Bombed Churches

One of the more interesting recent discoveries in the Congregational Library consists of a large box and a brown paper parcel which together contain more than 90 photographs of Congregational churches bombed during the earlier part of the Second World War. The photographs show about 30 different churches with between one and a dozen views of each, interior and exterior, and before and after bombing. Not only the bare buildings are shown, but also workmen demolishing unsafe structures or clearing away rubble, services being held amid the ruins, contributions being received for rebuilding, and the rooms used by congregations as temporary places of worship.

The photographs are not a complete record of their subject. They are heavily weighted towards London (from Holloway down to Beckenham and from Wandsworth across to East Ham) and the southern coastline (Swansea and Weston-super-Mare, then along the English Channel and up to Stowmarket). Coventry and Sheffield are also included, to a limited extent, but Liverpool and Birmingham are not there at all. Other obvious gaps include Redland Park, Bristol, and Albion Church, Hull, both of which feature prominently in fund-raising pamphlets. The same pamphlets mention as many as 93 churches destroyed and 79 seriously damaged.

Most of the photographs are mounted on boards of a stock size and make, and the few loose ones show signs of having been removed from their original mounts. Many are roughly numbered on the back, probably an indication of the order in which they were arranged for exhibition, and some are stamped “Reconstruction Department”. Others are mounted on display boards, rather like shop window signs, with professional calligraphy and ornament, and the heading “The Congregational Union of England and Wales Reconstruction Fund”.

The Reconstruction Fund was set up in October 1941, and aimed to raise £500,000 by the end of 1944. Support was solicited by a stream of letters, pamphlets and magazine articles, so that by July 1943 an editorial in the Congregational Monthly could begin, “I hope you are not tired reading about reconstruction.”

In May 1943 an exhibition was mounted at The Institute Hall, Westminster Chapel (which was part of the Congregational Union until 1966). This was opened by Lady Louis Mountbatten, a notorious socialite of previous decades who was now immersing herself in good works. The most prominent exhibit was a sort of reredos showing photographs before and after bombing of the City Temple, whose fate was obviously felt to be symbolic of the damage done to Congregational churches in general. A roll-call of churches destroyed or rendered unusable by enemy action was presented on two matching panels, one for London churches, and one for churches elsewhere.

There are seven photographs of the Westminster Chapel exhibition accompanying the photographs of churches. But these do not lend support to the idea that the display boards and mounted photographs in our collection were created for that occasion. Perhaps they were sent out to provincial exhibitions. At Weston-super-Mare, for instance, on a Saturday afternoon towards the end of 1943, “that mighty man of Congregationalism, Mr. Norman Wills, opened in the Anglican Church Institute … an Exhibition of Photographs of bombed churches, and people streamed through till 8 p.m.” (The Institute was opposite the ruins of Boulevard Congregational Church, but sympathy for bombed-out congregations seems to have been a spur to ecumenism both here and in other places.)

Whatever its exact origins, the collection forms a fascinating record, and (thanks to the perverse beauty of ruins) contains some magnificent photography. The London photographs often bear the stamp of the Sport & General Press Agency, Limited, which had its offices in Fleet Street. (These premises were themselves bombed in 1941, so that much of the firm’s archive was lost.) The photograph of the Pilgrim Memorial Church, Southwark, comes from the London branch of New York Times Photos, who naturally took a special interest in this Anglo-American shrine. The pictures of Danygraig, Swansea, the only Welsh church included in the collection, come from the South Wales Evening Post. One of the bleakest views in the collection, with the caption “Here stood the Church, Hayling Island”, is the work of a female photographer working in the vicinity, being stamped “Dorothy Marshall, Photographer, Havant”. It also bears the stamps of the Security Control Office, Portsmouth, who have added the instruction “No further prints to be made”. Many of the photographs of the City Temple also show signs of the censorship process, and are marked “Passed for publication” by the Press and Censorship Bureau.