The Blitz

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The shelter

The Luftwaffe flew intensive bombing sorties over London day and night throughout the autumn and winter of 1940-41. The city was under siege yet somehow the concerts continued.

Audiences picked their way through streets strewn with glass and rubble, skirting bomb craters and smouldering ruins, to find the National Gallery still standing and the performers at their posts.

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Such extraordinary circumstances inevitably brought challenges. Government buildings were expected to close their doors during air raids and admit no one, a policy that saw the start of concerts regularly delayed.

Audiences responded by queuing patiently outside the Gallery until the All Clear had sounded and performances could take place. Once inside the building, concert-goers found conditions considerably more cramped and less comfortable than in the days before the Blitz.

Performances had previously been held in a grand set of galleries beneath a glass dome. Now, the severity of the daytime bombing raids necessitated a move to a new home downstairs in the basement.

Plan of protected area in basement of Gallery
Plan of the protected area in the basement of the Gallery, with reinforced walls 

The shelter had room for only 300 to 400 people, and rapidly became inhospitable when the temperature either rose or fell. In the summer it was hot and airless. Audience members fainted and string players struggled to keep their instruments in tune.

In the winter piercing draughts from the blown-out windows made rugs and blankets a necessity for audience and musicians alike.

Bomb damage to West Reference section and old Boardroom
Bomb damage to West Reference section and old Boardroom

Large pools of water collected on the stone floor despite the tireless efforts of the Gallery attendants; Myra Hess played in a fur coat; and stoves were placed on the platform to stop the performers’ fingers turning blue.

On one particularly icy day a clarinettist was seen trying to heat her instrument over a stove in a vain attempt to get it up to pitch.

Next: Bombs fall on the National Gallery