The National Buildings Record was born in the Blitz; hurriedly created in early 1941 to photograph and document the historic fabric of England before it was lost forever. The Record was a mixture of existing collections gathered together and photographs taken during the war by staff and volunteers. Together they captured both buildings at risk of destruction and the surviving architectural details of devastated buildings before they were demolished.
This crucial and pioneering work survives today as part of the Historic England Archive, one of the largest publicly accessible archives in the UK. Here are some striking images from the collection that capture the wartime destruction of our English cities.
1. The Brewers Hall, London, 1941
The Brewers’ Hall was built in the 1670s, rising from the ashes of the Great Fire of London. It was destroyed in 1940, probably by the terrifying firestorm created by incendiary bombs on 29th December. The firestorm blazed through the square mile with such severity that it became known as the Second Great Fire of London.
2. St Bride’s Church London, before and after bombing
St Brides was gutted by fire-bombs in 1940, another casualty of the 29th December attack. The second photograph was taken for the National Buildings Record in March 1941 with the aim of capturing what was left of the historic church before it was lost. In the end, it wasn’t demolished, instead a mammoth restoration effort took place and the church was rebuilt 17 years later.
3. 1 and 3 Vauxhall Street, Plymouth, 1941
During the 59 bombing attacks in Plymouth, 1,172 civilians were killed and 4,448 injured. The resident population of Plymouth fell from 220,000 to 127,000 during wartime, with most of its children being evacuated in 1941. Number 3 Vauxhall Street pictured, was severely damaged in a bomb blast on 20th March 1941 and later demolished.
4. Lewis’s Department Store, Liverpool,1942
On 3rd May 1941, Merseyside became the most bombed area outside London with more than 300 tons of high explosives dropped on the area. Fires devastated Liverpool, changing the face of the city centre overnight. Lewis’s department store, a well-loved city landmark, was partly destroyed by a direct hit in the attack. When the store was rebuilt after the war, the new design included sculpture and bronze reliefs by Sir Jacob Epstein that symbolised Liverpool’s resurgence.
5. St Michael’s Church, Liverpool, 1941
Another victim of the devastating 3rd May attack on Liverpool, this image of St Michael’s Church and surrounds shows the extent of damage to the city. The tower of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral can be seen in the background.
6. St Paul’s Square, Portsmouth, 1941
Portsmouth was a target for bombing raids by the German Luftwaffe because of its naval dockyards and military and industrial installations. This view of bomb-damaged terraced houses is thought to have been taken by John Summerson, the then Deputy Director of the National Buildings Record.
7. Upper Arcade, Bond Street, Bristol, 1941
In the first eight months of the Blitz there were six major bombing raids in Bristol. Over 89,000 buildings were damaged of which, 81,830 houses were completely destroyed. The Upper Arcade, which ran between Bond Street and Horsefair is thought to have been destroyed on the first night of bombing.
8. St Paul’s Cathedral, City of London, 1948
This post-war aerial photograph, taken by the RAF in 1948, starkly illustrates the devastation inflicted by bombing on the City of London. In contrast to surrounding damage, St Paul’s remained unscathed, thanks to the courageous efforts of firemen and volunteers who smothered firebombs that fell on the cathedral.
9. Bomb damaged house, East End of London
Bomb sites and bomb damage could still be seen decades after the end of the war. This image was taken sometime between 1955 and 1965 and shows an East End house being occupied despite its hazardous appearance.