The Destruction of Brewers’ Hall

11 January 2021

Imagine leaving the office for Christmas, shutting the door behind you and perhaps glancing back into the courtyard …

…and returning to work in January to find it looking like this!

Eighty years ago, on the night of 29 December 1940, the second Brewers’ Hall was destroyed in an enemy air raid. It was the night London suffered its most devastating air raid, with waves of incendiary bombs causing fires which engulfed areas of London, particularly in the City. An American reporter telegraphing the news back to the US called it ‘The second Great Fire of London’ – and an area larger than in the Great Fire was destroyed. Over 100,000 incendiary bombs fell that evening, with fires taking hold and spreading in the high wind. Among many other buildings, 19 City churches and 31 livery halls were destroyed that night. Fire-fighters were hampered by a lack of water, caused by bomb-damaged water mains, low pressure due to the number of pumps being used and a low tide on the Thames meaning fire boats couldn’t be used and any hoses and pumps pulling water from the river getting clogged with mud. Fortunately the planned second wave of high explosive bombs was called off due to worsening weather in France where the planes should have taken off from.

The next day saw the publication of the now well-known photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral standing undamaged amid the smoke and flames. In the Brewers’ Archives we have discovered our own photograph of the Hall site with the dome of St Paul’s visible through the gaps caused by flattened buildings, not a view we are familiar with today. Judging by the ‘tidiness’ of the site and the undergrowth, our photo was taken some time after the event, but, as we discovered in December’s story from the archives, permission to build a new Hall wasn’t granted until 1958, with the project taking another two years to complete.

We’ll take a look at the old Stuart hall - which had been built after the first hall was destroyed by the original Great Fire of London of 1666 - in another story, but virtually nothing of it survived except some small pieces of leaded window-panes which have been kept. It was very fortunate that the Company’s important records had been placed in the custody of the Guildhall Library (where they remain safely to this day), and so were saved from destruction. Other items were saved by having been kept in a fire-proof safe; among these was the Company’s Scrapbook, the edges of the pages of which were charred by the intense heat of the fire.

The Court met on 9 January 1941. They “heard with regret of the destruction of Brewers Hall by fire due to enemy action on the night of Sunday December 29th, and thanked the Master for his kindness in providing the Company with an office at The Cannon Brewery [St John Street, Clerkenwell]. It was reported that the Beadle and his wife had put out all the incendiary bombs which fell on the Hall but were then driven out the by the fire in neighbouring premises, losing all their possessions and narrowly escaping with their lives.”

This was a problem across the City – although the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940 made it compulsory to have fire watchers on duty at all times, it only applied to premises with more than 30 employees or warehouses over a certain size. Many premises in the City remained locked and unattended. Incendiary bombs were small – about 35 x 5cm and weighing just one kilo – and could easily be dealt with using a bucket of sand, as long as you got to it before the magnesium casing caught light.

The Beadle, William John Harvey, had held the office since 1929 and lived onsite. He had already tendered his resignation for 1941, but a successor wasn’t appointed until the new Hall was ready in 1960.