The title of today’s blog post comes from the first stanza of the poem Slough, by John Betjeman.
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
Sometimes, when searching through the catalogue (inevitably for other things), files leap out that simply have to be investigated. For instance HO 199/301 “British bombs and other devices accidentally dropped on England by British aircraft” (somewhat shamefacedly subtitled “also British mines”) does essentially what it says on the tin. But it’s an intriguing tin. However, even better is the neighbouring file from 1942, the bafflingly monikered “Journalistic astrology”. I wanted to know what journalistic astrology was. My guess was that newspaper columnists were making uncomfortably accurate predictions of military decisions but the truth is slightly stranger.
Luxury is not a word that naturally springs to mind when we think about the Second World War, but last month I went to a fascinating lecture that connected these two topics. Design historian Neil Taylor’s talk, which formed part of the Archives for London seminar series, offered a thought-provoking insight into the place of luxury goods in the UK’s wartime economy.
I was struck by Neil’s observation that the black and white photographs of the period encourage us to think of the ‘home front’ as drab and grey, when the truth was rather more complicated. For many of the economic and social elite, life remained rather colourful. The onset of war actually opened up new luxury markets. (My favourite example was a crocodile-skin gas mask box!) In later years, rationing and the ‘make-do and mend’ spirit encouraged a brisk trade in high-quality second-hand furniture and clothing. A little luxury certainly helped to boost the morale of those who could afford it.
Although most wartime industry was given over to munitions or essential goods, a small trade in manufacturing and selling luxury items, such as silk scarves, continued throughout the war. Most of these were intended for the export market, particularly to the USA. The government encouraged this small-scale export of luxury items because it made wealthy Americans more likely to think of Britain and use their influence support its cause.
Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8876 3444
All content is available under the Open Government Licence v2.0,
except where otherwise stated