Watch Colorized 1940s Footage of London after the Blitz: Scenes from Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace & More

“Reg­u­lar fea­tures of the time: neat­ly swept-up piles of glass, lit­ter of stone and splin­ters of flint, smell of escap­ing gas, knots of sight­seers wait­ing at the cor­dons.”

– George Orwell

What was it like to live in Lon­don dur­ing and after the Blitz? George Orwell’s note­books from the time con­tain a “fas­ci­nat­ing account of every­day life in Lon­don dur­ing the Sec­ond World War,” full of jour­nal­is­tic detail, the British Library writes. In Orwell’s esti­ma­tion, the city was riv­en with class divides. “Despite his crit­i­cism of Stal­in­ism, Orwell remained a con­vinced social­ist all his life.” He believed the war could only be won if it turned into a rev­o­lu­tion. “When you see how the wealthy are still behav­ing, in what is man­i­fest­ly devel­op­ing into  a rev­o­lu­tion­ary war,” he wrote in a diary entry that would become the 1941 essay The Lion and the Uni­corn, “you think of St. Peters­burg in 1916.”

Orwell may have been wrong about the rev­o­lu­tion, but he report­ed hon­est­ly on much of what was hap­pen­ing in Lon­don. Mean­while, the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion pro­duced a short pro­pa­gan­da film in 1940 for the Amer­i­can pub­lic called “Lon­don Can Take It.” The tone was in keep­ing with the “Keep Calm and Car­ry On” ethos we asso­ciate with Britain in the peri­od. A com­pan­ion film, “Britain Can Take It,” sim­i­lar­ly sold the “illu­sion of social uni­ty,” Craig Stew­art Hunter writes, “cre­at­ed by the use of films and oth­er media to por­tray pos­i­tive morale.” (View many more British WWII pro­pa­gan­da films here.) These did not account for “grow­ing dis­en­chant­ment in urban areas, which found them­selves ‘unable to take it,’ so to speak.”

Peter Watts writes in The Guardian about once-vibrant city blocks that were demol­ished by the fire­bomb­ing, then lat­er turned into park­ing garages. Many of these neigh­bor­hoods were then, in the 1960s, fold­ed into mas­sive estate hous­ing projects with “high-rise tow­ers nobody want­ed to live in,” says Peter Larkham, pro­fes­sor of plan­ning at Birm­ing­ham School of the Built Envi­ron­ment. Could Lon­don take it? It depend­ed on which Lon­don one meant, in the long run. But dur­ing the war itself, there was per­haps more social cohe­sion than Orwell was will­ing to grant, giv­en that some­thing like one in every six Lon­don­ers suf­fered home­less­ness dur­ing the bomb­ing cam­paign and over 40,000 civil­ians lost their lives.

The degree of Britain’s nation­al uni­ty dur­ing the war remains “a con­tin­u­ing his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal debate,” writes Hunter, ever since” the gen­er­a­tion of his­to­ri­ans born after the war… have been able to write with more crit­i­cal detach­ment.” And since most every­one alive then is no longer, ideas about what it felt like to be in Lon­don dur­ing WWII will change as his­to­ri­ans view the source mate­r­i­al dif­fer­ent­ly over time.

But thanks to pho­tog­ra­phy and film from the peri­od, we’ll always have a fair­ly good idea of what Lon­don looked like dur­ing the war, though we’ll have to make do, until the AI “becomes more mature,” as the poster of the video com­pi­la­tion above notes, with infe­ri­or col­oriza­tion tech­niques. (Yes, they know, the bus­es should be red.)

The var­i­ous scenes have been motion-sta­bi­lized, slight­ly speed-cor­rect­ed, enhanced and col­orized by means of sophis­ti­cat­ed Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence soft­ware. 

The film shows remark­able scenes of bomb dam­age, close up film­ing of the release of bar­rage bal­loons, anti-air­craft gun posi­tions, traf­fic at Trafal­gar Square, Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus, mil­i­tary parades in front of Buck­ing­ham Palace, beau­ti­ful scenes of the Thames dur­ing day­time and at dusk, Water­loo Sta­tion, and much more.

Most of the film dates from late 1943, but some of the footage of Water­loo sta­tion and Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus comes from the late 1930s and it ends with a minute of VE day on 8 May 1945. All of the footage comes from the Prelinger Archives. Can we see nation­al uni­ty in the crowds of peo­ple going about their busi­ness amidst a city full of arma­ments and rub­ble? Is it vis­i­ble to the naked eye? See time­stamped descrip­tions of the loca­tion and action in each clip at the video’s YouTube page here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

WWII Britain Revis­it­ed in 120 Short Films, Now Free on the Web

Dra­mat­ic Col­or Footage Shows a Bombed-Out Berlin a Month After Germany’s WWII Defeat (1945)

How to Behave in a British Pub: A World War II Train­ing Film from 1943, Fea­tur­ing Burgess Mered­ith

The Old­est Known Footage of Lon­don (1890–1920) Fea­tures the City’s Great Land­marks

How the Fences & Rail­ings Adorn­ing London’s Build­ings Dou­bled (by Design) as Civil­ian Stretch­ers in World War II

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Mark william Joseph says:

    Thia is amaz­ing.

    Thank you.

    I must point out that a part of the footage from about 11:30 onward is not from the war years, but well before. Eros is still in situ, no black out mark­ings and the clothes, bus­es and vehi­cles are very ear­ly 30s.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.