Book reveals how Britain's museums hid exhibits from Hitler's bombs

Van Dyck in a Welsh mountain, Egyptian wonders in a disused Tube and the Crown Jewels stashed in a biscuit tin… a new book reveals the wonderfully inventive ways Britain’s great museums hid their priceless exhibits from Hitler’s bombs

  • New book examines the ways Britain’s museums hid exhibits in World War Two
  • National Treasures looks at how underground stations were used to house art
  • While other artwork was transported away from cities into the countryside 

The hallowed halls of the 250-year-old British Museum had never seen anything so bizarre. Along its marbled galleries, between its grand columns and beneath its magnificent ceilings — normally oases of quiet, scholarly reflection — flakes of choking white material hung in the air before landing on staff frantically beavering away below. It covered their clothes, leaving them looking for all the world like a flock of giant fluffy chicks.

It was a comic scene, incongruous in this place of high culture, but behind it was a deadly serious purpose. It was September 1939 and the museum was preparing for war.

The doors had been closed to the public and thousands of precious exhibits — antiquities collected over centuries from all over the world and displayed for the edification of generations of visitors — were being packed into boxes, ready to be evacuated from the heart of London to places of safety, away from the danger of destruction by Luftwaffe bombers.

Cotton wool was wrapped round fragile items but for the rest there was cheaper kapok — tons of it — lighter, free floating and clinging. And when that ran out, the packers in the Department of Ethnography resorted to a huge stash of that racy rag, the News Of The World (motto: all human life is there), to wrap around bronzes and statuettes from ancient civilisations.

What eased the whole packing process was a new invention. When the museum had first made its plans, it baulked at the thousands of cumbersome wooden boxes it would need. It had nowhere to store them.

A manufacturer by the name of No-Nails had the solution with its revolutionary form of bulk packaging — hinged sheets of plywood folded into small cubes that could be opened out to full size when needed. Here was the first ever flat-pack.

Pictured: Workers carry artworks to part of Piccadilly Circus underground station, to an area known as ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ to store works from the Tate gallery

No-Nails boasted that its crates were so ‘extraordinarily simple’ to put together without tools that even ‘female labour’ could assemble them! The museum had ordered in more than 3,000.

All over London, museums and galleries were making similar preparations to move their priceless treasures to safety — the National Gallery, the Tate, the Wallace Collection, the Victoria & Albert, the Natural History Museum. Buckingham Palace was doing the same. So, too, were the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

All were participating in an unprecedented evacuation project that sent countless pieces of priceless art on risky journeys.

The scale of the operation was huge, but it has largely gone unnoticed because it was done in the greatest of secrecy to avoid being a magnet for thieves and hijackers.

The idea of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin Of The Rocks or Constable’s The Hay Wain being snatched was every curator’s nightmare. Armed guards accompanied the convoys to secret destinations.

In a new book, historian Caroline Shenton reveals the full story of this remarkable exodus for the first time as stately homes, tunnels, castles, quarries, prisons and caves became refuges for the nation’s treasures.

The Wallace Collection in the West End was bidding goodbye to its most famous exhibit, The Laughing Cavalier portrait (pictured) by Frans Hals, packed into a lorry accompanied by four guards armed with truncheons, on its way to Balls Park in Hertfordshire

At stake was nothing short of the preservation of our history and our heritage. What is particularly surprising is how early the danger was seen and the contingency planning began.

It was in 1933 that the Nazi party took absolute power in Germany, and the rest of the world embarked on years of dithering and appeasement.

But not at the UK Government’s Office of Works. Its officials took seriously the warning from prime minister Stanley Baldwin that ‘the bomber will always get through’. Ahead of the game, they called in the heads of the major museums for an agenda-setting meeting on ‘precautions for the safe custody of national art treasures’.

By the beginning of 1934, a draft list had been drawn up of suitably secluded country houses away from obvious bombing targets.

Over the next five years, plans were refined and finalised, and by the beginning of 1939 — while Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, was still striving for a peace deal with Hitler — a fleet of lorries was on permanent standby to hurry the treasures to safety at a moment’s notice.

A leading figure in this was the patrician boss of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, suave Kenneth Clark (a figure the post-war world came to know and admire as Lord Clark of Civilisation, after his ground-breaking television arts series).

Six brick sheds were built in Manod Mawr to house the art works during the Second World War

The youthful Clark — only in his early 30s but already a man of stature in political and cultural circles — had learned all he needed to know about the threat from Hitler as his wife read Mein Kampf to him while he was shaving.

He had no doubts what was coming and was determined to protect the Da Vincis, Botticellis, Rubenses, Rembrandts, Van Goghs and Renoirs in his care.

He set about roping in scores of grand homes in the depths of the countryside as safe houses. Earls and marquesses were expected to open their doors, so too were millionaires such as the Astors and the Rothschilds. Compulsory requisition was used for refuseniks.

He even resorted to blackmail, reminding reluctant old fogeys that the alternative to housing evacuated Old Masters would be having evacuated kids from the East End dumped on them. Most fell into line.

But rather than have the National’s treasures scattered around the country, Clark’s preference was to keep as much of the collection as possible in one place. And for this his eye landed on the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and Bangor University, both suitably remote from London.

And that was where, the day before war was declared in September 1939, they went. The order was given and a convoy of lorries carrying 700 paintings headed out of Trafalgar Square for Euston station, where special trains were waiting, staffed with guards and designated as royal trains so they would travel non-stop.

The British Museum was also snapping into action, with a procession of horse-drawn drays and handcarts shuttling boxes of ancient glass, Greek vases, gems and ceramics to their safe haven — the deep underground tunnels of the unused Aldwych Tube station.

The friezes of the Elgin Marbles went too and the newly discovered Saxon treasures from Sutton Hoo, along with the Lewis Chessmen.

Given a rare glimpse inside, a journalist described his awe at seeing ‘the most amazing Aladdin’s Cave ever’ — Egyptian gods, Greek bronzes, Etruscan metalwork, statues of pharaohs and Caesar, Roman rings, and vases from ancient tombs.

‘Overhead,’ he wrote, ‘buses, taxis and Londoners were hurrying along without the slightest idea that beneath them was a gigantic Tutankhamun’s tomb.’

There was a problem with Aldwych, however. It was below the level of the Thames at high tide and liable to damp and even flooding. It was not suitable for perishable manuscripts and the like.

So off to the watertight stacks at Aberystwyth went the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus (containing the earliest complete text of the New Testament), the Lindisfarne Gospels, drawings by Raphael, Michelangelo and Turner.

Meanwhile, the Wallace Collection in the West End was bidding goodbye to its most famous exhibit, The Laughing Cavalier portrait by Frans Hals, packed into a lorry accompanied by four guards armed with truncheons, on its way to Balls Park in Hertfordshire.

Also on the move were the Domesday Book, several Magna Cartas, Shakespeare’s will and Guy Fawkes’s confession, all prize historic possessions at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane and now headed to Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset.

The van in which they were transported arrived early and the driver and armed guards went for a cup of tea in a cafe in the market square while they waited, inadvertently leaving the doors unlocked. So much for security!

For country house owners who took in treasures, there were strict rules to follow. Secrecy was vital. No boasting to neighbours about their temporary possessions.

And anyone who had offered up their homes in the hope of hanging a Van Dyck on the wall, or placing a Sevres porcelain jar as a centrepiece on the dining table, were in for disappointment. By order from on-high, the museum pieces stayed in their crates, piled high in the drawing room.

All the items also came with museum staff attached to keep an eye on them. They had to live-in, and it was not always a harmonious arrangement. At Hellens in Herefordshire, where the Tate had deposited many of its pictures, the disgusted owner threw out one of the gallery’s men for getting drunk and brawling with the locals.

But at least the contents of London’s museums were safe, unlike the museums they had come from.

The Tate was hit by bombs and its walls collapsed. The part of the Public Record Office where the Domesday Book had been stored was devastated; so too was the King’s Library at the British Museum. George III’s unique book collection was incinerated.

This was vindication for the decision to evacuate, despite the huge cost and the vast amounts of manpower it had taken. But now a different fear was foremost in many minds. Invasion.

With Hitler’s armies massed on the French coast after Dunkirk, the panicking trustees of the National Gallery pressed for its precious Old Masters to be urgently taken from their new home in Wales and shipped across the Atlantic to Canada for safety.

A reluctant Clark was ordered to put the suggestion to new prime minister Winston Churchill. He refused to be so defeatist. ‘Hide them in caves and cellars,’ he ordered, ‘but not one picture shall leave this island.’

The same defiant attitude was displayed by the King and Queen and their daughters. They were national treasures in their own right but they would not leave.

If the princesses and their mother ever had to flee, Madresfield Court in the Malvern Hills — all 162 rooms, and a double moat — was on standby, with quick access down the Severn to the sea. It was given the code name ‘Harbour’.

In Yorkshire, there was ‘Security’, Newby Hall, if the Royal Family had to escape via Scotland. Two other boltholes were prepared in Shropshire — ‘Refuge’ (Pitchford Hall) and ‘Peaceful’ (Burwarton House). Fortunately none ever had to be used.

But just as sensitive as symbols of sovereignty were the crowns, sceptres and orbs of the Crown Jewels, lodged in the Tower of London. In the event of the country being conquered, they might be used to crown a Nazi puppet — the king’s abdicated brother, the former Edward VIII, was the likely candidate. Perhaps it would be wise to send them to Canada.

But this idea was also rejected, and the royal regalia were locked away in Windsor Castle. It was there one day that their governess took Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret down to the vaults and pointed out some drab-looking leather hatboxes.

They took off the lids and inside, wrapped in old newspaper, glistened the Crown Jewels.

There were other hiding places in the castle. The huge Cullinan diamond had been prised out of the sovereign’s sceptre, the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Queen’s crown and, along with the Black Prince’s frog-sized ruby, wrapped in cotton wool and placed inside a glass jar. This was then hidden inside a Bath Oliver biscuit tin.

Another piece of symbolism also had a new home. The wooden Coronation Chair, dating from 1300, on which all but one English monarch had been crowned, was driven from Westminster Abbey to Gloucester Cathedral.

The Scone, the Stone of Destiny, which traditionally sat underneath it, stayed, however — shored away behind planking and a pile of ancient lead coffins in a recess in the abbey crypt.

Its location was identified only in two sealed letters sent to the Canadian prime minister and the Canadian High Commissioner, to remain unopened until necessary.

Though he had lodged the National Gallery’s main works in Aberystwyth, the dynamic Clark was always on the lookout for somewhere safer.

He got wind of a slate mine in a mountain named Manod Mawr in the wildest reaches of Snowdonia.

The mountain was virtually inaccessible. Undaunted, Clark called in local miners who blasted out a bigger entrance. Six brick sheds were built to house the art works.

The work took nine months to complete. Then in the summer of 1941 lorries packed with Old Masters began arriving from Aberystwyth, three half-ton containers a day, six days a week for five weeks.

The mountain roads were hard to negotiate. Clark liked to tell how there was a particular difficulty getting under a bridge just outside the town of Ffestiniog. The case with the 12 ft-high Charles I on Horseback by Van Dyck would not make it.

For days, navvies dug out the road to make it deeper, but the hole was half an inch shy. Then, as Clark recalled, ‘the silence was broken as we all said in chorus, “Let the air out of the tyres”. It was done and grinding under, scraping over, the huge packing case passed through’.

Meanwhile, the British Museum was also looking for more secure quarters and a quarry in the Mendip hills was chosen. It had been hollowed out as a site for underground factories and was partly occupied by the Royal Enfield motor-cycle company.

This became home for furniture and textiles in cellophane covers hung on avenues of rails. A visitor recalled that ‘shelves filled the space as far as the eye could see’.

A graffiti inscription was scratched on the wall by one Cyril Gadd. In Babylonian cuneiform script — what else would you expect from the British Museum’s Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities? — it read:

In the year of our Lord 1942 the sixth year of George King of all Lands

In that year everything precious, the works of all the craftsmen which from palaces and temples were sent out

In order that by fire or attack by an evil enemy they might not be lost

Into this cave under the earth, a place of security, an abode of peace, we brought them down and set them.

It is still there, says author Caroline Shenton, a reminder of the whole magnificent enterprise to save Britain’s most precious heirlooms from bombs and Nazis.

That project came to an end with Germany’s defeat and the treasures trickled back to their homes. As museums re-opened, their contents restored, such had been the secrecy that most people were unaware that they had gone away.

  • NATIONAL Treasures by Caroline Shenton is published by John Murray, £16.99. Copyright © Caroline Shenton 2021. To order a copy for £15.95 (UK delivery free on orders over £20; offer valid until 25/12/21) go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0203 176 2937.

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