In the fall of 1940, Virginia Woolf’s London homes at 52 Tavistock square and 37 Mecklenburgh square were damaged by German bombs during the early phase of the London Blitz.
Virginia and Leonard were not living in the homes at the time because they had moved to their country home, Monk’s House, in Rodmell for the summer where they often witnessed German bombers flying overhead during the blitz.
Mecklenburgh square was damaged on either September 16th or 17th when German bombers dropped over 200 tons of bombs on the city. Virginia and Leonard had only lived at Mecklenburg for a year, after having moved there from their other home in Tavistock square, where they had lived since 1924.
They housed their printing press, Hogarth press, in the home which they used to print all of Virginia’s books, as well as books of other authors such as E.M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West.
Upon learning about the damage to Mecklenburgh square, Virginia recorded the news in her diary:
“Wednesday 18 September
We have need of all our courage’ are the words that came to the surface this morning; upon hearing that all our windows are broken, ceilings down, & most of our china smashed at Meck. Sq. The bomb exploded. Why did we ever leave Tavistock? – whats the good of thinking that? We were about to start for London, when we go on to Miss Perkins who told us. The Press – what remains – is to be moved to Letchworth. A grim morning. How can one settle into Michelet & Coleridge? As I say, we have need of courage. A very bad raid last night on London. Waiting for the wireless. But I forge ahead with PH all the same.”
Exactly a month later, Tavistock Square was destroyed during attacks on the night of October 15th. These bombings were primarily targeted at London railway lines and air force bases but the destruction was widespread and many residential and public buildings were hit, such as No. 10 Downing street, the War Office, the Treasury, Piccadilly Circus, St. James Church and Kensington Palace. Over 1,300 people were killed and close to 4,000 were injured.
Once again, Virginia took to her diary to record the news:
“Thursday 17 October
Our private luck has turned. John says Tavistock sqre is no more….But its almost forgettable still; the nightly operation on the tortured London. Mabel wants to leave it. L. sawing wood. The funny little cross on the Church shows against the downs. We go up tomorrow….the Siren, just as I had drawn the curtains. Now the unpleasant part begins. Who’ll be killed tonight? Not us, I suppose. One doesn’t think of that – save as a quickener. Indeed I often think our Indian summer was deserved; after all those London years. I mean, this quickens it. Every day seen against a very faint shade of bodily risk.”
The following day, Virginia and Leonard traveled to London to see the extent of the damage to their two homes and to salvage what they could of their belongings.
During the trip they also witnessed lines of people waiting to be admitted to underground shelters in the subway stations. Virginia wrote about the trip to London in her diary that Sunday:
“Sunday October 20
The most – what? – impressive, no, that’s not it – sight in London, on Friday was the queue, mostly children with suitcases, outside Warren st. tube. This was about 11.30. We thought they were evacuees, waiting for a bus. But there they were, in a much longer line, with women, men, more bags & blankets, sitting still at 3. Lining up for the shelter in the night raids – which came of course. Thus if they left the tube at 6 (a bad raid on Thursday) they were back again at 11. So to Tavistock sq. With a sigh of relief saw a heap of ruins. Three houses, I shd. say gone. Basement all rubble. Only relics an old basket chair (bought in Fitzroy sqre days) & Penmans board To Let. Otherwise bricks & wood splinters. One glass door in the next house hanging. I cd see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books. Open air where we sat so many nights, gave so many parties. The hotel not touched. So to Meck. All again litter, glass, black soft dust, plaster powder….Books all over dining room floor. In my sitting room glass all over Mrs. Hunter’s cabinet – & so on. Only the drawing room with windows almost whole. A wind blowing through. I began to hunt out diaries. What cd we salvage in this littler car?…No raid the whole day. So about 2.30 drove home. L. says 10 [pounds] wd cover our damage. Cheered on the whole by London. Damage in Bloomsbury considerable. 3 houses out in Caroline place: but miles & miles of Hyde Park, Oxford & Cambridge Terrace, & Queens Gate untouched. Now we seem quit of London…Exhilaration at losing possessions – save at times I want my books & chairs & carpets & beds – How I worked to buy them – One by one. And the pictures. But to be free of Meck. Wd now be a relief. Almost certainly it will be destroyed – & our queer tenancy of the sunny flat over…But its odd – the relief at losing possessions. I shd like to start life, in peace, almost bare – free to go anywhere. Can we be rid of Meck. though?”
Virginia never returned to their London homes and lived the rest of her life at their house in Rodmell. After Virginia’s suicide, only five months later in March of 1941, the press speculated that the bombings and ongoing war may have been factor in her suicide.
Leonard later returned to their home in Mecklenburg Square after Virginia’s death but soon found the bombed out home too depressing to live in. He eventually returned to their house in Rodmell.
The buildings where the Woolf’s homes were located in London no longer exist and were later replaced by the Tavistock Hotel in 1951 and the William Goodenough House in 1957.
Other buildings in London where Virginia Woolf lived, such as her childhood home at 22 Hyde Park Gate and her homes at 46 Gordon Square, 29 Fitzroy Square and Hogarth House in Richmond, still exist and are marked by Blue Plaques by the English Heritage organization.
You can visit many of these sites and learn more about them through the various London Literary Tours available in the city.
Virginia Woolf Society: Where Virginia Woolf Lived in London: www.virginiawoolfsociety.co.uk/vw_res.london.htm
All Info About London: Timeline – The London Blitz 1940 – 1941: london.allinfo-about.com/features/timeline.html
WWII Today; London Railways and Landmarks Hit: ww2today.com/17th-october-1940-london-landmarks-and-railways-hit
English Heritage: London’s Blue Plaques: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques
The Diary of Virginia Woolf; Volume Five; 1936 – 1941