Looking backward, 1944-1941

In May 1941, after nine months of German bombing and the evacuation of yet another British army from Europe, the Daily Mirror printed a fascinating little piece of futurism, in the form of a letter written as though it was May 1944, with Britain victorious and Germany prostrate. The headline itself gives some idea of this future shock: '"On our television set we saw CHURCHILL in BUSTED BERLIN!"'1 -- the television transmitters at Alexandra Palace had been switched off since September 1939. Invoking the early television experiments functions here as a promise of a better world to come, and not just because the 'bad old war days' will be over.

There isn't a lot about how the war actually went, but it would seem that it ended in 1943. There's no indication that the United States played any part in the war (though it is friendly to Britain; there are now no 'passports and visas and quotas' to bar travel between them). Or the Soviet Union for that matter (Barbarossa is still over a month away at this point). Britain seems to have won the war through bombing, or at least that's the only form of military activity mentioned:

My gosh, they've certainly got on with the work of rebuilding Berlin after those terrific winter blitzes by the R.A.F.! British authorities are directing the work. It hasn't so much been renovation as recreation, because just before the Germans sued for an armistice, there was precious little left of Berlin and it had been completely evacuated of everyone bar soldiers and A.R.P. people.

This (along with Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse being 'just blotted out') suggests that British air raids became so heavy that Berlin had to be evacuated of all non-essential personnel. Hamburg too was hit hard: it 'was finished in the spring of 1942 and it isn't functioning as a port yet'. At some point Hitler died, though how isn't stated. It seems clear that the British air raids were the cause of the German armistice request (this was written long before unconditional surrender, of course), or perhaps that's just me.

The letter is written by Bob in London to Rosemary, who has recently moved to the United States. This gives plenty of excuses for 'remember whens', for example referring to 'the terrific emotion aroused by Victory Day':

You were still in London then, so you'll remember how wild with delight the surging crowds were when the lights of London shone again! Remember how we clambered on buses, taxis, Army lorries, whooping and shouting?

And remember how, after carrying some airmen shoulder high, the crowd spotted some men who were already starting to rebuild part of Regent-street -- and chaired them, too?

This segues into the real point of the piece, which is to imagine the postwar rebuilding of London - even Bob's return address is given as 'Dalston Garden Suburb, London, E.8.'

They've practically finished the new squares and circuses. We can see now how right the Government was in prohibiting the rebuilding of bombed crowded areas. Why, the big new square near St. Paul's gives it all the noble architectural advantages of St. Peter's, Rome. And those badly blitzed tenement blocks in East London have never been rebuilt as tenements.

Indeed, they seem to have been rebuilt as anything but housing, instead they 'reappeared as libraries, technical colleges, recreational centres'. Harry (presumably Bob and Vera's son) is studying at one for his architect's qualification:

There's been no holding him back since he obtained his diploma through the Metropolitan Improvements Society's London College, which was built on part of ruined Holborn!

All of London's railway stations are being redesigned; young Harry has entered his design for the new Victoria Station in 'the big contest run by the British National Railways Corporation'. The King and Queen recently opened the 'South London Art Palace', which has been popularly dubbed the Crystal Palace ('Queer how London customs cling!').

Bob closes by reflecting that the best legacy of the war is 'the continuation of that friendly neighbourliness that started during the war':

Remember how helpful and kind everyone was during the blitz? How people forgot about being lords, ladies, esquires and gents -- and concentrated on being human beings? Well, the spirit is still living in Britain, and sometimes I think it was worth going through the war to win that!

That, and the nationalisation of Britain's railways, a revolution in urban planning, more educational opportunities, and television. It's some way from the Beveridge Report, say, but it's a start.


  1. Daily Mirror, 17 May 1941, 7. There's even an illustration showing Churchill's television appearance in front of the Brandenburg Gate, or at least that's what I think it is; sadly it isn't clear enough to reproduce here. 

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4 thoughts on “Looking backward, 1944-1941

  1. Lester

    I live in Dalston; the idea of "Dalston Garden Suburb" seems oddly (if a little grimly) hilarious. Somehow I imagine it would still be a sleazy pit full of offal butchers and gangsters even if it had been rebuilt as a garden suburb...

    It doesn't actually seem to have been that heavily damaged, though, compared to more riverwards bits of the East End.

    On an unrelated note, I met some shiny Spitfires and a Lancaster the other day:
    http://pics.livejournal.com/raygungothic/gallery/00022h6d

  2. Neil Datson

    All rather ironic. The post-WWII era was surely the most dismal in the history of British architecture.

  3. Nice one Brett. It's a fascinating historical document, offering a period 'What if' to counter modern versions; and supports and challenges a whole range of assumptions of period thought and modern views.

    Terrific item.

  4. Post author

    Lester:

    Ye of little faith! There would have been no room for sleaziness amid all the hedges and leafy gardens and spacious roads. Probably because property prices would go up and you'd have to go elsewhere to find your sleaze.

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