amateur Auxiliary Fire Service personnel in the early days of the war. It shows up class tensions between the two services, and details the lives of men and women living in close proximity for too long, with little to do but gossip and become suspicious of each other until the Blitz arrives. William Sansom, vividly portrayed the civil defence services in Central London in his fiction, notably in the short story collection Fireman Flower (1944). Sansom served alongside the artist Leonard Rosoman, and Sansom and Henry Green were responsible for Stephen Spender joining the fire service.

Time, Gentlemen

Colourful printed head square or head scarf featuring a pub scene with script 'Time gentlemen, please' in the centre and listing the names of London pubs around a wide border.
© IWM (EPH 673)
Colourful printed head square or head scarf featuring a pub scene with script 'Time gentlemen, please' in the centre and listing the names of London pubs around a wide border.

London’s literary men and women played their own part in the artistic and social scene that existed, at various levels, throughout society. The more established editors and writers such as John Lehmann and Cyril Connolly hosted lunch and dinner parties, as did, for example Eliot and the Sitwells. Some writers were invited to the gatherings hosted by Lady (Emerald) Cunard at her Dorchester suite. John Lehmann remembered these parties as decidedly right-wing comprising Conservatives such as Duff Cooper and his socialite wife Diana, where only the most established writers were admitted. The ‘Ordinaries’ of the interior designer Sybil Colefax had a wider invitation – from Cabinet ministers, novelists and poets to theatrical stars. Whilst in Soho and Fitrovia, as well as Chelsea, writers and artists continued to gather at their favourite pubs of bohemian London.

Theodora FitzGibbon remembered drinking through the first raids with her then partner Peter Rose Pelham (a photographer and painter) and poet Dylan Thomas at the King’s Head and Eight Bells in Chelsea. As she remembered, generally you could get a few glasses of beer or Guinness, but spirits were only available to regulars, and at one pub you had to bring your own glass. Nevertheless, she thought that London’s pubs during the war represented the only places where people could entertain, or be entertained, cheaply, and of course they provided much needed companionship.

Later, Dylan Thomas also drank with the short-story writer and fellow scriptwriter Julian Maclaren-Ross, who arrived in London in 1943 having been discharged from the army. However, a woman accused him of being a ‘Soho non-Blitzer’. A double insult, as the experience of going through the Blitz had become an important marker of identity for a Londoner while – as ‘Tambi’ explained to him – ‘Sohoitis’ could be a charge levelled at both writers, for it stood for staying in the pubs and getting no work done.

The two writers drank in the Fitzroy Tavern and Wheatsheaf pubs among others. One of the virtues of the Wheatsheaf was that it sold Younger’s Scotch Ale, which was stronger than the English ales. Run by Mona Glendenning and her brother Redvers and his wife Frances, the Wheatsheaf was generally considered to be more rowdy and boisterous than the neighbouring Fitzroy Tavern. As it was some distance from central Soho, there were also fewer foreign servicemen and prostitutes. The pub was also the favourite haunt of artists such as Augustus John, John Minton and the ostentatiously bohemian Nina Hamnett. The literary men Stephen Spender, John Lehmann and Geroge Orwell were all known to pop into the Wheatsheaf, but it was not their natural habitat.

For determined drinkers, the Wheatsheaf offered one particular advantage. Its location was on the boundary of Holburn and Marylebone borough, which had different closing times. So when ‘time gentlemen, please’ was called at 10.30pm, a customer could just step out for an extra hour’s drinking at the pubs on the opposite side of Chartlotte Street – if they hadn’t run out of beer already – or head south into the centre of Soho proper.

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Lieutenant Vernon R Richards of the 361st Fighter Group fliying his P-51 Mustang (B7-R, serial number 44-13357) nicknamed "Tika IV".
© IWM (FRE 6210)
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