After the Present Fire: The Linnean Society during the Second World War

During WW2, ‘sheltering in place’ was not an option for our collections, that eventually travelled to several locations. Isabelle Charmantier, Head of Collections, writes about these journeys, and how the war led to new ways of doing things.

Published on 26th June 2020

Since 1873, the year the Linnean Society moved into New Burlington House, the Society had never closed its doors for more than a few weeks' during the holidays. At the time of writing this blog, the Linnean Society and its Library will have been closed for the last three and a half months.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic we have had to adapt to new ways of working, including operating remotely. It is fascinating to compare it to the last major crisis the Society lived through: the Second World War — especially as the Linnean Society, like the other learned societies around the Burlington House courtyard, remained opened throughout.[1] The archives reveal the uncertainty that reigned before and throughout the war, something that we can sympathise with in the current situation. Then, as now, the emphasis was first and foremost on safeguarding the collections.

The Library in 1938
The Library in May 1938 (The Sunday Times)

‘In the event of war’

1938 had been a successful year for the Society, celebrating its 150th anniversary: the celebrations included the publication of A.T. Gage’s A history of the Linnean Society of London; a successful international symposium on the species concept and origin of species; and a noted exhibition of portraits of Linnaeus and the Society’s first Fellows set up by Spencer Savage, the Society’s Librarian and Assistant Secretary.

Spencer Savage
Spencer Savage, Librarian and Assistant Secretary, 1929-1951

But 1938 was also marked internationally by the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, and the Society’s celebrations were soon forgotten amidst the preparations for war. The Society’s Council Minutes make it clear that it was assumed that war was likely to break out, and when it did, cities would be bombed, with London a prime target.

Collections packed for removal, 30 September 1938
Collections packed for removal, 30 September 1938

Because of their international significance, safeguarding the Linnaean collections was at the top of the Society’s priorities. Council recommended that special cases were made for their evacuation from London, and the collections were packed and loaded ready for transport on 30 September 1938—the same day that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler signed the Munich agreement, through which Chamberlain claimed he had vouchsafed the peace of Europe.

By 10 November, Council ‘resolved that the Linnaean Collections should be unpacked and returned to the cabinets’.[2] In January 1939, antiquarian and Egyptologist Warren R. Dawson wrote to Spencer Savage:

I am thankful that the necessity to send away the Linnaean collections did not after all arise last September and that they have been unpacked and restored to their places. But the world situation seems very unsettled, and I fear it will not be long before the necessity of packing them up again will arise as our Government seems to have adopted such an attitude of surrender to those ruthless barbarians, the dictators, whose hands are thereby strengthened and their temerity increased. I sincerely hope, however, that my opinion in wrong.[3]

By April 1939, Dawson’s pessimistic outlook seems not to have been unwarranted, and Council decided to evacuate the Linnaean collections to Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (the 12th Duke of Bedford being a Fellow), ‘to remain there undisturbed’.[4]

‘For the duration of the war’

As war broke out, the Society adapted to the new circumstances: civilian duty masks were bought for the use of staff during air raids; an ‘improvised Air Raid Shelter’ was put in place (although the Minutes do not indicate its location); and J. O’Grady, clerk of the Society, registered for active duty.[5]

1940 Evacuated books
Notebook containing the list of books evacuated from the Library, 1940

By May 1940, with the beginnings of the bombings, Council needed to find a solution to ‘the question of safeguarding the books in the Library in the event of the windows and skylights being shattered during an air raid’.[6] Letters in the Savage correspondence dated to 1940 and 1941 show that the Librarian wrote to various persons, seeking to find shelter for rare books, manuscripts and paintings. In the end, 3,000 of the rarest books were sent to the Bodleian Library in Oxford; more books were removed to the office of Cambridge Professor F. E. Fritch; others found refuge in the air raid shelters of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; while the aforementioned Dawson and botanists Mr and Mrs Sprague provided accommodation for some of the Society’s records in their country homes in Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire, respectively.

Evacuated collections map
Map of the evacuated collections, 1940

Council was right to be worried: the website Bomb Sight, which maps the WW2 bomb census, shows that between October 1940 and June 1941, 16 bombs fell in the vicinity of the Society. An air raid on 17 April 1941 destroyed buildings across the road on Piccadilly—what is now the French Railway House—and its impact shattered the glass ceiling and windows in the Library, inflicting ‘damage to the interior of the Society’s Rooms’.[7]

Despite all this, the Society remained open, as best it could: the blackout of street lighting, from November 1939, forced the Society to change its meeting times, which took place from 2:15pm. The Library was also kept open, for Fellows to use and borrow books. Despite most of the Fellows below middle age having been recruited into the armed forces, the meetings maintained a good level of interest. Yet, as one Fellow writing from Scotland wrote: ‘Life at Burlington House […] must be an almost intolerable strain, and with no immediate hope of relief.’[8] As raids succeeded each other, staff must have been constantly worried about the building and remaining collections: ‘I am afraid that you must have had a bad time last night and I hope that you and all our friends are safe and that Burlington House is still standing.’[9] The Assistant Librarian W. S. Warton was ‘bombed out of his house’.[10] News of deceased Fellows and their families was sent in,[11] and in 1941, the Society grieved the loss Francis Druce, Treasurer from 1931 to 1940.

Minutes of Council meeting in May, 1941

The first surrogate copies of the Linnaean Collections

As the Blitz continued, Council became concerned that, although the Linnaean collections were safer at Woburn, it was by no means guaranteed that the Abbey would not be bombed as well. At the instigation of President John Ramsbottom, the Society sought funding to photograph the collections and distribute the microfilms to various centres of learning abroad. The Carnegie Corporation of New York responded positively to the appeal and made a grant of £2,000 for the undertaking.

Urtica balearica
Specimen of 'Urtica balearica', LINN 1111.9. We do not know which specimen stung photographer Gladys Brown.

In the autumn of 1941, all the Linnaean specimens, books and manuscripts (as well as some of the Society’s most precious portraits and busts) were transferred to the Zoological Museum (now Natural History Museum) at Tring, where they stayed for the duration of the war.

There, they were photographed by Messrs Wallace Heaton, Ltd., producing a total of more than 60,000 exposures. While handling the specimens, the photographer, Gladys Brown, was stung on the arm by a specimen of stinging-nettle (Urtica), dried and mounted some 200 years earlier! The whole episode was surprising enough to warrant a paragraph in J. Norman’s account of ‘A photographic record of the Linnaean collections’, noting that ‘the arm showed a definite blister, apparently similar to that produced by a fresh specimen’.[12]

Requests to consult the Collections kept coming in, however, but with all the rare books and manuscripts stowed away, it was often impossible to respond to enquiries. Warren R. Dawson, then at Bletchley, refused to unpack and repack collections in order to accede to these requests:

I have no time now, nor am I likely to have for some time to come, to undertake the removal of many cases, the hunt for the particular box in which the [manuscript] lies, and the restacking & moving back of all the displaced cases. I cannot think it reasonable on the part of Dr. [ ] to expect access to evacuated material in war-time and he should realise that others may have less leisure than he has.[13]

Unlike Warren Dawson, Collections staff have been fortunate, in the present 2020 crisis, to have met with understanding on the part of all our enquirers. As with during the war, we have not been able to physically access the collections more than once every three weeks, but all our enquirers have been unfailingly patient. We are also very fortunate that many of our most important collections have been digitised and are accessible online.

Aftermath: ‘the brave new world’

It took a long time for the Society to get back to normal after the end of the war. In May 1945, Council debated whether to eject German and Italian foreign members, as well as the Emperor of Japan from his Honorary Membership.[14] In the end, no action was taken. The annual contributions of Fellows who were interned or prisoners of war were deferred to 1946.[15] The Linnaean collections came back from Tring at the end of the year in 1945, after structural repairs were undertaken in the Library.[16] In the bleak context of post-war rationing, the Society continued providing tea, with occasional support from the Fellowship, as a 1948 letter from Monie Watt shows. She posted a parcel of tea, dried milk, and ‘old fashioned Basin cloths’ as a contribution to the Society.[17]

1948 Watts Letter
Letter by Mrs Watt, posted with a parcel for Society post-meeting teas, February 1948

What is striking in hindsight is how well prepared the Linnean Society was in the 18 months that preceded the start of the war. The evacuation of its most precious collections was planned well ahead of time. In the context of the current crisis, it is easy to identify with the uncertainty that came with the war—the lack of knowledge regarding what lay ahead, and how decisions were taken in response to each challenge that arose, such as evacuating the rare books, or adapting opening hours to the blackout. Also remarkable is the determination of its staff to keep to the now-famous (but then unknown) war motto: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; meetings continued, books were posted, articles were written and published.

Mostly, though, the present situation has made some of the letters particularly resonant: ‘The brave new world according to some of our political prophets is to unfold after the present fire has been quenched.’[18]

Read more: A mysterious bullet in our collections

Isabelle Charmantier, Head of Collections


[1] See the Geological Society’s blog on its role during WWII:

[2] Council minutes, 10 November 1938, Council Minutes vol. 12, p. 220.

[3] Warren R. Dawson to Spencer Savage, 11 January 1939, in ‘Spencer Savage Correspondence: Selected and Miscellaneous’, MS/425a, 85.

[4] Council Minutes, 17 April 1939, Council Minutes vol. 12, p. 249.

[5] Council Minutes, 5 October 1939, Council Minutes vol. 12, pp. 267-268.

[6] Council Minutes, 30 May 1940, Council Minutes vol. 12, p. 306.

[7] Council Minutes, 24 May 1941, Council Minutes vol. 12, p. 326.

[8] Colonel A. T. Gage to Spencer Savage, 5 December 1940, in ‘Spencer Savage Correspondence: Selected and Miscellaneous’, MS/425a, 134.

[9] W. J. Calman to Spencer Savage, 11 May 1941, in ‘Spencer Savage Correspondence: Selected and Miscellaneous’, MS/425a, 71.

[10] Council Minutes, 11 June 1941, Council Minutes vol. 12, p. 360.

[11] See for instance letter from T.G.B. Osborn, LL/15, 24 April 1943.

[12] Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 154 (1941-42): p. 51

[13] Warren R. Dawson to Spencer Savage, 22 November 1941, in ‘Spencer Savage Correspondence: Selected and Miscellaneous’, MS/425a, 86.

[14] Council Minutes, 10 May 1945, Council Minutes vol. 13, pp. 36-37.

[15] Council Minutes, 11 October 1945, Council Minutes vol. 13, p. 46.

[16] Council Minutes, 7 June 1945, Council Minutes vol. 13, p. 43 and p. 49.

[17] Mrs James Watt to Dr Barnes, 13 February 1948, LL/23.

[18] Colonel A. T. Gage to Spencer Savage, 23 December 1941, in ‘Spencer Savage Correspondence: Selected and Miscellaneous’, MS/425a, 45.