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Behind the scenes

1 Post tagged with the trustees tag

Guest post by Karolyn Shindler


On the eve of the declaration of war on 3 August 1914, The Times wrote: 'The great catastrophe has come upon Europe.' Over the course of the next few months my posts to the Behind the scenes blog will include excerpts from the upcoming October and January issues of evolve magazine. These will show how, 100 years ago to the day, the Museum contributed to the war effort in those first uncertain months:

Thursday 20 August 1914: The Museum's Trustees hold a meeting, 'to consider circumstances arising out of the war'. They are told that six assistants, seven attendants, one boy attendant, a taxidermist and a labourer have enlisted in the military. Two government departments, the War Office and the Admiralty, have requested clerical help.


The Museum agrees to loan the government between six and 10 attendants, and also certain assistants with 'special qualifications', who may be required. Some of the Museum's galleries may be needed to accommodate extra clerks, although not immediately. The Trustees are informed that the previous day, 19 August, army officers inspected the Museum with a view to its possible use as military barracks.

September–October 1914: Dr Francis Bather of the Geology Department reflects the anxieties of many when he writes in the Museum's journal: 'War is a great adjuster of values. Already its distant blaze throws into relief the vanities of life.' The flames, he wrote, shrivel up 'mere fripperies, till only that which is truly necessary has the strength to stand firm. And now even we museum curators may experience searchings of heart as we continue to enter our quiet halls to settle down to our accustomed routine'.


Bather's 'searchings' of his heart result in immediate action: he organises first aid training under the auspices of the Red Cross. Seventeen Museum officials attend and pass the training. There are two women among them, the palaeontologist Dorothea Bate, and Marjorie Bostock of the administrative staff.

12 October 1914: A lieutenant colonel of the Territorial Force applies for some of his men to visit the Natural History Museum for instruction, by their own Officers, on ‘the points of the horse’ and the ‘anatomy of the horse’, from specimens in the North Hall. Permission is granted and the North Hall is temporarily closed to the public.

17 October 1914: The Office of Works writes to the Museum suggesting that in view of the possibility of an attack on London by hostile aircraft, the Trustees might consider taking precautions to protect the most precious specimens, if they have not already done so.

22 October 1914: The Office of Works writes again, suggesting that the Spirit Building should be protected by a nine-inch (22.5cm) layer of sand spread over its roof.

29 October 1914: The Office of Works writes again, having worked out that the amount of sand they had suggested was more likely to lead to the collapse of the roof than protect it. ‘The only thing to be done, therefore, is to let the building take its chance’.

19 November 1914: Dr Francis Bather reports to the Trustees that the 17 members of staff who qualified as first aiders ‘are anxious to turn the knowledge acquired to some account’. He proposes they form a unit of the Voluntary Aid Detachment under the British Red Cross Society. To make sure work in the Museum is disrupted as little as possible, he suggests that no more than six personnel on any one day are on standby for emergency duty between 10.00 and 17.00.


Bather also suggests that perhaps two members of staff should give ‘not less than two hours' continuous service at a hospital daily… each taking duty once a week’. This means no one will be away from the Museum for more than two hours every 10 days. His proposals are accepted and the volunteers become the Natural History Museum Division of the 31st London Voluntary Aid Detachment.

28 November 1914: The Royal Naval Airship Station, Farnborough, sends the Museum (an air) balloon that has been damaged by some form of growth, asking what the cause is likely to be. The growth is examined by Charles Joseph Gahan, Keeper of Entomology. He reports: ‘Moths in rubbish left inside folds of the balloon when stored away appear to have caused the damage’.

December 1914–January 1915: At the request of the Admiralty, London University forms a Volunteer Anti-Aircraft Observation Corps, stationed at the top of the Imperial Institute Tower (now the Queen’s Tower at Imperial College) a few hundred yards behind the Museum.


The Museum is asked for volunteers from the ‘higher staff’. Sir Henry Miers, Principal of London University, requests that this is not included in the Museum’s minutes, as it is ‘inadvisable that any publicity should be given to the matter’. Five members of staff volunteer, including the Keeper of Zoology and future Museum Director, Dr Sidney Frederic Harmer.


A further seven members of staff enlist, bringing the total so far to 23.

23 January 1915: The Trustees instruct the Director, Dr Lazarus Fletcher, to prepare lists of members of the Museum staff absent on naval or military service, for exhibition in the entrance hall (now known as Hintze Hall) of the Museum. The Director informs the Trustees that the Volunteer Corps for Home Defence, Museum Section, has been formed – between 70 and 80 members of staff have indicated their wish to join. Recruits from neighbouring scientific institutions are also expected, to bring the corps to its full complement of 120 men. The troops are to drill in the Museum grounds during the remainder of the winter months, three evenings a week, from 4.45pm to 5.45pm. A pencilled amendment to this adds, ‘Provided that the grass on the Cromwell Road front be not used for drilling’.

25 February 1915: A letter is sent to the Museum from the Office of Works, marked Confidential. It states that attention has been directed to the danger, during the present crisis, ‘of bombs being conveyed into Public Offices, Museums etc, for the purpose of destroying property of national value or interest’. It suggests that all visitors who seek admission to the Museum and who carry bags or parcels should leave them with the doorkeepers or reveal the contents if they have to be taken into the building for business purposes.

27 February 1915: The Director reports to the Trustees that instructions have been given to the police ‘accordingly’. The Keepers report that objects of value have been removed from exhibition galleries ‘to places of greater safety, in view of the possible risk from bombs of hostile aircraft’. Zoological specimens of special rarity, including the great auk, the extinct starling of Mauritius and the dodo, have been placed in a steel case in the basement. The two most important geological department fossils, are, the Keeper Dr Arthur Smith Woodard reports, Archaeopteryx and the Piltdown skull.


The first is ‘already beneath four floors in the South East Pavilion’, and the second is ‘in a fire-proof safe in the Keeper’s room’. The Keeper of Mineralogy, George Thurland Prior, so far refuses to move anything, as he ‘has not considered the danger as sufficiently imminent to justify him in running the risk of damage to delicate specimens by removing them to other parts of the building not under his control’. However, ‘if considered desirable’, he would place a selection of the rarest and most valuable specimens in a safe in a suitable part of the basement. The vast insect collection is already in the basement, while the Keeper of Botany considers that his most valuable collection, the Sloane Herbarium, is ‘protected above by two floors’.


Happily for these irreplaceable specimens, the Keepers’ faith in the strength of the building is never put to the test.

11 March 1915: 2nd Lieutenant Duncan Hepburn Gotch of the 1st Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment, who was an assistant in the Imperial Bureau of Entomology based at the Museum, is killed at Neuve Chapelle. Twelve thousand allied troops are killed in this three-day battle, won by the British. German losses are 10,000 dead and nearly 2,000 taken prisoner. Gotch, who was 23 years old and had been at the front for just two months, is killed by machine-gun fire while leading the last remnants of his company. He was, says a fellow officer, ‘a brave, cheery, kindly, popular officer and we can ill afford his loss’. For the Principal of the Imperial Bureau, he was ‘one of the keenest and most willing assistants I have ever had, and showed every promise of making a name for himself as a scientific worker… his place will be hard indeed to fill’.

27 March 1915: The Director informs the Trustees at their monthly meeting of Lt Gotch’s death.

30 March 1915: A letter is sent by the Permanent Secretary of the Admiralty stating that the anti-aircraft defence of London has now reached the stage where it is no longer considered necessary for the volunteer look-out station on the top of the Imperial Institute Tower – now the Queen’s Tower at Imperial College – to be continued. The volunteers include five members of the Museum’s senior staff, whom the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty thank ‘for their arduous services during the winter months’.

23 April 1915: The War Office sends a circular letter suggesting that an appeal should be made by heads of departments to civil servants of recruitable age ‘to join the colours’, and suggests that their places could be taken by ‘suitable substitutes’. The letter draws attention to a statement from the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, ‘for the necessary permission to be given freely to their subordinates who are prepared to enlist. This is the form of military service of which the nation has the most pressing need’.


Until this point, just one further member of staff has enlisted in the military in 1915, bringing the total so far to 24.


Issue 22 of evolve is on sale now and the quarterly magazine is free to Members. Non-Members can copies in the Museum's shops.


Further WWI posts: