War comes to Manchester

Requisitioning and its impact on College life

As early as October 1938, the College’s House Committee was discussing air raid precautions and approving the purchase of fire buckets and sandbags. A year later, news was received from the Ministry of Labour that students of theological institutions were to be classified as belonging to a reserved occupation, and would therefore be spared conscription while at their studies. From the start, Manchester was keen to ‘do its bit’, the Principal Reverend Robert Nicol Cross offering the Hall, JCR, and lecture rooms for officer recreation, an offer not taken up though considered by the headquarters of an anti-tank regiment. Olive Jacks, wife of former Principal Lawrence Jacks, suggested that the College should devote its buildings to work of ‘national usefulness’, and an emergency sub-committee comprising the Principal, Bursar, President, Chairman, and Librarian was formed to deal with any applications which might be made for use of the buildings. In October 1939 the Warrington Window and the Chapel window overlooking Mansfield Road were boarded up as a precaution against bomb blast and splinter damage. In June 1940 the Arlosh Hall was opened as a rest room for members of the forces and their friends at weekends. That December, oil paintings were stored in the Chapel vestibule, and the stained glass in the Chapel and the Library was wired with expanded metal, while normal windows were screened with adhesive netting in case of blast damage. As part of a city-wide and University-wide drive, moved along by the Registrar, the iron railings were removed from the Arlosh Quad to support the ‘scrap metal’ appeal. 


Plans to turn verdant quads into patriotic potato patches as part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign were thwarted when rubble was struck less than a spade down, and it was to be a full two years after war broke out before the College received its marching orders. These came on 17 October 1941, when the Ministry of Works wrote to the Principal explaining that ‘the whole of Manchester College, Oxford, including the Arlosh Hall’ was to be requisitioned. Initially, ‘the Chapel, Main Library, Kitchen and pantry, College Domestic Flat and the Hostel adjoining the College’ were to be left in the hands of the College authorities, something of a ‘share’ arrangement developing as College activities continued in some parts of the premises. But as the House Committee minutes show, College activities were increasingly squeezed into smaller spaces, and the requisition orders grew. The Library, though not requisitioned, was let to the military, its books moved to the Hostel and the New Bodleian. Then, the domestic facilities were taken over, as well as rooms in the Hostel. The enthusiasm that had been prevalent at the start of the war waned as the practicalities of requisition made themselves felt. Much of the correspondence, between College authorities and the military occupiers and Office of Works, was concerned with thing such as rates, rent, utility bills (who was responsible for what), times for lunch and dinner, and compensation for tutors using their homes as office space. As the Principal wrote, ‘requisitioning, like other vices, grows by what it feeds on, and the Ministry of Works commandeered both quads and the tennis court. The lawns have been submerged under a mushroom growth of white huts and sooty outpourings’. 


The requisition order extended to the College grounds, including the tennis court (on which secret papers were regularly incinerated), the vegetable garden, garden tools, and the fruit trees. Indicative of the quibbling that attended requisition as the College tried to rub along with the military, the Principal enquired as to whether the College could harvest the produce of the fruit trees. The Ministry’s ‘helpful’ suggestion was that he might seek to buy it back through the District Surveyor’s Department. A row of garages off Saville Row owned by the College was also taken over, though one occupant, Dr C. Noel Davis of 28 Holywell Street, was allowed to retain usage once he explained that he was covering for a young GP who had joined the forces, and therefore needed to be able to drive around the city attending patients. In addition, he explained, he was a member of one of the ‘Air Raid and Mobile Surgical Teams, appointed in connection with the Radcliffe Infirmary and Wingfield-Morris Hospital, for the care and treatment of Air Raid casualties’. 


The interiors of College rooms were altered by Manchester’s new occupants, the Library, for instance, emptied of books and equipped with chart racks, filing cabinets, chart presses, and drawing tables. The Principal described workmen putting up black-outs made of wooden frames and ‘rubberoid’ and installing telephones throughout the buildings. For security, given the highly secret nature of the work (those working in Section A didn’t know what those working in Section B, located in an adjacent hut, were doing), all College doors were fitted with Yale locks. Sentries monitored arrivals and checked passes in the entrance hall. An air raid shelter protected by sandbag revetments was established in the refuge beneath the Chapel, and the College housed water pumps in case of fire.  


Tutors were moved out of their rooms: Nicols Cross and the tutor-librarian, Reverend Raymond Holt, took tutorials in their own homes, and Reverend Professor D. C. Simpson, Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, in his Oriel rooms. Tutor Reverend L. A. Garrard worked from a small room adjoining the requisitioned Bursary, and mid-week services for the students were conducted at Holt’s house. An inspection by the Security Department in December 1942 objected to students walking through the corridors where, owing to an overflow of ISTD staff, ‘a lot of work has to be done’. Bassett told the Principal that it was ‘obviously impossible and would be silly for the girls to cover up maps, etc, when someone passes’. In May 1943, with the number of female staff rising, Bassett was obliged to approach Nicol Cross on the ‘somewhat delicate’ matter of ladies’ lavatory accommodation, requesting access to the toilet by the Library (eventually a new one was built in the Tate Quad). 


To increase workspace, single-storey huts were constructed in the Tate Quad and the Arlosh Quad. One of these austere buildings, housing the Norwegian Department of Section B, gathering and processing intelligence for military operations in Scandinavia, was described as a ‘single long room with a jungle of writing tables, drawing boards, archives, map drawers, bookshelves, dressboys, chairs and stools’. Long tables ran along the inner walls, large maps of Norway spread across them, with the section head’s table at the far end surrounded by telephones as well as a scrambler. The hut and its chilly concrete floor were inadequately heated by two coal-burners, and here, seven days a week, laboured twenty-five people, including Finn Dahl, cousin of Roald, and Wolmer Marlow, governor of Svalbard (Spitsbergen).3 

Photograph of letters including the requisition one and some of the notes from house committee one of the