Wartime damage: evidence from the books

You might think that a library was a place for the safe preservation of knowledge, but the RCP library has more than once suffered damage and destruction.

In 1666, almost the entire library was lost to the flames of the Great Fire of London. Only about 100 books were salvaged from a library of several thousand, which had been donated by William Harvey (1578–1657) in the 1650s. The library was re-founded in 1680 by the donation of the 3,000 books owned by Henry Pierrepont, Marquis of Dorchester (1607–1680); it’s still known as the Dorchester Library today.

The library has suffered at the hands of fate in much more recent times, too. In 1939 the RCP hadn’t yet moved to its current home on Regent’s Park. It was still occupying a building in the very centre of London on Pall Mall East, next to Trafalgar Square. With the outbreak of war, many of the RCP treasures were dispersed to safer locations including bank vaults, the National Library of Wales, and the basement of the RCP building. However, not all of the books were moved immediately.

75 years ago – in Autumn 1940 – German bombing of London reached its peak. From 7 September that year, London was bombed on 57 consecutive nights, and the RCP building did not escape unscathed. One of the bombs damaged the library; its large, domed glass roof shattered and came raining down on the books beneath. RCP staff and helpers from the Royal Society of Medicine rushed in to help, and they managed to move hundreds of books out of the damaged library just in time to avoid a heavy burst of rain.

The RCP building at Pall Mall East. It was shared with the Canadian High Commission.

Sadly some of the books didn’t avoid being damaged by shrapnel from the bomb blast, and that damage can still be seen today. A 1618 copy of the works of the Roman author Cicero has very clear damage to its spine; it almost seems as if something has taken a large bite out of the book. This damage somewhat impedes access to the contents of the book, but we’ve decided not to repair it and to keep this book as a reminder of the library’s lucky escape.

After the bomb strike, the library was patched up with corrugated iron, and books were sent away to various rural locations including Brockenhurst in the New Forest. The building was finally repaired in 1947 at a cost of over £10,000.

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

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