The Builder prepares the industry for the hardships which lie ahead following Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany

Air raid spotter London shutterstock

Source: shutterstock

An aircraft spotter searches the skies above London for German planes

The Builder’s response to the outbreak of the Second World War is notably different to how it reported the start of the First World War 25 years earlier.

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In 1914, the magazine published quite a poetic and rather flowery series of editorials reflecting on the historical significance of the event. Following prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, the coverage is much more sombre, steely and serious.

After wrongly predicting two days earlier that hostilities would be avoided, the magazine quickly kicked into gear. In the following weeks, it published a series of pieces instructing the industry on how it could contribute to the war effort and minimise disruption to business. 

Topics of the day, 1 September


BEHIND the national impassivity and calmness which have been noticeable features of the present state of crisis, a considerable degree of organising activity has been taking place in the building industry. The chief concern has been to devise a scheme for putting the building trade upon a war-time footing, for it is clear that in the event of hostilities commencing - for which this country and its Allies must stand prepared, though in our view the weight of probability is against it - building will certainly not come to a stop. Work such as the construction of camps for Militia and evacuation, munition factories and extension to and maintenance of factories, and a volume of replacement work due to aircraft operations (the extent of which we have no means of estimating but which we must all hope will be small) will necessarily proceed, as must also structural work for A.B.P., where this is not complete.

For this the services of some sections of the constructional professions, of materials manufacturers and of the operatives will be essential. Equally essential will be the need to ensure that at all times and in all places the full requirements of men and materials be made available for Government activity. It is clear that such arrangements can best be made within the industry and by the industry’s own representatives, working in conjunction with the Government, and this, in fact, is just what is in process of accomplishment. Of equal importance is the scheme - prepared by the Home Office in conjunction with Building Industries’ National Council - for setting up a Building Technical Advisory Committee which will provide official information on standards of protective design. This scheme is already in being, and is a work in which the Building Industries’ National Council has largely concerned itself, acting in its capacity as the central organisation of the British building industry.

In common with all rational persons in England and the world, we must fervently express the hope that the precautions which have been laid will never require to be set in motion. But until the dangers which threaten our peace and welfare, and the peace and welfare of others are dispersed, no effort must be relaxed to fit and equip ourselves for every eventuality. In this direction, the component sections of the building industry have played and are playing their parts.

The RIBA, as an example, has done good service by compiling a register of its members which, we have reason to believe, has been made good use of by the Government. The National Federation of Building Trades Employers last May advised its members that their duty was to get into touch with local authorities in order to assist in forming rescue and demolition squads for service in the event of aerial attack. The Operatives’ Federation has also done good work by encouraging its members to volunteer to man those squads - a work which is highly essential and can only be done effectively by experts. We gather from a broadcast last week by Mr. George Hicks, M.P. (President of the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives), that the squads were not then up to full strength. We fully expect that by this time the numerical deficiencies have largely been made good, but there is still room for additional members for a vital branch of defence, the importance of which is obvious.

For the rest, we are certain that each and every member of the industry can best fulfil his duty to the country by doing the work nearest at hand. By so acting, we can largely minimise the degree of economic disruption which is not the least important element of an international alarm.


Editorial, 8 September


THE organisation of the building industry for war purposes is a matter of concern to every branch of its widespread membership, not less than to the nation, and the manner in which the resources of the industry are organised, co-ordinated and directed is of vital national importance. Restriction of peace-time activities there must be, now that war has broken out, but it is obviously desirable that a responsible and organised industry should retain to the fullest measure its capacity for self-discipline.

Archives 1939 text

Text as printed in September 1939

Some measure of co-ordination of activities is, of course, necessary in the interests of efficiency, but when services are already being properly performed by a particular industry or its associated interests, there is a good case for effective liaison rather than the setting up of an entirely new and overlapping organisation.

There is the further and not less important aspect of the matter of control as it concerns the technical Press, whose main function during a time of urgent national crisis is that of a clearing-house of news, information and ideas relative to the immediate problems of the architectural profession and the constructional industry. It would be lamentable if the ability to discharge efficiently these highly important services were to be unreasonably curtailed by unnecessary bureaucratic interference, or if the established technical journals and other recognised media for the war-time dissemination of building news and information were to be supplanted by any improvised ad hoc organisation.

The additional function of the technical Press, not only to publish news and information, but also to criticise and, if necessary, to warn against tendencies inimical to the general interests of the country and the industry, is one that would be jealously guarded should occasion arise, which we trust it will not. It is in times of great national stress such as the present that undesirable courses may be embarked upon through sheer lack of time to consider them properly. It has been well said by the President of the Institute of Journalists that “in war time the Press, as a powerfully steadying influence, is an even greater asset than in times of peace. Its continuance is essential to the preservation of the public moral.” We believe this to be true not only of the daily Press but of the technical Newspapers serving the building industry whose membership - distributed among architects, engineers, surveyors, contractors, operatives, materials manufacturers and the many ancillary trades - amounts to nearly two millions.

We sincerely trust, therefore, that there may be no intention to interfere unnecessarily with the organisations and Press serving this large and vital section of the community.


Editorial, 15 September 


THE near fortnight that has elapsed since the outbreak of war has seen the scheme of normal national life shattered to bits and recast in strange shape. In no phase of activity has this enforced and unwelcome interference with normal pursuits been more marked than in the building industry, particularly in regard to the professions which serve it. With the exception of those architects and surveyors who were engaged on Government work at the declaration of war, hundreds of firms have seen their practices and consequently their livelihoods perish literally overnight.

Something is being done for some of these architects by the R.I.B.A. Emergency Panel, and by other agencies, but the plain fact emerges that while only a small proportion of approximately 10,000 architects over 30 on the Register have been absorbed into Government work, the remainder are on the “reserved” list, which forbids them to engage upon any full-time Government service outside their profession.

The contracting and materials supplying sides of the industry are not so badly placed as yet, for with Governmental defence work, A.R.P. buildings for local authorities, and a certain amount of shelter constructional work for private industry, there is a considerable amount of building to be done over the next six months.

What will happen when the present restricted but intense period of constructional activity is concluded must necessarily be a matter for conjecture, dependent on factors of which the chief are the likelihood of duration of the war, the extent and effectiveness of enemy aerial offensive, and the availability of personnel and materials. The two factors last mentioned naturally depend to a large extent upon the first, but present indications would seem to point to probable large reserves of technicians, operatives and materials.

This question, therefore, seems vital: Is this well-organised machine to be put to its normal function of producing tangible and lasting values, or is it to be allowed to rust in inaction? To this there should be one answer only, and we, therefore, propose an end to which the Government and the leaders of the building industry should direct their thoughts and energies when the present shock of impact has passed; that end is to plan a scheme of permanent decentralisation for London and the larger provincial cities in the form of rings of towns on the lines of Letchworth and Welwyn on which the energies of planners, architects and the whole building machine could be bent so soon as the urgent needs of defence are satisfied.

This war has already opened the eyes of whole sections of industry and commerce to the physical dangers of urbanisation. The rush to evacuate the great cities and the flight to the country of large numbers of business and professional establishments have, by the cost and inconvenience of the move, brought home a lesson which might have been read at any time in the last twenty years by those whose eyes were open in the living example of those new towns which have submitted themselves to the control of planning. We believe that it would be possible to guide metropolitan and other urban industry and business into decentralised new towns, provided those towns were ready before hostilities cease and normality returns. Such towns, were they commenced now, could well be used for the rehousing of those town- dwellers whose homes or essential buildings might be destroyed by enemy action; common-sense alone would seem to forbid in some areas their replacement on present sites.

We do not intend at present to enlarge upon this proposal, but we do urge consideration without delay of the means by which such a scheme could be planned and the energies and resources of the building industry harnessed to it. The suggestion that there should be appointed a Minister of Home Planning is not a new one, but there was never a time more than the present which cried out for an appointment on these lines carrying full executive powers, so that we may rescue something from the trials and dangers which lie before us, and the blunders and costliness of development following 1918 be not repeated.

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