The intellectual life of the British air-raid shelter

In late March and early April 1938, the Manchester Guardian ran a competition inviting readers to send in 'a List, with short reasons, of Six Books with which to Furnish a Gas-proof Room'1 -- that is, a room designed to provide a temporary refuge in a gas attack. The article which discussed the entries began by noting that 'A gas-proof room is not a desert island, at least from a literary point of view', because desert island books are meant to be aids in survival, whereas those in a shelter are intended to divert the mind from dwelling on the danger of poison gas. So,

The competitor from Ulverston who suggested Bacon's "Novum Organum," "The Last Days of Pompeii," "The City of Dreadful Night," "Paradise Lost," "Sighs from Hell," by Bunyan, and Blair's "Grave" presumably knows his own mind better than anyone else does, but most people would say that the furniture of such a room would only be complete with a revolver to be used in case the gas and bombs and literature all failed to do their work.

Despite this admonishment, many of the entries displayed a rather dark humour:

Talking about once-obtainable foods will obviously be THE diversion in the War to end Civilisation. No better guide, then, to the menu of one's dreams than "Mrs. Beeton."

To the common suggestion of Who's Who, the Guardian responded by saying that this 'would easily, in an air raid, take on the appearance of an anthology of brief obituaries'.

Other submissions were more practical:

The books must steady jittery nerves by distracting the mind from business overhead. Whilst entertainment is required, purely light literature is useless, since it does not demand sufficient concentration. Humour only irritates in moments of strain. Books giving something to do are, therefore, best.

Though just how many people could be bothered with 'A Book of Mathematical Problems' or 'Any Chosen Work in Foreign Tongue, and a glossary for it' may be questioned!

While some suggestions were fairly optimistic -- 'Holiday Guide. -- To plan the next holidays' -- others, quite naturally, despaired of humanity:

Pope. -- For a reminder that men were once civilised.

Boswell's "Johnson." -- For a reminder that men were once sensible.

Urquhart's "Rabelais." -- For a reminder that there are better kinds of nonsense than dropping gas bombs.

So, who won? Douglas Rawson (or perhaps Hawson) of Malton in Yorkshire. His list had a bit of everything:

"Anatomy of Melancholy." -- For general reading.

Italian Phrase-book. -- In case of visitors.

German Phrase-book. -- Same reason.

Family Bible. -- Exhibiting Aryan descent.

Students' Song-book. -- For community singing.

Telephone Directory. -- To call doctors, &c., or locksmith if door combination forgotten.

It might be interesting to know what reading material people actually took with them into shelters during the Blitz. Some insight could no doubt be gleaned from diaries, especially Mass-Observation ones. Did people want to be amused while the bombs fell? Educated? Tested? Though amusing, the Manchester Guardian competition quoted here does not, I think, have much bearing on the question: the readership (middle class, left-Liberal, I suppose largely Mancunian) was small and not particularly representative. More importantly, people would have submitted lists which they thought would catch the judge's eye, in the hopes of winning the prize (two guineas), rather than the books they would really take into the refuge with them. Even more importantly, perhaps, when the air raids did eventually come, they were mostly at night, and shelterers (from HE and incendiaries rather than gas) were generally more concerned to get some sleep than to feed their heads.

Still, it's a fascinating little glimpse into the grim humour with which the British were facing up to the horrors they believed were coming:

But perhaps in the end we should all be pessimists enough to reach out automatically for Jeremy Taylor's little treatise on A.R.P. -- "Holy Living and Holy Dying." Its advantage is, of course, that, supposing the precautions did work after all, we could concentrate on the first half.

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  1. Manchester Guardian, 28 March 1938, p. 5. All other quotes from "Literature and gas", Manchester Guardian, 6 April 1938, p. 6. []

5 thoughts on “The intellectual life of the British air-raid shelter

  1. The winning list is hysterical!

    My first thought would be that people would probably want their radios, for up to date information, but radios at that time were more furniture than portable.

    Me? I'd probably want something epic - the complete Lord of the Rings - and something short and snappy for reading aloud - poems of Ogden Nash and Edward Lear, perhaps. (I'm trying to think of older stuff) Short stories are good, too.

  2. Post author

    Actually, a radio would have been feasible for a gas-refuge room, as these were often normal rooms such as a living/sitting room (at least where cellars were not available), partially gas-proofed, rather than the Anderson shelter down the back garden. E.g., see here.

    Me? I’d probably want something epic - the complete Lord of the Rings - and something short and snappy for reading aloud - poems of Ogden Nash and Edward Lear, perhaps. (I’m trying to think of older stuff) Short stories are good, too.

    Oh, what a good question. LOTR would be perfect, but I must be pedantic and point out that it wasn't published until after the war. The Hobbit would be OK. I can think of a few light things that I'd take, such as Three Men in a Boat (which was actually mentioned in the article) or Wodehouse ... nothing very absorbing though. And while I've actually got quite a few period books on my shelves, I doubt that even I would want to take The War-God Walks Again or Suicide or Sanity? with me into the refuge room!

  3. Chris Williams

    My first thought was _What Happened to the Corbetts_. Perhaps not.

    Wodehouse, or maybe Conan Doyle: for a variety of reasons, light reads would probably work quite well in those circumstances. When I'm ill I reach for Lawrence Durrell's _Sauve Qui Peut_ and its sequels, but these are not applicable for the same reasons.

  4. Depending on how long you were down there, Durrell's Alexandria Quartet might have been a better way to pass the time...

    In terms of the Manchester Guardian's circulation, although it was mainly northern-based at this time its coverage of the Spanish Civil War earned it a considerable national circulation too.

  5. Post author


    Well, at least nothing really bad does actually happen to the Corbetts, so it would be relatively cheery reading ... certainly when compared to something like Sarah Campion's Thirty Million Gas Masks (1937), where the heroine commits suicide by taking off her gas mask, because she can't stand the idea of living in a world where she needs to wear a gas mask ...


    Its new readers were no doubt bemused by the space devoted to goings on in the Salford City Council, and on issues related to the cotton trade!

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