Recording Loss and Destruction: the National Buildings Record in the Second World War

Originally produced to compliment Historic England's and IWM London's 'What Remains' exhibition, this gallery of images from the Historic England Archive tells the story of how a small body of men and women battled against the threat to England's cultural heritage during a time of war.

Potrait of a man carrying a yoke, with Herbert Felton in the background, Tonbridge, Kent (1942) by Frederick John Palmer, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Recording loss and destruction

The National Buildings Record (NBR) was formed during the Second World War to record architecture under the threat of destruction from aerial bombing. This exhibit of images from the Historic England Archive features the work of some of the NBR's dedicated wartime photographers and draftsmen. Often working in testing conditions, photographers such as Herbert Felton (pictured here), architect Margaret Tomlinson and conscientious objector George Bernard Wood, made records of the buildings that stood before the onslaught, and those that fell victim to high explosives and incendiaries.

Monument to Zachariah Mudge, Church of St Andrew, Catherine Street, Plymouth (1941) by John Newenham Summerson, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Architecture under threat

In late 1940, the aerial bombing of England's towns and cities was threatening the existence of the country's architectural heritage.

On 18 November 1940, 33 delegates representing 18 societies and public bodies sympathetic to the preservation of England's architecture, held a meeting at the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. Their aim was to initiate a scheme to create and compile a record of the nation's buildings of merit.

As a result of the meeting, the National Buildings Record (NBR) was formed. Its work began in earnest in February 1941.

A balcony of the facade of a bombed house on the north side of Gloucester Square, Southampton (1941-09-15) by Osbert Guy Stanhope CrawfordHistoric England

The National Buildings Record gets underway

The architect and antiquary Walter Hindes Godfrey was appointed the NBR's inaugural Director. He was to be assisted by the architecture journalist and historian John Summerson.

An article by Godfrey published in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects set out the NBR's aims:

The National Buildings Record has been formed because of the mutilation and destruction of English architecture by enemy attacks from the air. The protection of buildings is impossible, but it is within our power to make a record which will mitigate the loss by preserving the design for posterity. A set of measured drawings, a collection of careful sketches, or a series of well-taken photographs can do this and keep even the atmosphere of the building in being for future generations to study and admire. Such records are also invaluable if repair, restoration or reconstruction is ever thought advisable. (WH Godfrey, 1941, 'National Buildings Record', in Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, May 1941, 115).

Birmingham Town Hall, Victoria Square, Birmingham (1941) by George Bernard Mason, National Buildings RecordHistoric England


The NBR was funded through an annual grant given by the government's Treasury department. In its first year, it received £2,000 and this rose to £6,500 by 1944/5.

In addition, financial support was received from charitable donations, ranging from small sums given by sympathetic members of the public, to large grants from philanthropic bodies such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pilgrim Trust and the Leverhulme Trust.

Birmingham Town Hall

Birmingham was the third-most bombed English city during the Second World War after London and Liverpool. The Town Hall suffered some damage during a raid that hit the city centre in October 1940. When it was photographed by the NBR's GB Mason in 1941 (see previous image), there were few signs of damage, although precautions had been made with the blocking of some windows.

Read the List entry for the Town Hall.

The bomb-damaged Church of St Andrew, Guildhall and Municipal Buildings, Plymouth (1941) by CJ Palmer, National Monuments RecordHistoric England

Difficulties and inconvenience

In order to undertake their work, NBR staff were given permits to photograph bombed towns and cities. Despite these permits and advanced notification to local police, NBR photographers sometimes encountered inquisitive policemen and meddling members of the public. 

The bomb-damaged east wing of the Dolphin Inn, Heigham Street, Norwich, Norfolk (1942-05) by George Bernard Mason, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Police, old maids and cats

Photographing for the NBR was not always straight forward.

In Norwich, GB Mason was refused entry to photograph the interior of a house until the Dean of Norwich Cathedral intervened on his behalf. Mason described his experience:

...I was almost pulled inside & found myself surrounded by four garrulous old maids all barking at once and about a dozen cats! I only exposed one plate, what with moving furniture in order to see the walls a bit & coping with doors that kept opening to see if I was alright & shooing the cats off from brushing against my tripod legs. I assure I was sorry I had used that magic sesame 'the Dean'.

On two occasions, Mason's home in Birmingham was visited by the local police Criminal Investigation Department, who had never heard of the NBR.

Bomb-damaged houses on the High Street, Kingston upon Hull (1945) by George Bernard Wood, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Photographer GB Wood also encountered the police when on assignment in Hull:

Curiously, I am finding that exterior photographs take up more time than interiors, at present, owing to the nervy state of Hull citizens. As soon as I set up my camera, they inconvenience me in several ways; one person even insisted on taking me round to the Police Station - in spite of my permit! Result, half an hour's precious sunshine wasted.

A damaged statue amid rubble at the Church of All Saints, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London (1944) by John Newenham Summerson, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Danger and death on the Home Front

While members of the public and the police could be an inconvenience, the dangers of the war on the Home Front were also a reality. Over 66,000 UK civilians were killed by enemy action during the Second World War. At least two people associated with the NBR lost their lives on the Home Front.

The bomb-damaged Drury House, South Quay, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk (1941-09) by Edward Charles Le Grice, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

EC Le Grice, bombed in Norwich

In 1942, the Norwich-based photographer, Edward Charles Le Grice was preparing to send off his next batch of work to the NBR when an air raid damaged his home and shop, burying some of his photographs. An unexploded bomb near his darkroom caused further inconvenience.

Fortunately, Le Grice was physically unharmed but a letter from him to the NBR written shortly after the raid conveyed the shock of the incident and his stoic response to it.

Perspective drawing of the Loggia at Queen's House, Greenwich, Greater London (1933) by Edward C SherrinHistoric England

Casualties of war

The NBR Council member, the writer and photographer Francis James Mortimer, was injured by a flying bomb while on his way to work in June 1944 and later died of his injuries.

The architect and draughtsman, Edward Sherrin, was wounded while serving with a paratroop regiment in Italy and invalided out of the army. Sherrin had donated some of his pre-war drawings to the NBR. Keen to contribute further, he joined the NBR but was tragically killed soon afterwards by a flying bomb.

The drawing illustrated here is one that Sherrin gave to the NBR in around 1943.

Measured drawing of buildings in Dix's Field, Exeter, Devon (1943-09) by G Bryan-Brown, National Buildings Record and John Newenham Summerson, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Methods of recording

The NBR considered architectural plans and measured drawings as the most important and valued form of record. However, a comprehensive measured survey scheme could not be implemented due to the cost in time and resources. The urgency of war-time conditions meant that photography was the most practical way to record threatened buildings.

Dix's Field, Exeter

Scores of historic buildings in Exeter were destroyed or severely damaged during air raids in spring 1942. The following year, John Summerson undertook measured surveys of damaged buildings in the city. These measurements and photographs of the building enabled the draughtsman BG Bryan-Brown to created detailed records prior to their eventual demolition.

View some of the Dix's Field records.

The site is now occupied by a car park and civic centre. The surviving houses were Listed Grade II* in 1953.

Read the List entry for 13-15 Dix's Field.

Watercolour measured drawing of Market Place, Blandford Forum, Dorset (1943-11) by Arthur Todd PhillipsHistoric England

Blandford Forum, Dorset

This delightful watercolour of buildings in the historic market town of Blandford Forum was created by Arthur Todd Phillips.

Prior to the war, Phillips was a Senior Investigator with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. He served as a Staff Captain in the Royal Engineers until 1942 when he was invalided out.

Phillips then worked for the NBR as a photographer and draughtsman, producing a number of detailed watercolours of historic buildings and streets in the south of England.

Market Place, Blandford Forum, Dorset

A great fire destroyed much of the centre of Blandford in 1731. The subsequent rebuilding has resulted in it being celebrated as one of England's best Georgian developments. It is little wonder that the NBR was enthusiastic about recording it.

During the Second World War, Blandford was the headquarters of 50th Division of V Corps, which was responsible for the defence of the Dorset coast. The town was also the site of an 'anti-tank island' defence system, prepared to counter invading forces. Despite its significance, the town received little damage from aerial bombing.

Herbert Felton's darkroom, Beech Bowls, Quarry Wood Road, Cookham Dean, Windsor and Maidenhead (1944/1946) by Herbert Felton, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

NBR photographers

New photography was produced by official NBR photographers and through commissions. During the war years, four photographers operated continuously: Herbert Felton (his darkroom is pictured here), George Bernard Mason, Margaret Tomlinson and George Bernard Wood. Perhaps the most notable photographer commissioned by the NBR during the war was Bill Brandt.

The Church of St John the Evangelist, Red Lion Square, Camden, Greater London (1941/1943) by Herbert Felton, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Herbert Felton

Herbert Felton was the NBR's first official staff photographer, appointed in May 1941.

His pre-war work for the Architect and Building News put him in contact with its assistant editor, and future Deputy Director of the NBR, John Summerson.

Felton was paid £250 a month, out of which he had to pay for his petrol and photographic materials. He printed his negatives in his home-darkroom in Buckinghamshire.

In later years, Summerson described Felton as a 'ruddy grey-haired bohemian with a generous heart, a schoolboy sense of humour; a fine photographer but with an incorrigible preference for picturesque views over disciplined recording.'

Site of the Church of St John the Evangelist, Camden, London

Red Lion Square was laid out in the 1680s. The Church of St John the Evangelist was built in 1874-8 in the south-west corner of the square. The NBR's Herbert Felton photographed the church in its ruined state after it was severely damaged by a parachute mine in 1941 (see previous image). The site remained derelict until after the war when it was redeveloped for the Holborn College of Law, Languages & Commerce. It is now home to the University of Westminster.

Ford's Hospital, Greyfriars Lane, Coventry (1941) by George Bernard Mason, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

George Bernard Mason

George Bernard Mason produced thousands of photographs for the National Buildings Record. He was described by John Summerson as 'the greatest discovery and the champion producer of results of the highest competence'.

Mason used both a film camera and plate camera. His preferred method was to work in a circuit around the outside of a building, waiting for the best sunlight to illuminate each elevation and architectural details.

In recognition of his outstanding contribution to recording the threatened historic buildings of the nation, Mason was awarded an MBE in 1960.

Ford's Hospital, Coventry

Ford's Hospital, an early 16th-century almshouse, was severely damaged by a high explosive bomb in 1940. Eight residents and staff were killed. Much of the building's timbers survived, enabling it to be reconstructed in 1951-3 by the local architecture practice of WS Hattrell & Partners.

Read the List entry for Ford's Hospital.

The bombed ruins of the Church of St Andrew, Aveton Gifford, Devon (1944-01-01/1944-07-17) by Margaret Tomlinson, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Margaret Tomlinson

Margaret Tomlinson was a trained architect and skilled photographer. She had been photographing architecture since around 1930, supplying photographs to architects and journals.

Tomlinson began photographing for the NBR in January 1942. Some of her most important work captured the destruction wrought on the city of Exeter following the 'Baedeker Raids' of spring 1942.

After the war, Tomlinson worked as an Investigator with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, creating lists of historic buildings worthy of protection. She also worked for the revived Victoria History of the Counties of England.

Discover more about Margaret Tomlinson and the work of other women photographers in the Historic England Archive.

Read the List entry for the Church of St Andrew.

The clock and dome in the Corn Exchange, Call Lane, Leeds (1941) by George Bernard Wood, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

George Bernard Wood

Following the receipt of a donation from the Rockefeller Foundation, the NBR was able to employ GB Wood to photograph buildings at risk in the north of England.

Wood was a journalist and freelance photographer. He was also a strict Baptist and conscientious objector. A letter written by the NBR's Director, Walter Godfrey, supported Wood's case to work for the NBR when he faced a conscientious objector tribunal in October 1941.

Wood's successful appeal enabled him to work for the NBR throughout the war, and resulted in an association that lasted for over thirty years.

Corn Exchange, Leeds

The Corn Exchange was built in 1861-3 to designs by the Hull-born architect, Cuthbert Brodrick. Other major works by Brodrick include Leeds Town Hall and the Grand Hotel, Scarborough - all three were photographed by the NBR's GB Wood.

Leeds was subjected to relatively few bombing raids during the Second World War. However, a raid on the night of 14/15 March 1941 damaged the town hall and museum, destroying a number of artefacts.

Read the List entry for the Corn Exchange.

Monument to Dean Charles Fotherby, Christchurch Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent (1941-12) by Bill Brandt, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Bill Brandt

Bill Brandt was one of the 20th century's most influential photographers. Born in Hamburg in 1904, he learned portrait and street photography in Vienna and Paris. In the 1930s he settled in London and documented life in England and photographed for Lilliput and Picture Post magazines.

In 1940 he was commissioned by the Ministry of Information, photographing Londoners sheltering from the Blitz.

Between 1941 and 1943, Brandt was commissioned to photograph for the NBR. The Historic England Archive now holds 446 of his negatives and prints taken during this period.

Christchurch Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent

In December 1941, Bill Brandt photographed a number of monuments in Christchurch Cathedral on behalf of the NBR. This was prior to the 'Baedeker Raids' of the following spring and summer that targetted cities regarded for their cultural value. While parts of the city centre was badly hit, the cathedral received only minor damage.

Read the List entry for Christchurch Cathedral.

Monument to Sir Richard Reynell and family, Church of St Mary, Wolborough, Devon (1944-08/1945-08) by Margaret Tomlinson, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

The legacy of the NBR

Despite concerns about its future role after the war, the NBR did survive after the end of hostilities. Post-war redevelopment and the threats to country house estates provided plenty of work for its photographers, and its records and staff contributed to the official heritage protection policies that were formulated during the 1940s.

Group portrait of the team to compile the first list of Buildings of Historic Interest (1947) by Unknown photographer, Westmoreland StudiosHistoric England

The National Heritage List for England

The work of the NBR and its staff contributed to the post-war policy of protection of the nation's historic environment.

The listing of buildings of special architectural or historical interest was established in the Town and Country Planning Acts of 1944 and 1947.

Both Walter Godfrey and John Summerson served on the Advisory Committee established by the 1944 Act, and photographer Margaret Tomlinson was a member of the team of investigators that undertook listed building survey work in 1947.

This photograph shows the group of investigators engaged to compile the first list under the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. Sat in the centre of the front row is Margaret Tomlinson.

Today, Historic England manages the list in its current form, the National Heritage List for England.

The National Monuments Record Centre, Churchward, Swindon (1994-02-10) by Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

The Historic England Archive

In 1963 the NBR merged with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) - a body established in 1908 to produce an inventory of historic monuments by county and parish, and which had suspended its operations at the beginning of the war.

In 1999 the RCHME merged with English Heritage, a public body responsible for heritage protection and the management of historic sites in public ownership. In 2015, this body divided into two. One part, called Historic England protects and champtions the historic environment. It also maintains the Historic England Archive - the working descendant of the NBR.

This aerial photograph shows the offices of Historic England and its purpose-built archive store. The Historic England Archive houses over twelve million photographs, drawings and documents, including the NBR's wartime records.

Over a million records can be searched online.

The remains of 25-36 Southernhay West, Exeter, Devon (1942-05-04/1942-06-25) by Margaret Tomlinson, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

Culture Under Attack

The exhibition, What Remains, held at IWM London between 5 July 2019 and 5 January 2020, explored why cultural heritage is attacked during war, and the ways we save, protect and restore what is targeted.

Created in partnership with Historic England, it considered why cultural heritage is attacked during conflict. Over 50 photographs, oral histories, objects and artworks from the collections of IWM and Historic England were displayed.

What Remains was part of Culture Under Attack, a free season of three exhibitions, live music, performances and talks at IWM London that explored how war threatens not just people's lives, but also the things that help define us.

Culture Under Attack

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Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England's spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops.

Discover the Historic England Archive

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