City Lit Blog

City Lit’s history of supporting Londoners through adversity

Story added 27th Mar 2020


With thanks to John Cooper-Hammond for his contribution on City Lit’s wartime years.

The national emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has meant drastic changes to all of our lives – making many normal activities very difficult indeed. However, this is not the first national emergency that The City Literary Institute has faced; our one hundred year history has seen our community overcome the very darkest days the country has faced together.

The War Years 1939 – 1945

In 1939, the Poet Laureate, John Masefield, opened a new building for The City Literary Institute, in Stukeley Street on 13th May. The prospectus for September 1939 was the largest programme of classes ever mounted by the Institute – over 500 classes were on offer. However, just as the First World War had delayed the original opening of the Institute, the start of the Second World War affected its re-opening in its new building. In September 1939, members of staff were deployed to evacuation duties and the Institute did not open until 9th October that year. Nevertheless, it then stayed open throughout the war years.

The war created particular difficulties for the Institute: In 1939, assemblies of more than 299 people in one place within one and a half miles of Leicester Square were banned for fear of sedition.  There was also a daylight curfew within this zone. Classes were held in various places outside the zone to beat the curfew and Saturday afternoon classes proved popular. Although these restrictions were withdrawn at the end of 1939, life was difficult for the Institute and its staff. 

In 1940, in association with the British Institute for Adult education, which The City Lit helped establish, the Institute organised three art exhibitions at Stukeley Street to offset the closure of the major galleries in London. The first was opened by Sir Kenneth Clarke, an art historian, the second by Sir Edwin Lutyens, an architect and the third by Henry Moore, a sculptor – of his work along with that of John Piper and Graham Sutherland, both artists,

1940 saw the beginning of The Blitz in London.  Travel restrictions and the blackout all caused difficulties for City Lit, so the academic year was lengthened by seven weeks to ensure students were able to get to their classes. There is a story, possibly exaggerated with the passage of time, of a class on the top floor of the building, immediately under a flat roof, being warned of a fire-bomb on the roof.  They elected to continue learning Ancient Greek whilst keeping a wary eye on the ceiling, rather than abandon their class. The incendiary was dealt with by a firewatcher who also happened to be the City Lit caretaker.

In 1942, classes were held in some 25 air raid shelters in Holborn and Westminster – notably in the local Tube stations of Covent Garden, Aldwych and Holborn. A piano from City Lit was pushed through the streets and taken down into Covent Garden Tube Station for Music classes (and, doubtless, sing songs). County Hall reminded Principal Williams that by removing the piano from the premises, he was placing it outside of the insurance system and it was therefore not covered for replacement.  Principal Williams decided it was more important for the piano to be of use to our community to lift spirits.  The piano survived the war.

In 1943, as an undamaged building, City Lit played host at various times to: the local area centre of the Fire Brigade; the Primary Schools Department of the London County Council; the School of Engineering and Navigation; Kingsway College; Princeton College; Regent Street Polytechnic; and the stage classes of RADA. Further, the basement was a bomb shelter and water storage depot for the Fire Brigade. 

In 1944, City Lit became the centre for the training of discussion group leaders for the Civil Defence Services and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs.  This was a Government initiative to dispel rumour and ‘false news’. These trainees included Stephen Spender, later the Poet Laureate, a fellow trainee said of Spender. “…he was very opinionated but very inexperienced in life…”

Desire for learning

Despite the hardships of the war years, the average enrolment was around 3,200 each year. During this period, the Principal had worked virtually alone without even a Vice-Principal to assist him until 1944 when Dr Ruth Bethel was appointed to the part time post.  The now well-known poster, “Keep Calm and Cary on”, was produced but not used in the war – it was felt to be insufficiently uplifting. However, in those very difficult war years that is exactly what the Institute did – kept calm and carried on educating its students.


Just weeks after the end of World Ward Two there was a record enrolment of 6,831 students in September 1945 at City Lit.  The following year, despite a winter of phenomenal cold, over 9,000 students attended classes. Despite doubling up of evening classes, Saturday classes and daytime classes, many students had to attend other sites including Music at Scotland Yard.  The Ministry of Education National Committee for Adult Education met at the Institute to draw up the Sankey Report on post-war, adult education in Britain, setting the agenda for the decades to come.