Protecting the Medieval Manuscripts of Worcester Cathedral in the Second World War

From c.1817 until 2001 the Cathedral librarian wrote an annual report to Chapter. These prove revealing about what was happening[i]. The preparations to protect the manuscripts in case of air raids in the years just before the Second World War provide one of the most interesting examples.

“With the falling of war’s shadow the visits of scholars have steadily declined from month to month, and even from the windows of the library one gets the feeling that, once again, the lights of Scholarship “are going out, one by one, over Europe.” Scholars are the life of such a Library as ours, and without scholars to handle them, the very manuscripts themselves seem to be losing life” [ii].

Despite his assessment, Ivor Atkins the librarian, writing in 1939, was still optimistic that research was only being held up and was pleased that four or five Americans were continuing to carry out studies of the Worcester manuscripts. 

Sir Ivor Atkins in 1921. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

From 1933 Ivor Atkins, who was the Cathedral choirmaster and organist, had also taken on the role of librarian. The range of scholars who requested photographs, information or access to manuscripts was as great then as it is today. Scholars and students were noted from many countries[iii]. All were carefully listed together with their subject of interest, the manuscripts they wished to consult, and if any publications resulted from their work.

A page of the 1938 librarian’s report. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

However, in 1938 the librarian’s annual report took on a different tone with a detailed record of air raid precautions to protect the Library beginning to be planned in the event of another war. There had clearly been some debate on the matter, but at first Atkins took the view that it would only be possible to save a dozen of the most important manuscripts and about half that number of the most important archive documents. Atkins had consulted with Dr. H. H. E. Craster at the Bodleian library, Oxford University. Craster thought the likelihood of Worcester being targeted by an air raid small. He informed Atkins of the construction of a strong room in the basement of the New Library (Oxford) to protect the books and other treasures, but until that was ready, they were to be placed in safes and then heavily sandbagged in an underground chamber. Craster invited Atkins to see these preparations at Oxford. Atkins in fact made two visits to Oxford and spoke to members of the library staff enabling him to suggest steps to the Chapter on 29th January 1939.

Atkins recommended buying a hundred sandbags, to be filled with dry sand which would be heaped on a trolley to protect the safe containing the manuscripts. The Chapter did not agree to these proposals at first. Once the prospect of war became inevitable Atkins made a new list of twenty-five manuscripts and archive registers to be saved. He then worked out that three small safes would protect this amount of material and the Dean agreed to their purchase. They chose an area in a recess formed by “exceptionally strong columns of masonry to the north of the altar in the crypt.[iv].

One of the arched recesses near the altar in the crypt where the safes were located. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The three monastic registers he wished to save were all reasonable choices given the limit he had set himself[v]. Atkins explained his thinking as to his choices of manuscripts[vi]. He realized the need to save as many of the tenth and eleventh century manuscripts as could be fitted into the safes, or he chose items because they were unique, or nearly so, or as having special significance to Worcester. Given that they had decided to save so few, Atkins admitted that it was a very difficult choice, and that some of the choices were down to his feelings which would not have been the same if someone else had chosen them.

Atkins soon realized that he had to do more to protect not only the other manuscripts, but the earliest printed books including the incunabula[vii]. He noticed that the organ blowing chamber was made of stone and also completely enclosed in the crypt.

The door to the old organ blowing chamber. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The Dean ensured three sets of steel shelves were fitted into this room, so that by the beginning of September 1939 they could begin to move all the manuscripts and many of the most important archive documents to this new temporary home by lowering them to the nave floor from the Library in an improvised cage. Curtains were fitted to both sides of each steel bookcase to protect items from dust. They then decided that electric heating would help protect the manuscripts from damp. To do this, tubes were placed in the centre of each steel bookcase and on the lowest shelf. However, no plans were made to protect any of the other printed books still in the Library or the rest of the archive.

In 1942, the British Museum offered to take a handful of Worcester’s most important manuscripts and documents and store them in a deep mine at Bradford upon Avon[viii]. They included the very earliest manuscript fragments dating to the 7th and 8th centuries, twenty-four complete manuscripts, four monastic registers, the will of King John, the Prince Uhtred charter and Saint Wulfstan’s charter[ix]. They were returned in 1946.

The Prince Uhtred charter of 770 AD. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

With hindsight the plans to save the Library’s treasures might seems somewhat limited and especially today with knowledge of what was destroyed elsewhere during air raids. Nevertheless, thanks to Atkins’ recognition that he had to draw up plans even before the outbreak of war, use his initiative and act promptly rather than wait for orders, he ensured that the Cathedral’s manuscripts were protected at the outbreak of war.

David Morrison


[i] WCM A398 i-v

[ii] WCM A398(iv)f.131

[iii] Germany, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, the United States of America, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand, France and England

[iv] WCM A398(iv) f.129

[v] A2, A3, A4

[vi] F24, F48, F63, F85, F91, F142, F160, F163, F172, F173, F174, F176, F177, Q1, Q5, Q7, Q18, Q21, Q28, Q50, Q74, Q78B,

[vii] Incunabula are books printed before the year 1501.

[viii] The original copy of the report had been lost in the post-war era. However, a copy in the Chapter Minutes reveals that these were dropped off at Hereford Cathedral and then delivered by the Dean of Hereford on 1st July 1942.

[ix] WCM A303(i) Chapter Minutes 1942-1946, pp.33-34

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