Cancel the Window-Cleaning Contract!

Professor Jerry White, Professor of Modern London History at Birkbeck recounts how the College faired during the Second World War. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College and the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.

Bomb damage to Birkbeck Library

Bomb damage to Birkbeck Library. The area around Birkbeck College was bombed during the air-raid of 10-11 May 1941. The resultant fire destroyed the Library. Image courtesy of Birkbeck History collection.

Most of London University shut down on the declaration of war in September 1939. The headquarters at Senate House was taken over by the Ministry of Information and most colleges were evacuated (like much of the BBC, many government departments and most of London’s hospitals) to areas thought to be less vulnerable to bombing. University College shifted to Aberystwyth and elsewhere in Wales, King’s to Bristol, LSE and Bedford to Cambridge, and so on. Birkbeck, its London roots deeper than any of its sister colleges and so unable to be useful to Londoners if sent to the country, resolved to close on the outbreak of war and for a time did so. But the war failed to open with a bang and in the absence of air attack, or apparently any likelihood of bombing for the immediate future, Birkbeck reopened at the end of October 1939. Indeed, it didn’t merely reopen but expanded its offer: for the first time, extensive daytime teaching was made available for those London students unable to follow their chosen university colleges out of the capital. And despite the blackout, a wide range of evening teaching also resumed.

Birkbeck was not yet at its present Bloomsbury site. That building contract had been let but work had to stop in July 1939 because of the uncertain international situation – contractors were given more pressing projects to work on, both civil defence and industrial – and in fact the new college would not be completed and occupied till 1951. So Birkbeck was still in its late-Victorian location in Breams and Rolls Buildings, straddling the City and Holborn boundary west of Fetter Lane, incidentally sharing a party wall with the Daily Mirror building. It had some near misses during the main blitz of 1940-41 and narrowly escaped total destruction in the great City fire raid of 29 December 1940, which opened a view – never before seen – of St Paul’s from the college windows. From that time on all places of work had to arrange a fireguard of staff to be in the building at night time to deal with incendiaries and raise the fire brigade if necessary. There followed nearly three-and-a-half years of relative quiet, with sporadic bombing of London and the Baby Blitz of early 1944 rarely troubling the college and its work. But Birkbeck would nearly meet its nemesis from a V1 flying bomb (or doodle-bug) at 3.07am on 19 July 1944.

Dr A. Graham was a member of the college fireguard that night, on the 1-3am watch.

I wakened Jackson [the College accountant] to do the 3-5am spell…. We were saying a few words to one another when we heard The Daily Mirror alarm go. Suddenly the bomb, which had merely been a near one until that second … dived without its engine stopping. Its noise increased enormously; Jackson and I looked at one another in silence; and I remember wondering what was going to happen next. What did happen was all over before we realised it had happened … a gigantic roar from the engine of the bomb, not the noise of an explosion, but a vast clattering of material falling and breaking, a great puff of blast and soot all over the room, and then utter quiet. Massey [another fire watcher] raised his head from the bed where he had been asleep and asked what all that was….

As the dust settled Graham climbed over the flattened metal doors of the College and went into the street. The first thing he heard was footsteps coming at a run up Breams Buildings. It was a Metropolitan police constable: ‘he called backwards into the darkness… “It’s all right, George, it’s in the City”’; satisfying himself there were no urgent casualties he promptly disappeared. Troup Horne, the College secretary from 1919-1952, was also one of the fireguard but, not wanted till 5am, was in a makeshift bed in his office: ‘At 3.06am I was awakened by a doodle overhead. Thinking we were for it, I pulled a sheet over my head to keep the plaster out of my remaining hairs; and five seconds later the damned thing went pop.’ Horne was found ‘covered from head to foot with soot, dust, and thousands of fragments of broken glass and other bits scattered from the partition which separated the general office from his room.’ His chief assistant, Phyllis Costello, was also sleeping in the College that night and was frequently part of the fireguard. She rushed to see if he was injured and was greeted by Horne instructing, ‘Cancel the window-cleaning contract’.

Indeed, there were no windows left anywhere in the College. For some time after, a witticism coined in Fleet Street during the main Blitz, was Birkbeck’s watchword: ‘We have no panes, dear mother, now.’*

*Edward Farmer (1809?-1876), ‘The Collier’s Dying Child’: ‘I have no pain, dear mother, now.’ All the information used here comes from E.H. Warmington, A History of Birkbeck College University of London During the Second World War 1939-1945, published by Birkbeck in 1954.

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Out@BBK film screening for LGBT+ History Month

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts discusses the feminist classic, Orlando, and why it was such an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies. The film adaptation of Orlando will be screened in the College cinema to mark LGBT History Month.

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in the film ‘Orlando’, Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

As part of our campus, Birkbeck is fortunate to have 46 Gordon Square, now the School of Arts but formerly, from 1904 to 1907, the home of the young Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf was 22 when she moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury. Her time at Gordon Square was the beginning of her adult life as a professional writer and heralded the start of the weekly meetings of artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. As well as being an innovative author and thinker, Woolf was a feminist and lived what was then an unconventional life, including long relationships with women. Woolf’s affair in the 1920s with the writer Vita Sackville-West inspired her short novel Orlando, a ground-breaking queer text about identity, bodies, history, and love.

Orlando was presented by Woolf to Sackville-West in 1928 after the pair had been travelling in France together. The novel is the fantastical fictional biography of the hero of its title, a poet who changes sex and lives for centuries. Orlando meets key figures in English history including Elizabeth I, Charles II, and Alexander Pope, but Woolf creates a magical version of history in which the queer hero/heroine survives and succeeds. The novel culminates in 1928, the year of its publication. Orlando is at once a light-hearted historical satire and a feminist classic, and an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies.

As part of LGBT+ History Month, Out@BBK, Birkbeck’s LGBT+ staff group, is hosting a screening of Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) in the Gordon Square cinema. The screening will be introduced by Dr Jo Winning and myself (we have previously taught Orlando on our undergraduate course Critically Queer).

Potter’s film is a creative and dazzling interpretation of Woolf’s novel. Tilda Swinton, in one of her signature roles as the titular, androgynous lead, heads an eccentric cast encompassing such diverse figures as Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Heathcote Williams and Lothaire Bluteau. It is also the film which saw British director Sally Potter emerge from an avant-garde notoriety into mainstream recognition, with a lavishly designed spectacle that earned numerous awards and two Oscar nominations.

Join us at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square cinema on Friday 28 February at 6pm to watch and discuss Orlando, a unique chance to see this fascinating film in Woolf’s Bloomsbury home. You can book your place in advance to save your seat.

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Returning to education: how to be a successful student

Abigail Bryant, recent graduate in Arts and Humanities, gives her advice on coming back to university after a hiatus from education, and how to juggle work and study. 

Before starting at Birkbeck, I worried that the years I’d had out of education may make it difficult to slot back into it seamlessly and that my ‘academic brain’ just wasn’t there anymore. I hadn’t written an essay for over five years! It turned out that I had absolutely no reason to feel like this. As soon as you start you’re given an encouraging, safe space to learn about the technical stuff such as referencing and essay structure, as well as logistics about how the university works and where you can find the resources that you’re entitled to.  There are also plenty of opportunities to ask questions, so you’ll quickly realise that you’re not on your own – there is support everywhere you turn!

If, like me, you’ll be working and studying simultaneously, good for you! You’re in for an enriching, challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. For me, the main goal was always to enjoy my course and never to view it as a chore, and luckily I managed to maintain this for the four years that I was at Birkbeck. Of course, after a long and tough week at work, the idea of sitting and working on an assignment at the weekend was not always a barrel of laughs, but I made sure that I chose modules that I felt passionately about and essay questions that I could get my teeth into, and would involve research that I was genuinely interested in. The feeling of satisfaction and pride upon handing in an assignment would always outweigh the pain of getting it finished! It is important to make time for yourself as well, and make sure that alongside work and study, you have the headspace to pursue interests and ‘me time’. This will no doubt benefit all aspects of your life, and your overall happiness should take priority and feed into your course at Birkbeck!

But what does it really take to be a successful student at Birkbeck? What do you really need to balance work, study and home life? Here are my top three tips:

  • Be curious
    At Birkbeck, you are so lucky to have access to a wealth of research materials, acclaimed professors, and diverse module choices. For maximum fulfilment and enjoyment, stay open minded and have a keen willingness to constantly learn and improve, both from your teaching materials and your peers. Embrace the resources available to you, and immerse yourself in Bloomsbury – there’s so much fascinating history within the walls that you’re learning in! Keep up to date with events going on – I’ve attended many panel discussions, career events and summer workshops throughout my time at Birkbeck. They are all free to attend and are a great way to network with students, teachers and industry folk alike (as well as boost your learning). Most importantly, challenge yourself – never feel like something’s not worth exploring because you don’t initially understand it. Ask questions, do some independent research, and you’ll be amazed at what you can discover and achieve.
  • Be committed
    For all the benefits of evening study, there are inevitable challenges to balancing university with other components of your life. Stay organised, disciplined and committed to your studies. The better you manage your time, the more fun your course will be, and the more you will get out of it. Studying should never feel like a chore, but an accomplishment worth fighting for.
  • Be yourself
    Lastly, try not to compare yourself to other students in terms of ability or knowledge. You have a unique and valuable perspective to bring to the classroom, so never feel afraid to express your opinion or thoughts in seminars. Birkbeck is a safe space to develop and articulate ideas and arguments, with infinite room for progression and improvement.  Follow your instincts, pursue your passions, learn from and with others, and always value your own voice.

Whatever you’re studying, and whatever your stage of life, Birkbeck is a life-changing, diverse, and extremely exciting place to study. It’s easily one of the best things I ever did, and I’d implore anyone to embrace every second, every resource and every opportunity it has to offer.

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Take a virtual tour of our campuses

Explore our beautiful Bloomsbury campus in the heart of London and state-of-the-art Stratford campus in east London.

Both campuses offer all the facilities you need, which all Birkbeck students are entitled to use. They are also well-served by public transport, making it easy to get to and from the College.

 

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