First World War Historic photography

A Race Against Destruction: The Wartime Photography of Margaret Tomlinson

The National Buildings Record (NBR) was born of war, created quickly in early 1941 to photograph and document England’s historic buildings.

The National Buildings Record (NBR) was born of war, created quickly in early 1941 to photograph and document England’s historic buildings and places before they were lost forever by aerial bombing.

A team of wartime staff and volunteers were enlisted to capture both buildings at risk of destruction and whatever architectural details of devastated buildings still survived before being demolished.  One of the photographers enlisted to help in this work was Margaret Tomlinson, whose brilliant photography has given us an enduring collection of photographs of threatened and bomb-damaged architecture in the West Country.

Header Image: 25-36 Southernhay West, Exeter, Devon. Photographed by Margaret Tomlinson after the Baedeker raids of spring 1942. (Ref: BB42/00714)

Margaret Tomlinson, the Unexpected Photographer

Old Carpet Factory, Axminister, Devon, April 1942. This image is listed in Margaret Tomlinson’s daybook as MT1, her first for the NBR. 

Born on 20 September 1905, Margaret Tomlinson was a Cambridge educated architecture graduate. After her marriage ended in 1941, she moved with her children to Devon to be close to family. Desperate for paid employment, Tomlinson took a commission taking photographs of buildings for the NBR. Armed with her cameras, a wartime permit to photograph, a supporting letter for the local police, petrol coupons for her 1936 Austin Seven and lists of buildings to photograph, she embarked on an unexpected career that would occupy much of her life.

Nelson Hotel, The Beacon, Exmouth, Devon, April 1942. 

A Difficult Start

Tomlinson’s initial forays into recording for the NBR did not run smoothly.  Flu and a septic ear kept her housebound, and when she did manage to get out, the prospect of photographing scores of monuments in Exeter Cathedral with limited winter daylight and restricted access from countless daily services knocked her confidence. A colleague wrote to reassure her:

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.

Baedeker and Exeter

Lower Market, Exeter, Devon, 1942. This building was considered by the Ministry of Works as a chief secular cultural loss through enemy action.

Although the threat of invasion had receded by the time Tomlinson began recording for the NBR, the Channel coastal towns and their maritime facilities were obvious targets for Luftwaffe bombing raids. These raids resulted in some of Margaret Tomlinson’s most memorable photographs, like the one above of Lower Market, Exeter.

The cathedral city of Exeter was one of the victims of what came to be known as the Baedeker raids, named after the German Baedeker guidebooks. The city was subjected to four raids causing severe damage to the congested streets in and around the city centre.

No 1 Dix’s Field, Exeter, Devon, photographed by Margaret Tomlinson before the Baedeker raids in spring 1942. (Ref: BB42/00611)
No 1 Dix’s Field, Exeter, Devon, photographed by Margaret Tomlinson after the Baedeker raids in spring 1942. (Ref: BB42/00718)

Hidden Histories Revealed

A consequence of the damage wrought on Exeter’s historic buildings was the exposure of hidden layers of historic details in the fabric of buildings. The bombing of Exeter had revealed parts of the city walls, a Roman pavement under St Catherine’s Almshouses, and Norman stonework that had been reused in the wall of the cathedral. Tomlinson took it upon herself to record some of this detail.

The roofless Church of St Mary Arches, Exeter, Devon, 1942. 

D-Day and Devon

As 1943 drew to a close, a section of coast west of Dartmouth was evacuated for D-Day invasion training which meant that a number of historic buildings faced the prospect of damage from Allied munitions.

View towards the Church of St James, Slapton, Devon, December 1943. Slapton was one of a number of villages on the Devon coast evacuated in December 1943 to support training for the D Day landings. 

Visitors to coastal zones involved in the planned D-Day landings were banned, in an area stretching from Land’s End to the Wash. NBR photographers were exempt from the ban, but Tomlinson encountered difficulties, including police who would not accept her authorisation to photograph, and the closure of roads at short notice. Despite these difficulties, Tomlinson still managed to photograph a number of churches and other buildings in the area before they were lost.

The monument to Sir Richard Reynell and family in the Church of St Mary, Wolborough, Newton Abbot, Devon. Photographed by Margaret Tomlinson in August 1945.

A Lasting Legacy

Margaret Tomlinson died on 9 October 1997, aged 92.  Her crucial work survives today as part of the Historic England Archive, one of the largest publicly accessible archives in the UK.  The Archive has almost 3,500 of Margaret Tomlinson’s photographs, taken during and after the Second World War. Some of the collection can be viewed online.

The back alley between terraced houses in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 1960-2. Margaret Tomlinson spent time in the Potteries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, noting the ‘alarming rate’ at which demolition and rebuilding was taking place in the area.

Further Reading

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