31st October 1939

[Air Raid] Shelters are now being dug on the west side of Colchester Castle, along the top of the western ramparts.

Colchester Castle Park Air Raid Shelters
Recent research by Howard Brooks and Ben Cooke, on behalf of Colchester Borough Council, records that there were three main sets of ARP shelters in Colchester Castle Park. These were: firstly, the shelters inside the Castle Vaults, secondly, outside shelters located in the Castle Rose Beds to the south east of the Castle and thirdly, outside shelters in the Hollytrees Meadow. There were also ARP trenches dug in Castle Park near Ryegate Road, to the west of the Castle, and it is probably these trenches that Eric refers to in this diary entry.

27th October 1939

Work began yesterday taking down the old house in Culver Street. At first they allowed the ARP Demolition men to go at it like mad bulls, smashing and crashing with axes and hammers. I went to see Orchard (of Colchester Borough Corporation's Engineer's Department) and told him that this would not do, so he agreed, with bad grace to employ carpenters when it comes to taking down the actual hall.

The [Museum] Committee have agreed that the hall timbers may be stored in the Castle, where they will no doubt make an untidy pile for years to come.

The Phoney War

The period from September 1939 to April 1940 became known as the 'Phoney War' because little military activity appeared to take place in Western Europe. With the exception of the Polish Campaign, the opposing powers were largely concerned with continuing their military preparations for future engagement. In Britain, the expected air attacks had not materialised but wartime regulations such as the blackout were maintained, adding to the sense of uncertainty. This is apparent in Eric's diary entries from this period in which he continues his museum work as normal but also records how wartime developments are impacting on daily life.

17th October 1939

Air Raid Alarm at 1.35pm today. For some reason I was too excited to feel frightened when the siren sounded. I had the Vaults open in a second, and 156 people came in. ... The all-clear was at 2.05pm. No planes came over. I went up on the roof twice, but there was nothing to be seen. ...

Museum Committee this afternoon. The ancient house in Culver Street is finally doomed – no further efforts are to be made, and it is to be demolished forthwith. Our fight for 6 years has been lost.

The ancient 15th century house in Culver Street was a timber-framed hall-type building, which Rudsdale had argued should be preserved for its historical and architectural merit.

The skeleton of the ancient house in Culver Street, prior to demolition (Courtesy of Essex Record Office)

5th October 1939

Wrote to Maitland [Eric's cousin] today, telling him that this Museum was still at work in spite of the war. From the Museums Journal this month I gather that at least 75% of the museums in this country are shut, and I fear that many of them may never reopen. The hasty packing of exhibits must have resulted in a terrible amount of damage being done.

Many museums had closed at the start of the war to allow staff to pack away precious objects as a precaution against air raids. Despite Eric's fears, however, two-thirds of Britain's museums did reopen during the war and continued to provide a service. For more information on the history of Britain's museums in the Second World War, please see my article here. CP

The 'Museums Journal', is a monthly publication produced by the Museums Association, which is the representative body for museum workers.