Where is our 1939-45 War Memorial? Help Us Find It!

Professor Joanna Bourke reflects on the story of Birkbeck’s missing war memorial. Have you seen this? Let us know and we’ll send you a £20 voucher.

Lost war memorial

Birkbeck’s lost war memorial created by sculptor, Ralph Beyer.

How can a large, very heavy sculpture made of solid stone simply disappear?

This is the question I asked myself while researching the history of Birkbeck. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the College recognised the need to commemorate the lives of thousands of Birkbeck students who had been killed, mutilated, and bereaved by the war. The man for the job, they concluded, was German-born sculptor Ralph Beyer.

Beyer had fled to England from Nazi Germany (his mother was killed in Auschwitz). Despite being only 16 years old and barely speaking English, he had quickly found a job working with the famous artist Eric Gill. When war was declared, Beyer was interned as an “enemy alien”, which is where he met fellow internee Nikolaus Pevsner, who lectured on art and architecture at Birkbeck. They formed a life-long friendship. Beyer was eventually released from internment and served in the British Army in the UK, France, and Germany. On his return to England, he was commissioned (thanks to the support of his friend Pevsner) by the College to design our war memorial.

The memorial was four feet high (excluding the plinth) and carved out of a single cube of brown Hornton Stone from Warwickshire. It showed a woman sitting on a rectangular block on top of a pedestal. The woman’s legs were close together, with her arms resting on her knees. She was draped in a flowing garment. While her hands and feet were large, her head was disproportionately small with few discernible features. Her posture and heaviness suggested grief or the mourning of a mother.

Not everyone approved. Some commentators complained that the war memorial was “at pains to conceal its identity” as a war memorial. “Are we to suppose”, one critic asked, “that the artist” was “more concerned with pleasing the living than honouring the dead?”

Pevsner came to his friend’s defence. He reminded its critics that a utilitarian memorial (such as a lecture hall) had been ruled out as “unsuitable to commemorate the sacrifice of so many young lives”. The commissioning committee had also decided not to simply inscribe the names of the dead on a tablet: too many men and women had “given” too much and any list would inevitably be incomplete anyway. Creating a stained-glass window was also dismissed because, as a College in which teaching took place in the evening, the “glow of colour and the composition would be lost”.

Pevsner also attempted to disabuse critics of the assumption that a war memorial “ought to be a soldier with a gun”. After all, war of the scale seen between 1939 and 1945 depended on “so many jobs of work, in different surroundings, and with different uniforms”, all of which “led to the same gateway of death”.

Pevsner argued that Beyer’s design was “both personal and universally valid”. The woman’s face “creates a sense of mystery and reverence”, he contended. Her hands “lie heavily on the thighs, as they do in archaic Greek statues of women, and that sense of weighing down is essential for the mood”. Pevsner concluded that the Birkbeck war memorial was “a piece of sculpture which is of today and yet at the same time of an undated rightness”.

Beyer went on to become a distinguished artist. He is best known for his design and carving of the lettering in Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (1961+), which remains the most significant work of British public lettering in the twentieth century.

But what happened to his memorial to the dead and suffering men and women of Birkbeck between 1939 and 1945 remains a mystery.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History in the Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology at Birkbeck and writing the history of the College for our bicentenary in 2023.

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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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