Evacuating the portraits

Britain entered the First World War on 4th August 1914. Soon afterwards the Germans began using airships, known as zeppelins, to drop bombs on their enemies. The first aerial attack on London was in May 1915. The attacks on London increased, and on 1st November 1915 the Gallery was closed to the public in order to protect the collections.

Some of the portraits were taken off the walls and stored in the basement for their safekeeping. Others were stored in Aldwych Underground station and in underground stations of the Post Office Railway Company, a small underground train system used for delivering the post throughout London. The threat of attack was taken so seriously that the government asked if staff should be armed with revolvers.

By 14th January 1918 the bombing had increased. The Gallery sought more secure storage for its Collection. 507 portraits were packed and taken to Paddington station, and then moved by train to the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Staff began packing at 6pm and finished loading the trains at 1.45am.

The gallery building was lent to the Government's Separation Allowances Department for the duration of the war. Government officials now sat where portraits used to hang. The Separation Allowances department administered welfare payments to the wives and children of soldiers.

Normal Gallery business was suspended. Staff of fighting age joined the military. On 16th November 1914 the remaining employees, most of whom were in their 50s, were sworn in as 'Special Constables'. The Special Constables had to protect the Gallery building and the portraits. They had fire drills and training on using fire hydrants and hoses, kept watch at all times, maintained a black-out, and took turns to work the night shift.

Click on images below to enlarge

© National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG66/5/2/1: Extract from a letter suggesting that warders at the Post Office Tube Station should be armed with revolvers
© National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG82/1/6: Air Raid instructions for Gallery staff
© National Portrait Gallery, London