The Gallery in Wartime: A Commemoration


Throughout the Second World War (1939–45) Southampton was a strategic target for the Nazi German Luftwaffe and their bombing campaign against Britain. As a major port the area contained many associated industries, factories and business premises including the Supermarine works producing Spitfires at Woolston. Southampton was well within range of the German airfields in France. 

Over 50 attacks on the town and its environs were carried out with approximately 2,300 bombs being dropped along with over 30,000 incendiaries. All this amounted to nearly 500 tons of high explosives including experimental parachute mines and in May 1944 two V1 flying bombs.  Air raid sirens sounded over 1,600 alerts to warn of  anticipated attacks.

As with all war the human cost in casualties and wounded is the most horrendous and distressing. Southampton’s terrible sacrifice included over 600 dead and nearly 2,000 injured with over 800 of those seriously hurt. In four years of air raids nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed outright with another 2,650 demolished due to the severity of the damage.

The worst air raids occurred during November 1940, with the heaviest being on the 23rd and the 30th. These attacks are usually referred to as the ‘Southampton Blitz’, and the incinerating devastation caused on the night of the 23rd resulted in a firestorm, the glow of which could be seen from Cherbourg on the French coast.

It was an earlier raid on 6 November that almost destroyed the Art Gallery. This was a daylight raid which targeted the Civic Centre; as Hermann Goering head of the Nazi Luftwaffe had arrogantly observed – it looked like a ‘piece of cake’ from the air and he would ‘cut himself a slice’. In the course of the attack 12 bombs were dropped including a direct hit with a 500lb high explosive on the Gallery. This bomb penetrated the roof, the floor of the Sculpture Hall and the ground floor, finally exploding in the basement killing 35 people including 15 children.

Tragically, the children, a group of girls from the Central School were attending a class in the Art School. The basement shelter, where they had been led to safety, was no protection and several were killed instantaneously along with two teachers and two Civic Centre staff.

The logbook of Central District Girls’ School has the following entry for that day: This afternoon fifteen girls attended the School of Art as usual. At about 2.45 a bomb fell on the building and exploded in the shelter. As a result the following girls were killed instantaneously:- Brenda Hambridge, Betty Davies, Sheila Routledge, Nora Edson, Pamela Blackford, Eileen Bartlett, Hilda Dick, Emma Boyd, Freda Sheath, Violet Webb. Thelma Fry, Thelma Edwards, Sheila Stockwell, Esme Calwood died in hospital from injuries received. Audrey Hunt is in hospital critically ill.

Damage sustained to the Art Gallery during the November 1940 raids on the Civic Centre.

Internal damage to the Gallery entrance.

The rear of the Civic Centre behind the Guildhall.

Severely damaged court rooms, now part of the SeaCity Museum.

William Dring, Self Portrait, 1940

William Dring was a teacher of drawing and painting at the School of Art until 1942. 

The School of Art, founded in 1855, had many locations until its move into the new Civic Centre in 1938. It occupied the ground and lower floors of the building and consisted of 59 rooms including exhibition studios and classrooms for all types of art and applied art.

Tragically, the Art Block of the Civic Centre was badly damaged during a daylight bombing raid on the city. Art classes were in progress at the time and in those lost included the Deputy Headmaster Mr Horace Harvey; William Dring recounted: “I was in the Civic Centre Art School building when it was bombed, in fact I was blown up and my colleague, Harvey, whom I was talking to at the time, was killed.” 

This catastrophic event is commemorated by a memorial in the foyer to the art gallery; it was unveiled by 2 survivors of the tragedy: John Reeve-Fowkes, a former teacher and Audrey Hunt, who was 13 at the time and suffered severe burns.

In 1942, Dring was appointed as an Official War Artist with the Admiralty and Air Ministry. In the post-war era, he earned a reputation for his sympathetic, academic-style portraits of public figures which included royalty. He was elected to Royal Academy in 1955 and lived near Winchester, Hampshire, until his death in 1990.

William Dring, Self Portrait, 1940, oil on canvas © The Artist. All rights reserved 2020/Bridgeman Images. Image © Southampton Cultural Services.

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