Race against devastation: How wartime photographers dodged Nazi bombing to record historic buildings

websiteA new exhibition chronicles the wartime work of the National Buildings Record – set up to capture a disappearing landscape -and of Margaret Tomlinson who was nothing if not dogged in pursuit of her task.

i News writes:

As the Luftwaffe unleashed the Blitz to try to disable Britain’s war machine, the trained architect and recently divorced mother was in desperate need of work. When offered a position in 1941 as the first female photographer for the newly-formed National Buildings Record (NBR) she accepted with enthusiasm. In the depths of that winter and while suffering the lingering effects of flu and a septic ear, the shutter mechanism on her camera one day stopped working because of the cold. Where others might have simply gone home, Tomlinson started up her Austin Seven car and placed her malfunctioning kit under the bonnet until it had warmed sufficiently for her return to her work.

Tomlinson married her Cambridge University tutor after training as an architect. After the relationship ended she moved to Devon to be closer to family and began working for the NBR in 1941.  The NBR, staffed by some 30 people, had been set up as an urgent reaction to the grim reality of the Second World War as Nazi air raids destroyed not just Britain’s industrial infrastructure but also the historic city centres adjacent to factories and ports. By the end of the war, some  70,000 buildings in London alone had been destroyed and demolished in bombings that also cost 30,000 lives.

Walter Godfrey, a prominent architect who was the NBR’s first director, warned there was a need ‘to meet the dangers of war then threatening many buildings of national importance’. In this race against architectural devastation, it fell to Tomlinson and her NBR colleagues to photograph, draw and document as many of the ancient and important buildings in England and Wales before they were destroyed in the bombing. Similar bodies took on the work in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was work suffused with an iron-willed awareness of the existential threat to the built environment – from medieval streets to Georgian terraces – that fell under the gaze of the Luftwaffe’s strategists.

When at one stage Tomlinson confessed that her confidence had been knocked by the difficulties of recording ancient monuments amid the destruction, a colleague replied: ‘It is important in our job never to be in the slightest degree ruffled by the destruction of unrecorded buildings. The only thing to do is to plod along regardless of what happens.’

The work of Tomlinson, who went on to produce 3,500 photographs and immortalise dozens of buildings subsequently lost forever, and her colleagues is at the heart of ‘What Remains’, a new exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum examining why cultural heritage is attacked in conflicts and the efforts to protect and restore what is targeted. The NBR’s task became even more urgent when in April 1942, Hitler unleashed the so-called ‘Baedeker raids’. Named after the German pre-war tourist guides of the same title, the strategy was an attempt to destroy British morale by deliberately targeting cities for their cultural and historical importance, such as Bath and York, rather than locations of strategic value.

Among the cities targeted was Exeter, where Tomlinson found herself having to return to a Georgian townscape she had recorded weeks earlier to catalogue the now extensive ruins caused by the Nazi bombing. Shortly after the first of the Baedeker attacks, she wrote: ‘I have had an absolutely miserable spring with illness and am still rather shaky. It is all most unfortunate and the Exeter blitz being the last straw.’

The NBR, which was formally established in 1940 with the help of intervention from BBC pioneer Lord Reith and a sizable grant from America’s Rockfeller Foundation, was part of a wider effort to preserve Britain’s cultural riches that also saw works of art and antiquities moved out of London en masse to the safety of locations including Welsh slate quarries. Tamsin Silvey, who co-curated the exhibition on behalf of heritage watchdog Historic England, told iweekend: ‘Of course, you cannot put buildings in storage. The NBR employees were pioneers and they were given a lot of autonomy in how they worked. As a result, many of their pictures are beautiful – it wasn’t just a dry process of recording architecture. With people like Margaret Tomlinson and her colleagues you get a real sense of personal mission. They wanted to support the war effort, in their case by safeguarding the memory of the nation.’

By the end of the war Tomlinson and her comrades had added some 25,000 new images to the collection held by the NBR and preserved for posterity images of buildings either destroyed in the bombing or deemed too damaged to be saved. They ranged from Exeter’s exceptional neo-classical Lower Market to the Church of St John the Evangelist in London’s Camden, which was destroyed by a German parachute mine on a site now occupied by Westminster University. It was not only monumental structures that were recorded but also historic buildings that formed the fabric of daily life from pubs to sweet shops to thatched cottages. The work of the NBR photographers was not without its difficulties and frustrations. One of Tomlinson’s colleagues was George Bernard Wood, whose Baptist faith led him to be a conscientious objector. He was appointed to the NBR in August 1941 and set about recording buildings in and around Hull – another target for heavy German bombing. His efforts were nearly brought to an abrupt halt when a tribunal for conscientious objectors ruled he should instead work on the land or in civil defence. But an intervention from Walter Godfrey resulted in a reprieve and Wood continued to work for the NBR and its successor organisations for another 30 years.

Letters and memos sent by both Wood and Tomlinson also bear testimony to the perhaps unsurprising difficulties of touring wartime Britain with a camera while recording prominent buildings. During his work in Hull, Wood reported that the ‘nervy state’ of its citizens was hindering his progress. He wrote: ‘As soon as I set up my camera, they inconvenience me in several ways; one person even insisted on taking me round to the police station –  in spite of my permit! Result, half an hour’s precious sunshine wasted. I shall try to get a policeman to accompany me during the remaining period.’

Ahead of the D-Day landings, Tomlinson was tasked with photographing buildings in parts of the South Coast which had been declared a forbidden zone as Allied troops prepared for the 1944 landings. Despite also holding a permit to enter the area, Tomlinson was repeatedly stopped by police but she still managed to photograph churches and other buildings in the area which her bosses feared might be destroyed. The legacy of the NBR and its precious visual archive of a nation whose urban landscapes were to be so scarred by war was to put in place the rules of preservation and conservation that underpin the post-war system of listed buildings.

But there was also a certain irony found by the NBR photographers in the wartime rubble. Several bombing raids led to the uncovering of ancient remains, including a Roman pavement in Exeter and Norman stonework used in the city’s cathedral. Tomlinson, who went onto work in planning and died at the age of 92 in 2007, took it upon herself to record these details. She wrote: ‘I have rather fallen into the hands of local medieval enthusiasts, for whom I have taken views of various bits of walling, window openings and other details exposed by the recent destruction. They are of considerable interest.’

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