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How a Library Helped Win the War

At the start of the London Blitz, Nazi bombs devastated Bethnal Green Library. But the staff, determined to stay true to their readers, moved it to the underground station, where people could escape into stories during air raids.


One of the greatest resistance stories of the Second Word War, the tale of how locals and staff moved their beloved library down into the underground station is one of magic. But it wasn’t easy riding for those involved.


The library is one of the largest in the East End of London. Situated in a grand Victorian building on a park, it was formerly an asylum, but the reevaluation of the Victorian workhouses and hospitals in the early 1900s led to them being systematically closed or given over to other, more progressive uses. Backed by wealthy industrialists, the library was known for its large stocks and broad subject matter, designed to educate the poor of the area.


When the Second World War began, the library had a new mission: to educate the public about the war effort. Government leaflets about air raid precautions, food rationing, and signing up for war work lined the front desks, but no one expected a bomb to plunge through the great glass dome only a few weeks into the London Blitz.


The librarians did the best they could to cover the books before heading into the underground to shelter, and it was then that they hatched the idea: they would move the library into the underground station until the building was mended.


In the event, around four thousand books were selected for the new, scaled-down library, and the rest were driven by truck to a mineshaft in Wales for safekeeping with valuable books from other London libraries. Librarians and volunteers worked together, carrying them down in wheelbarrows.


The library was set up in one of the tunnels, closed off during the night by only a few barriers. Bethnal Green underground station was a popular one in which to shelter. At 78 feet below ground, it was completely safe, and unlike some of the other stations, you wouldn’t be terrified by the sound of the bombs every night. It was still in the process of its final completion, which meant that it was ideal as a shelter.


By 1941, the station had been earmarked for more shelter amenities, partly encouraged by the library and the small medical clinic. Soon three-tiered metal bunks had been erected through a few of the longer tunnels, enough to sleep five thousand people. The medical center was enlarged, and there was a creche and school for younger children, allowing women to go to work. A small theater started up, and the library went from strength to strength.


The tale of the library became headline news, a story of resilience, inspiration, and spirit in a world of destruction, fear, and chaos. What better way to serve the community in the war than to give the people the comfort of books, companionship, and a haven of peace?


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