EJ Rudsdale on Twitter from 3 September 2019

31st December 1939: New Year's Eve

And so this year ends, a year which began so well and ended in such tragedy. However, whatever happens, nothing can take away the joy and pleasure I had at the Royal Show in July [when Eric staged a historic farming exhibition - click here for more information]. I don’t suppose I shall ever have such a chance again, but I have had it once.

What will be the outcome of the present terrible state of affairs I cannot imagine. Some people think the Germans will attack in France at any moment, although considering that this is the worst winter for a quarter of a century I should not think it very likely. Meanwhile we carry on with our ordinary work as if our lives still stretched before us. There are no air raids, as we were so faithfully promised by the Government. The ARP workers are very despondent.

My only personal worry is that I shall be taken for the army. If that should happen I really don’t know what I shall do. However, it seems that only men under 25 are really wanted and I am still in a reserved occupation as a Local Government Official.

The general atmosphere is gloomy. Most people hope the war will be over next year, although they don’t really believe that it will be. A few think it will go on for ten years, and will involve every country in Europe. Some hope that the Russians will join with the Germans in a military sense, as they believe the Russians to be so incredibly incompetent that their aid would be a liability rather than an asset, but I cannot see why an additional 170,000,000 enemies should be an asset to this country. At the moment the Russians are pilloried in every paper for their attack on Finland, and there is a great agitation for an expedition to help Finland.

The weather is quite amazing. I have never seen such snow since 1916. What must it be like in France? Many villages round Colchester have been quite cut off.

Russian troops had marched into Finland in November 1939 on the pretext that this would strengthen the Soviet Union's borders and act as protection against possible German aggression. After resisting the Russians for some months, the Finnish Government finally had to accept Russian terms in March 1940.

The National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 had imposed a liability to conscription on all men aged 18 to 41. However, the call-up proceeded slowly at the start of the war with conscription being determined by age and occupation. As Eric remarks, only those aged between 20 and 23 were called-up initially. Local Government officers, such as Eric, were considered to be in reserved occupations at first although they often undertook Civil Defence duties in addition to their full-time jobs. By 1942, however, all men between 18 and 51 and women between 20 and 30 became liable to call-up.

Eric's fears that he might be drafted into the army were compounded by his support for pacifism and concerns about the state of his health. As he wrote, with characteristic humour, to his friend Hervey Benham in 1940:

I am not at all keen to see the inside of the army, because I know that being unfit for general service I should only be put on peeling potatoes and cleaning out the lavatories, occupations which I think would soon pall.

The Old English Farm Exhibition at the Royal Show, 1939

Eric Rudsdale was invited by the Royal Agricultural Society to stage a historic farm exhibition at the Royal Show in July 1939. The invitation arose from his success in creating a number of historic farm exhibitions at the Essex Agricultural Shows between 1932 and 1939. Eric's exhibitions were pioneering for their time because he created 'living exhibits' showing the Museum's agricultural collections in a recreated historic farm setting, outside of the Museum itself. Visitors to the Show were encouraged to handle the exhibits and to record their memories of traditional farming techniques for the Museum's records.

Eric was particularly proud of the 'Old English Farm' he created for the Royal Show held in Windsor Great Park in 1939. It opened to considerable acclaim and Eric was interviewed about his work by the agricultural writer, A G Street, for a BBC Radio outside broadcast. Eric also escorted King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret around the exhibition. More information on this can be found in Eric's diary entry for 27th July 1940. The photographs below show the scale of the project and Eric's attention to historic detail.

During the Second World War, Eric's agricultural knowledge led him to become Secretary to the Essex War Agricultural District Committee (Lexden & Winstree). More information on his work for the Committee can be found in his diary entry for 6th January 1941 and in his book.

The exterior of 'The Old English Farm', 1939. Eric can be seen riding his horse 'Bob' on the right.

Interior view of the kitchen, furnished in the style of the 1830s with objects from the collections of Colchester Museums.

View of the Dairy complete with 'dairymaids' who were agricultural students at Reading University.

(All photographs courtesy of Essex Record Office)

29th December 1939 - The arrival of snow

Still bitterly cold, and snow fell last night, with more to come by the look of the sky.

This was the beginning of the bitter winter of 1939/1940, which was the coldest for forty-five years. Eric's diary entries in the New Year will be dominated by the additional difficulties created by the snowstorms in wartime - keep following the blog to find out more!

26th December 1939

Museums shut. Writing at home all day. Tonight to the cinema with Rose.

25th December 1939, The First Christmas of the War

Dear old Mother produced the usual huge Christmas Dinner, which we ate with the usual difficulty. ...

Had tea and supper with Rose. Back at 11.30, in cold, silvery moonlight.

23rd December 1939

Went over to see Daven Soar [a schoolfriend of Eric's] this evening. We went up to the “Leather Bottle” for a drink. Coming back on my cycle I had a bad skid near the Abbey Field and very nearly knocked myself right out, with the result that I now feel rather dazed.

15th December 1939

Nothing to note nowadays. Vaughan is bringing the timbers in as fast as he can [from the old house in Culver Street], but there are no other museum activities at the moment. The weather is dark and gloomy and everybody appears very depressed. There seems not the slightest chance that the war will ever stop.

Eric is having to face the reality that the war is not going to be over by Christmas.

Colchester Castle Museum in Wartime

In a letter to his cousin, Maitland Underhill, (Honorary Curator of Hambleden Museum), Eric describes how the war is affecting his work at Colchester Castle Museum particularly with reference to displays of wartime propaganda in museums:

7th December 1939

My dear Maitland,

I must congratulate you on the announcement in the “Museums Journal” that Hambleden is carrying on as usual. I sincerely hope that you will do, and that you will not have anything to do with this wild suggestion that museums should co-operate with the Ministry of Information in displaying “war material”, “atrocity pictures” and similar miserable propaganda.

On looking up the "Museums Journal" for 1914-1918 I find that the same sort of thing was being done, very largely with the approval of museum curators, although a few sensible men stuck out and maintained that museums were repositories of antiquities, science, natural history, etc., and should not be used for any other purposes.

Here I have already "struck a blow for freedom". As soon as the war began my chiefs ordered than an exhibition should be arranged of all the material we have relating to the last war, German rifles, helmets, food cards, a machine-gun, bombs and other rubbish. As this is all packed away in the most inaccessible places, I was called upon to fetch it out and arrange and label it. This I flatly refused to do.

I consider that it is of the utmost importance that museums should carry on in a perfectly normal manner. I intend to do anything I can to combat what is practically a scheme to turn museums into Government propaganda shows.

I have not had any holiday this year but have not given up hope. Perhaps if I get a week or so off in the New Year I might be able to give you a look in, if you are now free of evacuees.

Yours, EJR

For more information on how the Second World War affected Britain's museums, please see my article here.

3rd December 1939: The Blackout

The moon is dying now, and the nights are black as ink. I am very nearly blind at night, and make my way through the streets full of pushing, jostling soldiers at considerable peril. I wonder if, as the years roll on, people will come to accept these ghastly nights as being quite normal?

Spent the afternoon and evening with Rose as normal.

Eric, like many other people in the early months of the war, was struggling to get used to the blackout, especially as winter approached. The blackout had been imposed on 1st September 1939 and the lack of street lighting or lights from buildings meant that roads became very hazardous at night. In her book 'Wartime: Britain 1939-45', Juliet Gardiner records that 'in the first four months of the war a total of 4,133 people were killed on Britain's roads, and 2,657 of these were pedestrians. Road fatalities increased by 100 per cent compared to the corresponding months in 1938.' (p.52)

27th November 1939: Archaeological Finds in Wartime

On examining the excavations for [air raid] shelters west of the Castle, I find there is a three foot layer of very disturbed soil just below the surface, containing much broken stone, mortar, 17th century pottery and bits of clay tobacco pipes, which I suppose is the debris left after the demolition of the west wall of the Bailey [in the late 17th century].

[The shelters] were excavated to a depth of only 5 feet and the finds were rather disappointing, although they give some indication of when the western defences [of the Castle] were despoiled:

Illegible coin, temp. Elizabeth
Illegible bronze coin
Bone knife handle, 17th century
Iron spear butt
Bottom of a black glazed tyg
Iron chisel
Bone needle case
Fragments of glass wine bottles, c.1690

This is one of a number of archaeological finds unearthed as a result of digging for air raid shelters in Colchester. See also Eric's diary entries for 6th September 1939, 21st September 1939 and 29th September 1939.

22nd November 1939

Went to the Tovells’ to supper tonight. Mrs T. is a rather pathetic little woman, terribly worried by the war. They are all leaving Colchester soon, as papa has a job down in Cornwall, building army camps. He used to have a very good business in Colchester, and only broke through sheer hard luck. I well remember his horses going down Magdalen Street in the evenings.

21st November 1939

Museum Committee. The Doctor got the old house scheme put through without any bother at all. They seemed glad to have such a simple solution to the matter.

I admit this is a very poor second to preserving the house on the site, but what else could I do? I don’t know what Penrose will say, but it is unlikely that he will ever come back from Canada.

Professor Lionel Penrose was the chairman of Colchester Civic Society and Rudsdale served as secretary. Both had campaigned throughout the 1930s to conserve historic buildings in Colchester. Penrose was a renowned psychiatrist, medical geneticist and mathematician and was the older brother of the artist, Roland Penrose. Lionel Penrose had taken up a medical appointment in Canada in 1938.

17th November 1939

[Mary] Tovell left today. I really believe she was quite sorry to go. She is such a bright, intelligent little thing she will be quite a loss to us. She is going to be a nurse at Erith in Kent.

11th November 1939: Special Constables in the Second World War

If this was this day 21 years ago the war would be over. As it is, it has not begun.

This morning Harding and I were sworn in as “Specials” before old General Towsey. We all swore to obey our King etc. The General said “Jolly good luck, men” and that was all. We each received a warrant card, but no helmets or other equipment.

Little Tovell is now determined to leave [the Museum], and has given notice she will go next Friday. I shall miss her.

Eric's diary entry highlights the lack of equipment available for those appointed as Special Constables in the first months of the war. In a letter to his cousin, dated 7th December 1939, he describes his duties:

I and two of the Attendants have been sworn in as "Specials", and have to do the best we can to attend [at the Castle air raid shelters when the alarm sounds]. We are considered to be on 24-hour duty, and cannot leave the town without the permission of the Chief Constable. Of course, we don't get paid, not even for going round last thing at night to see that all is well trying lights and keys etc, but there it is.

The whole thing is rather a nuisance, as we have been given to understand that if anything goes wrong during an alarm so that anybody gets hurt, it will be our responsibility. We also have to see that the main gates are kept clear of parked cars, which is no mean job on a dark night. There have been frequent "yellow" warnings up until recently, which lasted well on into the night, with the result that its best to go to bed with your clothes on more often than not.

10th November 1939

The more I think of yesterday’s idea the more attractive it seems. Vaughan says he would be prepared to do the whole job for £60, very reasonable I think. ...

9th November 1939: 15th Century Hall in Colchester Castle

Vaughan came along this morning, and we made a thorough examination of the whole structure as it stands. It suddenly occurred to me that, while there is little hope that the whole place would ever be re-erected in its present form, there is no reason why one bay should not be re-erected forthwith in the Castle Main Hall. There is only one hammer beam actually complete, and that lacks one of the curved braces, and many of the smaller timbers are very rotten and would have to be replaced. In my opinion it would therefore be a much more sensible thing to re-erect only one end bay, using all the best timbers in that section. The whole thing could stand over the Easthorpe fireplace like a great wooden canopy.

Eric's idea of re-erecting the end bay of the Culver Street House in Colchester Castle Museum came to fruition in 1940.  It remained in place in the Castle Museum until 2013 when the refurbishment of the Castle led to it being dismantled and put in store.

Eric's caption for this photograph from his Journal reads: 'The West Bay of the Old House from Culver Street, taken after it had been re-erected in the Castle, February 12, 1940. (The two brothers Vaughan are on the left, and their two men on the right).'
Photo courtesy of Essex Record Office

For the background to the rescue of the old hall and its reconstruction in Colchester Castle Museum see Eric's other diary entries for 17th October 1939, 27th October 1939, 8th November 1939, 10th November 1939, 21st November 1939, 15th December 1939, 2nd January 1940, 19th January 1940 and 12th February 1940.

8th November 1939

It has now been agreed that Vaughan the builder, who has considerable experience with old timber-framed buildings, shall dismantle the [old] hall [in Culver Street], so I went to see him tonight and arranged that he should inspect the place.

I heard today that both I and Harding are definitely to be Special Constables [at the Castle] and are to be sworn in on Saturday.

7th November 1939 - Wartime Cinema

Took Rose to see the film of the “Mikado” at the Regal [Cinema] tonight. It was really very good, although a little slow at first. The colours and music were excellent. Of course the Gilbert & Sullivan purists are horrified at this “blasphemy”.

This is the first occasion since the war began that Eric mentions visiting the cinema. Since the threat of mass air raids at the start of the war had not materialised, Government orders restricting the opening of cinemas were lifted in full in November 1939. Eric was, therefore, quick to resume his visits to the cinema. Cinema-going provided the public with some form of entertainment and an outlet to escape from the difficulties of the war. Film also became a useful source of propaganda for government authorities. See also Eric's diary entry regarding the closure of cinemas at the start of the war on 6th September 1939.

The film of the 'Mikado' (1939) was the first time that a complete Savoy Opera was filmed for the cinema. The opulent technicolor film had a huge impact on audiences although the film is an adaptation of the original stage production. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company cooperated in full with the film, providing the chorus and two of the principals, and the film remains an important record of the Company's work at the time.

31st October 1939

[Air Raid] Shelters are now being dug on the west side of Colchester Castle, along the top of the western ramparts.

Colchester Castle Park Air Raid Shelters
Recent research by Howard Brooks and Ben Cooke, on behalf of Colchester Borough Council, records that there were three main sets of ARP shelters in Colchester Castle Park. These were: firstly, the shelters inside the Castle Vaults, secondly, outside shelters located in the Castle Rose Beds to the south east of the Castle and thirdly, outside shelters in the Hollytrees Meadow. There were also ARP trenches dug in Castle Park near Ryegate Road, to the west of the Castle, and it is probably these trenches that Eric refers to in this diary entry.

27th October 1939

Work began yesterday taking down the old house in Culver Street. At first they allowed the ARP Demolition men to go at it like mad bulls, smashing and crashing with axes and hammers. I went to see Orchard (of Colchester Borough Corporation's Engineer's Department) and told him that this would not do, so he agreed, with bad grace to employ carpenters when it comes to taking down the actual hall.

The [Museum] Committee have agreed that the hall timbers may be stored in the Castle, where they will no doubt make an untidy pile for years to come.

The Phoney War

The period from September 1939 to April 1940 became known as the 'Phoney War' because little military activity appeared to take place in Western Europe. With the exception of the Polish Campaign, the opposing powers were largely concerned with continuing their military preparations for future engagement. In Britain, the expected air attacks had not materialised but wartime regulations such as the blackout were maintained, adding to the sense of uncertainty. This is apparent in Eric's diary entries from this period in which he continues his museum work as normal but also records how wartime developments are impacting on daily life.

17th October 1939

Air Raid Alarm at 1.35pm today. For some reason I was too excited to feel frightened when the siren sounded. I had the Vaults open in a second, and 156 people came in. ... The all-clear was at 2.05pm. No planes came over. I went up on the roof twice, but there was nothing to be seen. ...

Museum Committee this afternoon. The ancient house in Culver Street is finally doomed – no further efforts are to be made, and it is to be demolished forthwith. Our fight for 6 years has been lost.

The ancient 15th century house in Culver Street was a timber-framed hall-type building, which Rudsdale had argued should be preserved for its historical and architectural merit.

The skeleton of the ancient house in Culver Street, prior to demolition (Courtesy of Essex Record Office)

5th October 1939

Wrote to Maitland [Eric's cousin] today, telling him that this Museum was still at work in spite of the war. From the Museums Journal this month I gather that at least 75% of the museums in this country are shut, and I fear that many of them may never reopen. The hasty packing of exhibits must have resulted in a terrible amount of damage being done.

Many museums had closed at the start of the war to allow staff to pack away precious objects as a precaution against air raids. Despite Eric's fears, however, two-thirds of Britain's museums did reopen during the war and continued to provide a service. For more information on the history of Britain's museums in the Second World War, please see my article here. CP

The 'Museums Journal', is a monthly publication produced by the Museums Association, which is the representative body for museum workers.

30th September 1939

Orders have been given (by whom? No one knows in these days) that the ARP Wardens from the post in the Holly Trees field are to have a duplicate key of the Castle door, to enable them to open the [air raid shelters in the Castle] vaults at any hour of the night.

29th September 1939

Went up to “Gurney Benham House” again [to examine excavations for air raid shelters], and completed section. While doing so, discovered a child-burial, on the north side of the road, approximately 63 feet from its centre. The child, newborn I imagine, had been thrust into a grey cook-pot. The urn was now broken, but I collected all the fragments and the bones.

The Romans buried their dead in cemeteries outside the boundaries of their towns and in Colchester the roads leading out of the town were lined with burials. Eric's discovery of a child burial beside the Roman Road was in keeping with many found in this area. Cremated remains were often placed in a pot for burial and some graves were marked with elaborate tombstones, such as those now displayed Colchester Castle Museum.

27th September 1939

ARP shelters in the garden of “Gurney Benham House”, Lexden Road, have cut right through the [excavated remains of the] Roman road.

The section is very clear, so I went up there this morning and began to draw it. Quantities of potsherds about.

Links to the History of Colchester and Essex

If you are enjoying finding out about the history of Colchester and Essex through this blog, the following websites will also aid your discovery of the county's rich heritage.

The Department of History at the University of Essex is a wonderful resource for historical research. The Centre for Local and Regional History is based here and offers a forum for research and teaching in local and regional history in Essex and Suffolk.

History House - where you can dip into the history of Essex, provides a fascinating insight into the county's past. Researched and written by Phil George it allows you to search the history of towns and villages in Essex and includes feature articles on aspects of Essex history and updates on new resources for historians. One of the features of the site is the inclusion of data from the Directories of Essex for 1848 and 1874 which Phil has transcribed. This is a very useful source for family historians and I have located some of my ancestors from these listings.

If you are thinking of visiting Colchester to see some of the locations mentioned in Eric's diary, then the ColchesterGuide will provide you with all the information you need to plan your visit. The Guide also includes a history of Colchester and provides a great photo gallery where you can view how some of the places in Eric's diary appear today.

Camulos - The Colchester Webpages is a fun and lively website surveying the history of Colchester. It includes a virtual tour of the town's historical sites and has a wonderful gallery of postcards of old Colchester, many of which show the town as Eric would have known it. CP

21st September 1939

Curious little mediaeval beaker brought in today, found while digging in an air raid shelter up Ipswich Road. It is of light grey clay, rather gritty, and was apparently originally provided with a lid. I have not seen anything quite like it.

19th September 1939

Met Joy Allgood [a local school teacher] at 5 o’clock, and went to tea at Jacklin’s [Restaurant]. She is really a most charming girl. Just before the war began she was in Switzerland, and had to leave in a very great hurry. She says the journey across France was very bad. Museum Committee today. Nothing very much done. Nothing much can be done.

18th September 1939

It has now been suggested that in view of the fact that Chapman is the sole Special Constable at the Castle shelters, I and Harding should also be sworn in to assist him.

Chapman and Harding were museum attendants. When the Roman vaults underneath Colchester Castle were requisitioned as a public air raid shelter, Rudsdale and the museum attendants became responsible for opening the vaults to the public during air raids and were sworn in as special constables to undertake their duties.

Air Raid Shelters at Colchester Castle

Before the war began Eric recorded how Colchester Castle Museum was preparing for the conflict. On 25th August 1939, he wrote that Colchester's Air Raid Precaution officers had visited the Castle 'to see about converting the Roman Vaults into an Air Raid Shelter.'

The Norman Castle had been built on the site of the Roman Temple of Claudius and the Roman vaults of the Temple formed the foundations of the Castle. The Castle walls - which are up to 30 feet thick - also offered solid protection and work to convert the vaults into a shelter was begun immediately. The air raid shelter was sufficient for 150 people but had very basic amenities and was rather an uncomfortable and unpleasant place to spend the night. Today, visitors to Colchester Castle can take a guided tour of the site of the former air raid shelter in the Castle Vaults. Eric's future diary entries often refer to this shelter and its use by local residents.

Colchester Castle's Roman Vaults, which were used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War

In a letter to his cousin, dated 7th December 1939, Eric describes the use of the Castle Vaults as an air raid shelter:

The only way in which we are compelled to acknowledge the existence of the war so far is the use of our vaults for air raid shelters. I opposed the use of Ancient Monuments for war purposes at the very start, but I am now compelled to admit that we certainly have the best and perhaps the safest shelter in the town. Also, what extra fittings that have been provided, seats, lavatory etc., do not in anyway interfere with the structure, and in fact do not even stop the usual conducted tours of the place.

So far the place has only been open twice for an alarm, but it has proved tolerably efficient.

For more information on the other air raid shelters constructed in Colchester Castle Park, see Eric's diary entry for 31st October 1939, 27th November 1939, 4th March 1940 and 19th April 1940.

Colchester and Evacuees

The following entries from Eric's pre-war diary record the arrival of evacuees from London.

1st September 1939

About 11 we heard that the Germans were moving into Poland. I went up to Benham's office [the local press office], and there was a telegram in the window. Everybody looked very gloomy, but the appearance of the streets was normal, except for an enormous barricade of sandbags being erected against the basement windows of the Town Hall. Went into the Bank and drew £20 of my £200, and converted this into silver from the Castle takings, just in case anything happens to bank notes. Although there is so much gloom all about, there is great bustle and excitement - thousands of London schoolchildren began coming into St Botolph's [railway] station this morning and were taken away by "National" buses into country districts. Some, with mothers and babies, are to go to Shrub End and Lexden, but few are staying actually in Colchester itself.

Army billeting officers were about today, in the New Town District especially.

More sand-bag filling today, and I had Bob out this afternoon to cart them across to Holly Trees, to cover up the windows of the Muniment Room. I dare say old Bob worked in the last war, and now he works in this one.

Rose [Eric's girlfriend] is terribly worried, threatens to close down the cafe and get a National Defence job. I advise against it, and say wait for a time. The BBC partly closed down today.

2nd September 1939

Many of the shops are boarding up their windows. Others are bringing out the old-fashioned shutters which I remember when I was young.

Tonight full black-out regulations in force, evening paper placards say "Poles Stand Firm", but many still say "Full Results", and the boys still call "Football, Full Time Results". Crowds going into the pictures tonight. Billeting going on in our road, men brought round in lorries, and dumped at each house. Children are still pouring into the town at St Botolph's Station, thousands of them. Saw Miss Deville, Hamilton Road schoolteacher, [who helped to make arrangements for the evacuees] who told me that the whole affair had gone very well.

In his book 'Essex at War' (1945, pp 16-18), Hervey Benham recorded that 14,000 evacuees including children, expectant mothers and women with babies arrived at St Botolph's railway station in Colchester during the first three days of September 1939. According to a detailed scheme, already drawn up, the evacuees were then dispersed into the neighbouring districts by bus: 5,500 in the Lexden and Winstree Rural District, 5,500 in the Tendring R.D.C., 1,600 in Brighlingsea, 900 in West Mersea and 500 in Wivenhoe.
Benham continues:
'The order to evacuate London was put into operation on Sept. 1, 1939, and trains began to arrive as per schedule; the unaccompanied children first in charge of their teachers, and later mothers and young children in hastily organised trainloads. Before being despatched by bus to their new rural homes all were "watered and fed" at one of three schools and issued with 48 hours' emergency rations. The staffs of these three reception schools, Wilson Marriage, St. John's Green and Canterbury Road, had a very strenous time. ...
The picture in the villages whence those evacuees went has been drawn for all time in "The Oaken Heart", in which Margery Allingham tells the story of war-time life in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, thinly disguised for the purpose under the name of Auburn. ...
But before the bombs came most of the evacuees and the plucky little schoomistresses who braved the discomforts of a cruel winter in the un-centrally heated villages had gone back whence they came.'

Preparations for War

Eric did not write an entry in his journal over the next couple of days and so to fill this gap the next few posts look back to the diary entries he wrote just before the war started.

28th August 1939

The number of visitors to the Museum is now very seriously affected by the rumours and scares which are daily getting worse - the takings for Castle tickets today were only 7 shillings, instead of about £2. We hear that most of the visitors to Clacton and Walton have left now - terrible hardship for the boarding house and hotel people. Anti-aircraft guns are being moved into position. Hull [the Curator] very "jittery", and shows great anxiety, running in and out all day long.

29 August 1939

Hull ordered all hands today to fill sandbags and pack [the best of the Museum] collections. The whole job was done in a terrible rush, and as we were much understaffed I fear that some things are bound to have been broken. However, there seems to be a decided impression that none of us here will ever see the stuff unpacked again, so perhaps we shall escape blame.

I see from the papers that the British Museum and all the other museums are also packing, the British Museum packing everything that is not too big to move.

We all stayed until 8 o'clock, then I cycled home with Tovell, as the roads are so dark by 8 now, and full of troops and lorries.

31st August 1939

More pottery packing today, and sandbagging. All the papers today talk of conferences, phone calls, planes flying between London and Berlin. Very deep depression everywhere, except Poulter, who is still bouncing with optimism - War Loan has gone up, so he's made a bit! Went to the Hippodrome tonight, on the idea that this may well be the last time I shall ever go to the flicks. George Formby on. Full house. There are thousands of troops in the town already.

At home I fixed up thick curtains in the dining room and one in my bedroom. I am sure that tonight is the last night of peace. Hundreds of searchlights across the sky, visible from my bedroom window.

12th September 1939

Went over to Heckford Bridge this morning with Poulter to see the sale of old Brown's tools and equipment at the blacksmith's shop. It seems strange that a blacksmith should close down at a time when many horses will be needed on the land. He gave us one or two small items for the Museum.

Eric was a keen supporter of rural craftsmanship and agriculture and opposed the decline of rural industries in the face of increasing mechanisation. Throughout the 1930s he had been responsible for building up the Museum's collection of rural artefacts in an attempt to record old agricultural traditions and crafts before knowledge of them was lost.

Eric in the News

Thank you to everyone who has logged on to read Eric's wartime diaries to date and welcome to new readers as well - I hope you will continue to follow the blog.

Readers may be interested to know that since its launch on 3rd September 2009, Eric's on-line diary has attracted much interest and has been featured in 'The Daily Gazette', 'The Essex County Standard' and on BBC Essex. CP

9th September 1939

Today I applied for the Curatorship of York Castle Museum, without the slightest hope of getting it.

As Eric suspected, the appointment of a curator at York Castle Museum was withdrawn owing to wartime economy cuts. A permanent appointment was not made until after the war.

6th September 1939 - An early air raid

I woke early today and lay reading Pickwick Papers, when at about 6.50am the sirens sounded. Oddly enough I did not feel frightened as I did on Sunday, but I thought “O God, are they going to do this every morning?” I could hear a lot of talking outside, but no planes came across the blue, sunny sky. I heard women’s voices in the cottages in Winsley Road, and then a man’s voice say “Well, I’m off to work.” There was no sound of traffic, but I could hear trains in the distance. ...

At half past 8 the “All Clear” sounded, and one could hear a distant murmur as traffic got started again.

Interesting find came into the Museum today when digging an air raid shelter in Mercer’s Way – some pieces of coarse Roman wares, apparently the remains of a burial, and about a third of a late Celtic polished bowl, with pierced base.

Although the general feeling of alarm still maintains, people are not quite so anxious, now that the promised giant air raids have not materialised. If the Germans really did have 70,000 planes, as we were told, it is odd that they have not sent them over. They are winning easily in Poland however.

However, in spite of the lack of raids, all picture-houses are closed by order of the Government, so the wretched soldiers have nowhere to go at night except the pubs. All the same, there is no drunkenness in the streets at night, but everywhere soldiers going back to billets and barracks singing “Roll out the barrel”.

Colchester’s rich archaeological remains often came to light as a result of excavations for air raid shelters and these artefacts were then presented to the Museum.

Cinemas and theatres were closed on the outbreak of war as a precaution against air attacks but the lack of air raids in the first few months of the war, and the demand for some form of entertainment, led to the restrictions being lifted in full by November 1939.

5th September 1939

This afternoon I went over to Sudbury with Poulter [the Assistant Curator], to collect a very nice Queen Anne doll’s house for the Museum’s collection.

Sudbury looked much the same. Big piles of sandbags all round the police station but no other signs of war, except soldiers all over the place. It was a lovely drive home, I fear the last we shall ever have in this old car, as Poulter intends to lay it up shortly.

Harold Poulter’s decision to put his car into storage was made in response to the introduction of petrol rationing in September 1939.

4th September 1939

Men working all day moving the Roman tombstones in the Castle Museum.
Irreplaceable museum artefacts, such as the Roman tombstones, were moved to places of safety as a precaution against bomb damage. Colchester Castle's Roman tombstones can be seen here.

3rd September 1939 - Eric's first post on the day war broke out

On 1st September 1939 German troops invaded Poland and on 3rd September the British and French governments issued an ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw or face war. As a result of the horrifying air attacks experienced in the Spanish Civil War, people had been warned to expect a civilian war with aerial bombing and gas attacks being launched on towns and cities. Eric's diary account below records these developments as they occurred on the day that war broke out:

Woke up at 7. Beautiful summer day, hot and sunny. Heard on radio across the way that an important announcement would be made at 10am. Sounded very ominous. Went to feed Bob [Eric's horse], and decided to go down to the Fire Station to see if I could do anything in the AFS [Auxiliary Fire Service], thinking that if anything is going to happen in Colchester, I might as well be in a front seat to see it. ...

The Fire Brigade now take themselves very seriously and the general appearance of the station is that of a besieged fortress. Great masses of sandbags block every window and door, so that you have to crawl through tunnels to get into the watch-room. I offered my services but found to my amazement that there are now no volunteers – all AFS men are full-time and are paid! Apart from the fact that I was gently told that I was not suitable physically, this of course put a very different view on the whole matter, as I have no intention of leaving the Museum. While I was there the 10 o’clock announcement came through, which was to the effect that an ultimatum had been delivered to Germany which expires at 11 o’clock, and that the Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain] would speak at 11.15. I felt I could not hear this, so I went off on my bike but as I came along Mile End Road, I could hear radio booming from many houses and could not but stop. A man saw me from his window and called out “It’s come matey”.

I went back to town. Lots of cars on the By-Pass, mostly people rushing back from the coast, with bundles of bedding tied all round. Very few going the other way, but some cyclists were.

Went down to Bourne Mill and rowed out in the boat, trying to think. Twenty-five years rolled back – the last war, “the war to end war”, they told us there could never be another and we believed it. Think of the millions of lives lost in the last war, all wasted. Think of the misery now of relatives, who have believed that their dear ones died “to save civilisation”. Now they want another million to die. What rubbish. What rotten, sinful rubbish! Now the first to go will actually be the sons of those who died 25 years ago.

This afternoon went to tea with Rose [Browne – Eric’s girlfriend], who was rather distressed – so was I. Much talk about pacifism and should she close up the café? I said no, people will always eat.

Later: When I went to bed last night, I somehow felt that we should have a raid. Bright moon and stars, “lovely night for a raid”, as they used to say 25 years ago. I was dozing when every siren in the town leapt into life at half past 3. I jumped up and pulled the curtains to see out. The moon shone brightly and the air was filled with the most incredible wailing noises, while all over the town dogs were barking. ...

I put on gum boots and a Mac and went out into the front garden. Bugles were sounding in the barracks and the big siren sounded again. The moon shone beautifully and I thought how incredible that people we didn’t know were coming away from the east to kill us. I thought God, they said 7 minutes warning at the most. Am I really going to be dead 7 minutes from now? I caught a whiff of a funny smell and thought, my God, is that gas? But it was only our dustbin. I kept thinking, well, this is it, it’s come at last, just like they all said, though no one believed it would. Father came out in the road. We could hear voices at several front doors down the street. He looked at the sky and said that there did not seem to be much to see. The noise of planes could be heard flying east, very fast and high. We talked stars for a few minutes and argued mildly about names of planets. Our local warden came by, quite unhurried and fully dressed, even to his collar and tie. Suddenly the “all clear”, sounded, a long, wailing cry, which went on and on. I went in and started to make tea.

Are we to be scared like this every night for years to come? What a terrible time for people with children. When the wailing stopped we could hear bugles blowing up in the barracks and people talking all up and down the road. I locked up, we all drank tea. Back to bed. Looked out of the window and could hear the trains shunting. The Co-op Bakery, over the back, started up again. Time, 4am.

These extracts appear courtesy of the heirs of Eric Rudsdale's estate and Essex Record Office.

E J Rudsdale

Eric John Rudsdale (seen here in 1934) was born in Colchester in Essex in 1910 to schoolteacher parents, John and Agnes Rudsdale (nee Webb). His father was from Whitby in North Yorkshire, where the family had owned a coach-building business, and this inspired Eric’s love of horses and horse-drawn transport. His mother’s family originated from North Wales and Eric maintained a strong attachment to his Welsh roots.

As a young boy he became fascinated with the history of Colchester and its Roman archaeology and his interest in history led him to seek a career as a museum curator. He gained the position of Curator’s Assistant at Colchester Castle Museum in 1928.

Eric had kept a diary from the age of 10, mainly with the aim of recording his archaeological finds. However, on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he recognised the significance of this moment of living history and his wartime journals were expanded to form a social record of Colchester and its people in the era of total warfare. Eric undertook air raid shelter duties at Colchester Castle and, therefore, had the perfect opportunity to observe the changes inflicted on his home town by the conflict.

Eric’s writing is characterised throughout his journals by his wry observations of wartime officialdom and his lack of conformity with the prevailing views of the time. He was a reluctant participant in the war, partly due to his independent stance and support for pacifism but also owing to his poor physical health, which made him doubt his fitness for armed service. Even as a civilian, however, he found he was unable to avoid the consequences of total warfare because Colchester was a garrison town and a military target. His journals, therefore, reveal moments of real fear, anxiety and personal tragedy, but throughout it all his sense of humour is never diminished for long.

In 1945, Eric was appointed Curator of Wisbech Museum and Literary Institution in Cambridgeshire and also served as archaeological adviser to Scarborough Museum in the late 1940s. He died prematurely from kidney failure following an operation for appendicitus at Wisbech in 1951, at the age of 41.

E J Rudsdale's Journals

A few of the extracts from Eric’s wartime journals were published in his lifetime in a book entitled, Essex at War, which was edited by his friend Hervey Benham in 1945. Benham was keen to publish the diaries in full but Eric declined the offer stating that publication should not take place until 50 years after his death.

Consequently, Eric’s journals, covering the period from 1920-1951, were bequeathed to Essex Record Office in 1951 on condition that that they were not to be opened for 25 years. In 1998, whilst undertaking research on the history of Britain’s museums during the Second World War, Catherine Pearson was introduced to Eric’s diaries by a retired archivist from Essex Record Office. Since then she has edited his wartime journals and has undertaken further research on Eric’s life, resulting in the publication of this blog and a book: E.J. Rudsdale's Journals of Wartime Colchester.

The aim of this blog is to show, through Eric’s observations, how the town and the people he knew were directly affected by war. The diary extracts, therefore, have been edited to reflect this aim. Eric did not always write an entry in his diary every day and there are days when no entry appears in this account. Where necessary, short commentaries are provided to give the historical context for the events Eric describes in his journal. Each extract is published exactly 70 years after it was first written. The blog began on 3rd September 2009 with the publication of Eric's first wartime diary entry on 3rd September 1939 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.

The diary extracts demonstrate Eric's ability to bring a scene vividly to life and each account highlights the daily pressures that people endured as they valiantly tried to carry on with normal life in spite of the war.

Please feel free to let me know if you are interested in following the blog. It gives us the opportunity to step back in time and witness wartime events on the home front as they occurred. CP


I am most grateful to the heirs of Eric Rudsdale’s estate and to Essex Record Office for granting their permission to reproduce these extracts for this blog. The extracts, and the photographs of Eric Rudsdale, appear courtesy of Essex Record Office (Ref: ERO A2308 (D/DU888)). All other photographs within this blog are my own. I am further grateful to Bill Lamin for his very helpful advice and support in the creation of this blog. Bill's blog: WW1: Experiences of an English Solider, based on the First World War letters sent by Private Harry Lamin, provided the inspiration for the publication of Eric Rudsdale's diaries via this blog.

Essex Record Office in Chelmsford is an excellent starting point for local history research on the county of Essex. The range of archive holdings is searchable via the Record Office’s online catalogue, SEAX. The archives can be used to help trace your Essex ancestors and to uncover the history of buildings, villages and towns in the county. There is also a vast range of resources available to show how national events, such as the Second World War, were experienced in Essex.

Places in E J Rudsdale's Journals

Colchester Castle Museum
Colchester Castle is the largest keep ever built by the Normans. It was constructed between 1076 and 1125 on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, which had been built by the Romans one thousand years earlier.

The town’s museum was transferred to the Castle in 1855 to provide space for Colchester’s growing archaeological collections. The Castle Museum opened to the public in 1860. Eric Rudsdale joined the Museum staff in 1928.  During the 1930s, the Castle Museum witnessed a period of expansion as the Museum authorities embarked on a series of major archaeological works in Colchester and instigated the re-roofing of the remains of the Norman Castle in 1935 to provide an enlarged museum. 

During the Second World War, the Castle's Roman foundation vaults were requistioned as an air raid shelter and Eric Rudsdale became responsible for superintending the shelter and for undertaking firewatch duty at the Castle, in addition to his curatorial duties and his work for the Essex War Agricultural Committee from 1941.

Hollytrees Museum
In 1927 the Museum authorities acquired Hollytrees Mansion, a Georgian townhouse on the edge of Castle Park, and this was opened as a social history museum in 1929. Eric Rudsdale was closely involved in all of these museum developments in the inter-war years. 
During the Second World War, the first floor of Hollytrees Museum was requistioned as offices for the Essex War Agricultural Committee (Lexden & Winstree District) and Eric Rudsdale was seconded from the Museum Service to the War Agricultural District Committee as its secretary in 1941.

Both museums remain open to the public today and in more recent times Colchester Museums Service has expanded to incorporate the Natural History Museum in All Saints Church.

Bourne Mill, Colchester
Bourne Mill was built in 1591 as a fishing lodge and was later converted to a watermill. Much of the mill machinery, including the waterwheel remains. The property is owned by the National Trust, who acquired it in 1936 after members of Colchester Civic Society including Professor Lionel Penrose and Eric Rudsdale campaigned to save it. Through the war years, Rudsdale maintained a watch over the building on behalf of the National Trust and stabled his horse, Bob, there. Bourne Mill is open to the public.

Gordon Villas, Winnock Road, Colchester
Eric Rudsdale's parents rented one half of 'Gordon Villas', Winnock Road, in the New Town district of Colchester. The family had moved there in 1917, when Eric was 7 years old.  Eric Rudsdale's parents were still living in the house during the Second World War and he frequently wrote that he had 'called in at home' to see them in his journal accounts.  The Rudsdale family had always lived in the New Town District of Colchester.  Eric Rudsdale was born in Harsnett Road and his mother's family had lived in Wimpole Road.

Lawford, Essex
Eric Rudsdale moved to the village of Lawford in Essex in May 1942, where he lodged with Matthew and Joy Parrington who farmed at Sherbourne Mill, not far from Lawford Parish Church. 

People in E J Rudsdale's Journals

Eric’s family:

Agnes Rudsdale
(nee Webb) was Eric’s mother. She was born in Colchester in 1870 and had been an assistant schoolmistress before her marriage to John Rudsdale.

John Rudsdale was Eric’s father. Born in Whitby, North Yorkshire in 1875, he trained as a schoolmaster and left his home town to take up a post as a mathematics teacher in Colchester in 1896. Here he met and married Agnes Webb and their only son, Eric, was born in 1910. John Rudsdale had retired from teaching in 1936 owing to ill health.

Frederick Maitland Underhill was Eric’s cousin. He was born in 1907 and lived in Maidenhead, Berkshire. By 1939 he was working as a bank manager. Like Eric, he shared a love of history and antiquities and in addition to his full-time job, he was also the Honorary Curator of Hambleden Museum in Buckinghamshire and a lifelong member of the Berkshire Archaeological Society.

Margery Warren was Eric's cousin. She lived at Shurlock Row in Berkshire.

Frank Webb was Eric's uncle and was younger brother to Eric's mother, Agnes. He lived at Purley.

Other people mentioned in Eric's journals:

Penelope Belfield lived near Dedham. Eric first met her when visiting the Parrington family in nearby Lawford.

Hervey Benham was the son of Sir William Gurney Benham and worked for the Essex County Standard newspaper. He was a friend of Eric's and later published some extracts from Eric's journals in a volume entitled Essex at War (1945).

Maura Benham was the daughter of Sir William Gurney Benham. She worked at Paddington Hospital in London.

Sir William Gurney Benham, was the proprietor of Benham & Co, printers of Colchester, and editor of Colchester’s local newspaper, the Essex County Standard. Benham was also Chairman of Colchester Corporation's Museum Committee.

Alderman Sam Blomfield was a member of Colchester Corporation's Museum Committee.

Molly Blomfield was the daughter of Alderman Sam Blomfield.

Rose Browne was Eric’s girlfriend from 1939-1941. She ran a café in Church Walk, Colchester.

George Farmer was Eric’s schoolfriend and had worked with Eric on archaeological excavations. The Farmer family ran an ironmongery shop in Colchester. George Farmer was called up to the RAF in 1940.

Capt F T Folkard was the District Officer to the Lexden and Winstree District Committee of the Essex War Agricultural Committee at Colchester.

Eilean Grubb ran a riding school at Fingringhoe, near Colchester. This was where Eric had learnt to ride a horse.

Hampshire Bacon shared the stables at Port Lane, Colchester with Eric.

Stanley Hills was a schoolfriend of Eric's.

Rex Hull was the curator of Colchester Castle Museum from 1926-1963 and a renowned archaeologist. Eric became his assistant in 1928.

Dr Philip Guyon Laver was the Honorary Curator at Colchester Castle Museum and had also been a General Practitioner in the town. Eric often refers to him simply as ‘The Doctor’. He died in 1941.

J C Leslie was the Principal of the Essex Agricultural Institute at Writtle, Chelmsford and became the Executive Officer of the Essex War Agricultural Committee (EWAC) during the Second World War. The EWAC took over the Essex Agricultural Institute for its headquarters for the duration of the war.

Matthew ('Parry') and Joy Parrington were farmers at Sherbourne Mill, Lawford, near Manningtree in Essex.

Professor Lionel Penrose was Chairman of Colchester Civic Society and Eric served as the Society's Secretary. Both had campaigned throughout the 1930s to conserve historic buildings in Colchester. Penrose was a renowned psychiatrist, medical geneticist and mathematician and was the older brother of the artist, Roland Penrose.

Harold Poulter was the Assistant Curator and technician with responsibility for Hollytrees Museum and workshop in the Castle Park. Eric often refers to him as HWP.

Stanley Nott was the Cultivation Officer for the Essex War Agricultural Committee, Lexden & Winstree District

Annie and Mary Ralling were neighbours of the Rudsdale family in the New Town district of Colchester.

Stuart Rose was an artist who worked on the land during the war. He and his wife, Dodo, lived at Boxted for most of the war.  Stuart Rose later became the Design Director to the General Post Office from 1968 to 1976.

Capt. (later Colonel) Round, was Chairman of the Lexden & Winstree District Committee of the Essex War Agricultural Committee. He lived at Birch Hall.

Joanna Round, was the daughter of Capt. Round. She began undertaking wartime work for the Essex War Agricultural Committee at Colchester in the spring of 1941.

R N Sadler, Deputy to J C Leslie, Executive Officer of the Essex War Agricultural Committee at Writtle, Chelmsford.

Jeffrey Saunders was a schoolfriend of Eric's.

Seymour was a teacher at Colchester Royal Grammar School. His son, Alan, was a schoolfriend of Eric's.

Marshall Sisson, RA was an architect, then living at 'Sherman's' an 18th century house in Dedham, Essex with his wife, Marjorie. Sisson specialised in the restoration of old buildings and was appointed as an advisor on bomb damage to historic buildings in 1941.

Daven Soar was one of Rudsdale’s schoolfriends and worked as a telephone engineer.

Mary Tovell was the bookshop assistant at Colchester Castle Museum when war broke out but left soon after to train as a nurse at Erith in Kent.

Chapman } Both were museum attendants
Harding } at the Castle Museum.

Animals mentioned in Eric's journals:

was Eric’s horse, a Welsh cob, who was stabled at Bourne Mill in Colchester.

Robin was Eric's second horse, who he acquired in 1942.

A Brief History of Colchester in Essex

The town of Colchester in Essex lies on the river Colne and has been a place of settlement since the late Iron Age. By the first century BC it had become the tribal capital of the Trinovantian kingdom, and was soon presided over by their powerful ruler, Cunobelin, who was king of both the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni tribes.

When the Roman army invaded the country in AD 43, their objective was the capture of Colchester or Camulodunum as it was then known. The Emperor Claudius arrived to personally take possession of Colchester where he received the formal surrender of several British kings. The town became the first capital of the new Roman province and archaeological evidence of the Roman occupation continues to be unearthed today.

Colchester fell into decline following the abandonment of Britain by the Romans in AD 410 but had begun to grow in importance again by the late Saxon period. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Colchester witnessed considerable growth. Owing to its strategic importance on the route from East Anglia to London, William the Conqueror ordered the building of a stone castle at Colchester, which was built on the site of the earlier Roman Temple of Claudius.

Colchester prospered from the opportunity to market agricultural produce from the rich farming lands that surrounded the town. The town port at the Hythe also enabled Colchester to conduct coastal and overseas trade. However, by the late 12th century, the town began to specialise in textiles and the arrival of Dutch refugee weavers in the late 16th century helped to continue the manufacture of cloth into the mid-18th century. Another ancient industry was the oyster fishery, which was the property of the freemen of the Borough who carefully guarded the fishing rights.

Colchester suffered several setbacks in the 17th century. Firstly, the town was ravaged by the devastating effects of the Siege of Colchester in 1648 when the Parliamentarian army laid siege to the town after the Royalist forces had entered it. The town was slowly starved over a period of 76 days and when it capitulated, the Royalist commanders were captured and later executed outside the Castle. Then twenty years later, the Black Death appeared in Colchester, leaving more than a quarter of the population dead. Nevertheless, the town quickly recovered and continued to rely on agriculture and the cloth trade for its prosperity.

The town had traditionally served as a gathering point for troops en route to the Continent and the numbers of troops arriving in Colchester during the French Revolutionary Wars led to the establishment of the first permanent barracks in the town in 1794. This created new demands on the town’s services but it was not until later in the 19th century that its traditional reliance on agriculture began to give way to the arrival of new engineering industries. These contributed to a building boom at the end of the 19th century with new housing being provided for the influx of workers. The architecture of Colchester, therefore, reflects its varied historical past with Roman, Saxon and Medieval remains being evident alongside timber-framed buildings, Georgian townhouses, Victorian civic buildings and modern amenities.

By 1939, Colchester had become a large garrison town and its leading industries were engineering (Diesel engines being a speciality), clothing manufacture and rose growing. The population numbered approximately 52,000. The outbreak of war in September 1939, however, posed immediate threats to the town and its inhabitants. Colchester was vulnerable to air attack, owing to the vital role of its engineering industries in the war effort and due to its military importance as a garrison town. The town was also on the flight path for enemy bombers on their journeys to and from London and this often led to stray or unused bombs being jettisoned onto the fields surrounding the town. Finally, Colchester’s proximity to the east coast made it a likely target for invasion. The town was ringed by over 120 pillboxes and other defensive structures which formed part of the Colchester stop-line set up to repel enemy invaders. Therefore, as Eric Rudsdale began to record the events of the Second World War in his journal, he would have been well aware of the threats that this new conflict posed to his home town and to its long history.

For more information on the history of Colchester visit British History On-Line.
Maps of Colchester can be found on the Colchester Museums website.

Museums and the Second World War

Back to the Future: How World War II shaped today’s museums. By Catherine Pearson

Seventy-five years ago, towards the close of the Second World War, an editorial in the Museums Journal reflected on the effects of the conflict:

In the midst of the darkness and brutality of war, museums have seized all available opportunities for spreading the light of learning and culture. Their amazing development during the last twenty years has been tremendously accelerated - not retarded as was first anticipated - by war conditions. (Museums Journal, April 1945, p1)

By contrast, the general conception of the wartime museum is now one of decline: the result of the enforced closure of museums, the underground storage of precious objects and the depletion of curatorial staff. So why did contemporaries present such an alternative view and can knowledge of this period be of any relevance to museum policy today?

In fact, this period has closer connections to current issues than would at first appear. The outbreak of war coincided with the debates arising from the publication of Frank Markham’s Report on the Museums and Art Galleries of the British Isles (1938). Many of the issues Markham identified such as inadequate finance for regional museums, the lack of government recognition for the museum’s role in education and the need for appropriate salary scales for staff, remain familiar concerns today. The Report retains its relevance because the intervention of war shelved the Government’s consideration of Markham’s reforms and prevented them from being put into effect.

Nevertheless, the Report had a considerable influence on museum staff who responded to Markham’s vision of closer co-operation between museums and the increased use of ‘visual education’ through the means of temporary travelling exhibitions. Ironically, the war would create the conditions to enable these recommendations to be achieved. Markham called for collections to be linked to current issues in order to ‘make it obvious to the man in the street that he is part of history’. On the eve of a war that would encompass the total population, curators recognised the opportunity to fulfil this responsibility. They embarked on a period of experimentation in display and exhibition that is now largely forgotten but which attracted large audiences and, above all, new visitors to museums.

Early fears that museums would be closed for the duration of the conflict were quickly dismissed by a Museums Association campaign to gain Government approval for the service to continue. This was granted in January 1940 and it is estimated that between 1938 and 1948, 640 out of a total of 800 museums remained open. Those most affected by closure were the London based national museums (with the notable exception of the National Gallery) but this had the result of shifting attention and resources to the regional museums and enabled a renaissance that anticipated the recommendations of the Regional Task Force by some sixty years.

Since their most highly prized exhibits were now in storage for reasons of safety, regional museums found themselves having to re-evaluate their reserve collections or look at new ideas and concepts to create the themes for display. The use of the temporary exhibition became the cornerstone of wartime museum activity and the pooling of knowledge and resources between museums created a network for the circulation of shared exhibits. The introduction of modern art and design to new audiences was a major development from this time and is most clearly evidenced in the travelling exhibitions featuring the work of the Official War Artists or the Design and Industries Association, which were shown at the National Gallery before embarking on tours around the regions. Regional museums also created their own exhibitions such as ‘Moore-Piper-Sutherland’, which was devised by Philip Hendy, then Curator of Art at Leeds City Art Gallery and featured the work of these prominent contemporary artists. This exhibition toured the Midlands and the North of England during 1941 and 1942 to popular acclaim, attracting an audience of 52,000 in Leeds, whilst being voted the best exhibition in twelve months at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. Exhibitions such as ‘Ballet Décor and Design’ (1943) were shown in conjunction with visits to towns by touring ballet companies and following the lead of the National Gallery, regional museums were quick to broaden their appeal by offering concerts in their galleries. Such events demonstrated the curiosity for new experiences that existed amongst museum audiences and confirmed that museums had adapted to recognise visitors’ wartime needs.

Wartime museum visitors at an exhibition held at Colchester Castle Museum, 1945 (courtesy of Colchester Museums Service)

Curators also began to listen to the views of their audiences to a much greater degree than ever before. A survey undertaken at Leicester Museum in 1942 on the subject of temporary exhibitions captured visitors’ impressions of the changing museum climate and analysed their reasons for visiting, eliciting such responses as: ‘I come whenever there is a special exhibition, as I find the permanent collection on the whole uninspiring’ and ‘No [I am not a regular visitor] but three times to this exhibition with progressive appreciation’.

This greater empathy with audiences witnessed the democratisation of the museum space as local communities were encouraged to make their own artistic contributions to museum displays. ‘Pictures from Halifax Homes’ an exhibition dating from 1942, consisted of paintings and drawings owned by the town’s citizens and can be seen as an early forerunner of the ‘People’s Shows’ devised by Walsall Museum in the early 1990s. The ‘Social History of British Life’ exhibition created by students of the Sheffield College of Arts and Crafts was shown at the Geffrye Museum and allowed children to directly engage with the display - a new concept in an era dominated by the glass case.

In line with Markham’s plea for museums to reflect current issues, museum objects gained a further layer of meaning in this period through their use to demonstrate scientific and geological concerns, to highlight agricultural issues associated with increasing food production, or to draw attention to public health. Museum exhibition skills were in demand in order to transmit the messages of national publicity campaigns but government support came at a price. Whilst the increase in temporary exhibitions was centrally funded for the first time through organisations such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), museums were also obliged to show exhibitions that were more blatant in their propaganda, as devised by the Ministry of Information (MoI). These exhibitions were distributed by the Museums Association but met with diffidence on the part of curators who frequently attempted to tone down the theme of the displays or refused to co-operate at all. Curatorial complacence led the MoI to complain that ‘if the curators would play their part, the small travelling units provided by the MoI might well be made the centre of larger shows’. Nevertheless, the MoI’s resources helped to modernise display techniques and introduced the use of film projectors in museums on the understanding that MoI films were to be shown on alternate weeks to educational films.

Museums expanded their role in education through the wartime period, initially due to the necessity of meeting the schooling needs of evacuees but later through the development of specific classes and training to meet the demand for knowledge about music, art and literature, fuelled by the wartime cultural climate. The Geffrye Museum, Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery and Derbyshire Museums Service all either developed extensive education programmes or appointed their first Education Officers in this period. Other museums collaborated with the armed forces’ education divisions to offer art appreciation courses with the aim of fostering unit activities but also in anticipation of the vocational and leisure needs of service personnel following demobilisation. In all of these activities, the Museums Journal played a key role in sharing information about these initiatives and encouraging alliances and co-operation between museums.

Wartime curators expressed the view that their work in these years had made direct contact with their audiences and had achieved a much broader appeal to new visitors by connecting with the reality of daily life and relating collections, the arts and sciences to visitor’s demands. This developmental work was to be curtailed with the withdrawal of central support for temporary exhibitions and the shifting balance of interest towards the repairs and re-establishment of the national museums in the harsh post-war economic climate. A study of the wartime museum, however, illustrates that regional museums were able to successfully adapt and co-ordinate their activities in order to become a central part of their communities and this has a direct relevance to the role of museums today. By gaining an insight into how these issues have been resolved in the past, museums could apply and adapt these outcomes to address policy and community concerns today. However, the lessons of the past also carry a warning. Frank Markham would be horrified to find that so much of his vision for museums in 1938 remains a part of museum debate eighty years later. If museums gain a greater understanding of the legacy of the past, perhaps they can ensure that history’s judgement on their work is not one of missed opportunity.

This article first appeared in the Museums Journal, February 2005, Vol 105, No 2 pp 26-29.

Catherine Pearson investigated the history of Britain’s museums during the Second World War as the subject of her PhD at University College London, completed in 2008. Her research was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and her thesis was published by Routledge in 2017 under the title: 'Museums in the Second World War: Curators, Culture and Change'. She is currently editing the journals of the curator and archaeologist, E.J. Rudsdale.

Eric Rudsdale's WW2 Diary - Events to date

Eric’s diary blog begins on the day war was declared 3rd September 1939, when he experienced Colchester’s first air raid alarm.

The early months of the war were relatively quiet and became known as the period of the ‘Phoney War’. Nevertheless, preparations for war continued apace. In Colchester excavations for air raid shelters led to many archaeological discoveries and Eric was kept busy with these new artefacts being brought into the Museum. The Roman Vaults underneath Colchester Castle had been converted into a public air raid shelter and Eric was sworn in as a Special Constable to superintend the shelter.

January and February 1940 were to be dominated by the onset of the severest winter for 45 years, which added to wartime hardships. However, despite the bad weather, the war was drawing ever closer to Essex with the coastal areas putting up a defence against enemy aircraft.

14th February 2010 marked the Centenary of E J Rudsdale's Birth on 14th February 1910.

Events in the war now began to escalate as Eric recorded the German invasion of Norway and Denmark on 9th April 1940 and on 30 April 1940, the crash-landing of a German minelaying plane at Clacton caused the first civilian deaths of the war on mainland Britain.

The German invasion of Holland and Belgium on 10th May 1940 and the subsequent invasion of France brought the war closer to Britain's shores, especially as the evacuation from Dunkirk took place. Air raids over Colchester now began in earnest.

Early exchanges in the Battle of Britain were evident in Colchester's skies from 11th July 1940 and Eric witnessed the aerial battles that took place that summer. Meanwhile, Eric took time off from Colchester Museum during August 1940 to help with the harvest at Shirburn Mill, Lawford.

The 7th September 1940 marked the start of the Blitz with devastating air raids on London and air raids grew ever more frequent over Colchester. The expectation that the country was about to be invaded led to the evacuation of Colchester from 10th September 1940.

The autumn of 1940 witnessed many serious air raids and Eric recorded the resulting damage to Coggeshall Church and witnessed the destruction of Little Horkesley Church.

In January 1941, Eric was seconded from his post at Colchester Castle Museum to become Secretary of the Essex War Agricultural District Committee (Lexden & Winstree). Eric was able to continue his links with the Museum, however, because the War Agricultural Committee took over office space at Hollytrees Museum in Colchester Castle Park. Eric also continued his duties as a firewatcher and air raid shelter superintendent at Colchester Castle at night.

From his vantage point at Colchester Castle, Eric watched and recorded the air raids over East Anglia. The increased air raids over Harwich in February 1941, led to speculation that an invasion might soon take place. By the end of March 1941, preparations were being made to evacuate the civilian population of Colchester in case of invasion and in April 1941 the army constructed a secret dugout in Castle Park for the use of saboteurs in the event of an invasion.

Eric's work for the War Agricultural Committee led to his involvement in the National Farm Survey from July 1941. This Survey provided a comprehensive record of the condition of farms in England and Wales to enable wartime food production to be maximised.

The summer and autumn of 1941 continued to see regular air raids over Essex, which Eric witnessed from the roof of Colchester Castle such as a German plane being shot down near Clacton on 16th September 1941. However, Eric's firespotting duties also allowed him to see the Northern Lights when they appeared in the sky over Essex on 18th September 1941. He also recorded the arrival of the Indian Army in Colchester from mid-October 1941.

The threat posed by air raids to Colchester's historic buildings led Eric to start a photographic collection as a record of the town's architectural heritage in the autumn of 1941. He called this collection 'The Prospect of Colchester' and it now forms part of the collections held at Colchester Museums Resource Centre.

As 1941 drew to a close, Eric viewed the damage caused by a German air raid attack on the Great Bromley Pylons, which formed part of the Chain Home Radar Defence System. He was also listening to the radio on 11th December 1941, when it was announced that the United States had entered the war.

January and February 1942 brought harsh winter conditions, which were made worse by the wartime restrictions on fuel and food.  In April 1942 the 'Baedeker' air raids on British cultural towns began and left Eric wondering if Colchester's Castle and historic buildings would be the next targets to be attacked.

In May 1942, Eric decided to move to Shirburn Mill, Lawford to lodge with the farm's owners, Matthew and Joy Parrington, although he continued to work in Colchester and to undertake weekly shelter duties at Colchester Castle. 

With the arrival of American troops into Colchester in the summer of 1942, work began on building aerodromes for the American bases.  This work was closely monitored by the German Luftwaffe and led to increased air raids over Colchester.  On 11th August 1942, Colchester experienced its worst loss of civilian life during the war when bombs were dropped on Severalls Hospital.  Another serious air attack was made on residential streets in Colchester on 28th September 1942.

Keep up to date by following Eric’s diary blog at: http://wwar2homefront.blogspot.com/

E.J. Rudsdale's Journals of Wartime Colchester

Edited by Catherine Pearson

I am delighted to announce that the book, E.J. Rudsdale's Journals of Wartime Colchester is now available and has been published by The History Press (ISBN: 9780752458212).

Signed copies can be purchased directly from me via the E.J. Rudsdale's Journals website or contact me for further details. Alternatively, you can purchase the book direct from Amazon or Waterstones.

Catherine Pearson