Air raids: protecting property, 1915-16

Detail from a British Fire Prevention Committee poster illustrating an incendiary bomb, 1915

Detail from a British Fire Prevention Committee poster illustrating an incendiary bomb, 1915

During 1915 and 1916 many more banks took out air raid insurance for their buildings, not only in London but – as zeppelin raids became more widespread – in other towns and cities too. Nevertheless, it was clear that London was the most frequent target, and various banks began to consider installing defences.

Relatively little was known about the likely effect of falling bombs on buildings, but the most common suggestion was to erect steel netting above roofs, to catch and detonate bombs before they made contact with the building itself. This solution had serious downsides. Such heavy additions would put severe strain on buildings, and if they collapsed in a bomb attack the damage was likely to be even worse than anything the bomb itself would have caused. There were also the practical difficulties of obtaining building materials amid wartime shortages, and the complication of getting permission to alter leased premises.

Sketch of possible bomb defences for Parr's Bank's head office,1915 © RBS

Put off by all these problems, few banks went ahead with complicated anti-bomb installations. Most limited themselves to installing sandbags and fire extinguishers, fixing wire netting under domes and skylights to catch falling glass, and painting woodwork with fire retardant paint.

The one blessing for banks in the early years of the war was that air raids took place at night. Money and books had been safely locked away after the close of business the previous day, and staff and customers were far away in their own homes. All this was to change in 1917, when planes replaced zeppelins, and raids began to occur in broad daylight. Banks had to switch their focus from protecting the fabric of buildings to protecting the lives of the people inside them. 

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    Cartoon of the head of the anti-aircraft fire brigade at Union of London & Smiths Bank's London Cornhill office, drawn by an anonymous colleague Raids within opening hours meant protecting life became the top priority

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