On a balmy late summer Sunday, at 11.15 am on 3rd September 1939, the nation held its breath as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sombrely broadcast a statement announcing the start of hostilities:"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
New Court prepares
A week before war was declared, 60% of the clerical staff and 'records and books of value' were evacuated from New Court to Tring Park, the country estate which had been inherited by Victor, 3rd Lord Rothschild (1910-1990). Precautions to protect New Court were taken, and the office was equipped with fire-fighting apparatus and gas-proof curtains. A first-aid room was installed, and the dining room in the basement was strengthened to take the weight of the building. A fire-watching rota was organised, with tin hats issued to the fire-watchers. The City Corporation requested permission to erect in the courtyard a container holding 5,000 gallons of water which would serve both New Court and surrounding buildings. During the Battle of Britain, air-raid warnings were frequent and, according to the pre-arranged plan, staff evacuated the upper storeys of New Court and carried on their work in the dining room, and other areas thought to be less vulnerable to damage.
New Court and the Blitz
The Blitz (from German Blitzkrieg, ‘lightning war’) was the period of sustained strategic bombing of the United Kingdom. Between 7 September 1940 and 21 May 1941 there were major aerial raids on 16 British cities. Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London.
The first big attack on the City by the German Luftwaffe came on 29th December 1940; New Court sustained minor damage. The most serious raid was on the bright moonlit night of the 10th May, 1941, when the City was again attacked, and St Swithin's Lane showered with incendiaries. According to a report in the Archive by P.C. Hoyland, a Rothschild clerk on fire-watching duty that night, New Court was at very real risk of total destruction.
"Soon the crash of high explosive bombs was was heard, flares were dropped, followed by showers of incendiaries which lit up the whole of the sky. The main early attack appeared to be in the direction of St. Paul's Churchyard and lower Queen Victoria Street, and a large number of bombs were of the screaming variety. The air was soon filled with smoke and dust of demolished buildings and from time to time, amidst the crashes of the bombs, our fighters could be heard machine-gunning the German planes... at one time there was blinding flash and a terrific explosion. A shower of missiles, consisting of blocks of concrete and bits of pavement, were hurled into the air. Some of these landed in the courtyard, others on New Court itself..."
The fire services could not control the blaze, as there was a general shortage of water; water could not be pumped from the Thames because of an unusually low tide. By 4am New Court was surrounded by fire, but the Auxiliary Fire Service were eventually able to pump water from the river to control the flames. However it was not until about midday on Sunday that New Court was considered to be out of danger.
The bombing did not achieve its intended goals of demoralising the British into surrender or significantly damaging their war economy, and in comparison to the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, the Blitz resulted in relatively few casualties. Three members of the bank staff were killed on active serivice during the Second World War; their names are recorded on the New Court War Memorial.
New Court survived these dark days intact, until the early 1960s, when the old building, which had stood for just over a century, was torn down and replaced by a gleaming glass and marble structure in keeping with the new age.
Read a full transcript of the Report here »
RAL reference: RAL 000/2214