From the archives: the Charterhouse in the Second World War

The museum at the Charterhouse looks after a collection of documents, artefacts and artworks relating to the history of our charity and its community. Every object tells a part of the Charterhouse story, and every so often we find something in the collection that fills in a bit more detail. This summer we made two such discoveries relating to the defining event of the twentieth century for the Charterhouse: the Blitz.

First, in a small cardboard box labelled Charterhouse 1929/30, we found a set of glass-plate negatives: photographs of the rooms and courtyards of the Charterhouse. Images of the pre-war buildings are plentiful – the Charterhouse was a famous sight of old London, and tourists could buy postcards featuring the Great Hall and Norfolk Cloister – but these pictures offer some less typical views, including interiors now lost and buildings long-since demolished. After digitising the negatives and inverting the colours to reveal the true images, we found cars parked outside the gatehouse, and the cozy, carpeted Brothers’ Library.


The second find, on several stapled sheets of yellowed paper, were the minutes of the Governors’ Assembly meetings in the 1930s and 40s, copied from the originals at some point after the conclusion of the Second World War. In the notes, the Master, Rev. Edward St George Schomberg, and his staff discussed the necessary precautions to protect the Charterhouse community from the looming threat of war. We read that, in 1938, a plan was formulated to evacuate the Brothers to Charterhouse School in Godalming. By 1941 the Master was arguing that it would be better for the Brothers to stay put in London and act as fire watchers. He wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflecting on the heaviest night of bombing so far, when a third of the City of London had been destroyed by fire – the damage would have been ‘very small’, Schomberg wrote, ‘if premises had been guarded against fire, as ours were.’

Despite their vigil, the Charterhouse would not escape the devastation. Attached to the Assembly papers is a report from the Master dated 19th May 1941. He wrote:

The Charterhouse was hit by fire bombs through the night of Saturday 10th May. The Brothers and staff succeeded in putting out several fires and saving anything that could be moved. By 6.30am on Sunday it was noticed that the roof was on fire – either caused by flying sparks or another bomb that may have smouldered, unnoticed, for several hours. The fire brigade began to get the blaze under control, but their water supply failed in the morning and no water was available until the late afternoon, by which time the fire had spread to destroy most of the interior of the Tudor mansion.

The Master noted that when the fire was finally extinguished, everyday life at the Charterhouse went on:

But continued occupation of the bomb-damaged site was unrealistic. The plans for evacuation were revisited and the community moved out of the Charterhouse while the Governors debated its restoration. The architects Seely and Paget were appointed to oversee the restoration of the historic buildings and the creation of new accommodation for the Brothers, and funding was secured from the War Damages Commission.

With the fire of 1941 in mind, let us return to the box of negatives, where one image in particular caught the eye.

This is the best photograph known of the Great Staircase of the Tudor mansion, revealing details that were previously hard to make out. The staircase was built for Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, who owned the house at the beginning of the seventeenth century, to give access to the Great Chamber on the first floor.

Thomas Sutton purchased the Charterhouse from Suffolk in 1611 and died later the same year. The Governors appointed to manage his charity set about commemorating his charitable legacy. They commissioned an ostentatious monument for the Chapel and filled the house with symbols relating to the Founder. The stone chimney piece in the Great Hall to this day features cannon, barrels of gunpowder and ammunition, referring to Sutton’s position as Master of the Ordnance in the North, where he supplied Elizabeth I’s defence against the Scots. Sutton is thought to have been present at the bombardment of Edinburgh Castle, held for Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1573. The martial theme is continued on Sutton’s monument in the Chapel, where the central inscription is flanked by men-at-arms.

A closer look at the photograph of the staircase allows us to inspect the details and see, for the first time, some of those references to Thomas Sutton repeated. It is assumed that symbols relating to the Earl of Suffolk – including a coat of arms – were removed to make way for Sutton. Again, we see cannon and barrels referring to the Ordnance and, on the opposite side, body armour, helmets, and spear-type weapons.

The head of a greyhound features prominently above the helmets and again as a carved finial. The greyhound was part of the heraldic device used to commemorate Thomas Sutton. As a commoner, he was not entitled to a coat of arms – this one was procured for his use after his death by the Governors – and the greyhound crest that came with it became the symbol of the charity.

The hallway was destroyed in the fire of 1941 and the Great Staircase, probably the best-preserved Jacobean staircase in London, was lost. In 1958, when the evacuated Brothers finally moved back in, they found the house transformed. The post-war architects Seely and Paget had fulfilled their brief and restored the historic buildings, but they had done so with a pragmatic eye. They had reconfigured the hallway into a new entrance hall, giving access from Master’s Court to the Great Hall, where the Brothers meet for meals, and upstairs to the Great Chamber and new offices. Their replacement staircase is elegant but plain, and the only pre-fire detail retained is the head of the greyhound.

The bundle of papers detailing the dramatic days of 1941 remind us of the efforts of the Brothers and staff on fire-watching duty. Thanks to their vigilance the Charterhouse collection, including seventeenth-century tapestries and portraits, were saved. The box of glass-plate negatives offers us a fascinating insight into their home before the fire.


To learn more about the history of the Charterhouse and its historic collections, book a tour here.


This article is based on archive and picture research undertaken by Ethan Walsh during a work experience placement in August 2023.