Virtual Walking Tour of Senate House
This virtual tour is based on the route of a walking tour organised by the Institute of English Studies for the Being Human festival. It illuminates the hidden history of the University of London’s Senate House by exploring parts of the building that were used by the Ministry of Information during the Second World War.
Senate House was designed to be the focal point of the University of London and was opened in 1937. The building was intended to impress and its design was at the cutting edge of interwar design and technology. But the University was evacuated just two years later due to the threat of war – and the Ministry of Information moved in.
The Ministry of Information was a department with a wide range of responsibilities. It issued official news, publicised the activities of other government departments, designed propaganda campaigns, monitored public opinion, and was responsible for censorship. This work was made possible by its occupation of Senate House.
Our tour starts on the ground floor. This is dominated by two large halls. The Beveridge Hall (which was designed for lectures) was used as the Ministry’s Press Room. Every newspaper with a London office was provided with a desk and telephone inside the hall, and a wooden platform was built at one end for the distribution of press releases. Around 100 journalists would be based in the room at any one time.
The smaller Macmillan Hall was used for press conferences and briefings. Its dining facilities were initially retained for the press when it was not being used for such purposes but were replaced by a purpose-built canteen in 1940. It was from this room that William Beveridge outlined his plans for ‘Social Insurance’ in 1942.
The Ministry’s censors were initially based in basement beneath these halls. Stories were passed to them by the journalists via a system of pneumatic tubes. Two drafts would be sent for scrutiny, with one copy kept on file, and the second returned bearing an official stamp and any changes marked in blue pencil. The stories would then be telephoned back to Fleet Street for publication.
The Ministry’s top officials were based in offices on the first floor. The Minister of Information used the Principal’s Room (No. 129) which had its own bathroom facilities and coal fire. The atmosphere on the first floor was very different from the bustle of the press room, and journalists often criticised the Ministry’s officials for not understanding the nature of their work.
Tensions were also evident in the Chancellor’s Hall. This was one of the only rooms large enough to house meetings of the Ministry’s Policy Committee. But it was also the only room with views over the building’s main entrance and became an armoury for Senate House’s Home Guard unit. The result was that meetings were often interrupted by military drills!
The Ministry of Information’s ‘Home Division’ was located on the second floor of Senate House. This was responsible for managing domestic publicity campaigns. While the floor is now home to the School of Advanced Studies, its labyrinthine corridors are relatively unchanged since the 1930s and give a sense of what it would have been like to work inside the Ministry. Around 30 members of the Home Division worked from rooms now used by the Institute of English Studies.
The Ministry was also responsible for monitoring civilian morale. This was the task of the Home Intelligence division which was based in Rooms 222 and 224. After 1940, it used both qualitative and quantitative methods to monitor opinion and measure the impact of the Ministry’s campaigns. Its findings were written into weekly reports for government circulation and more specialist reports on particular topics (they covered everything from reactions to air raids to ‘hairdressing difficulties’).
The work undertaken in these offices shaped the way that the British public experienced the Second World War – and have shaped the way that it is remembered today. This process is being explored by the Institute of English Studies through their AHRC-funded project ‘A Publishing and Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’.
Senate House walking tours is just one of many activities during Being Human which connects cutting edge research in the humanities to issues shaping our everyday lives. For updates on the latest Being Human news follow us on Twitter @BeingHumanFest, on Facebook, and on Pinterest. Don’t forget to sign up to our e-newsletter too! You can find out more about the Ministry of Information project by visiting http://www.moidigital.ac.uk/ or by following @moidigital on Twitter.