Tuesday, February 17, 2015
The Blitz hit Britain in the autumn and winter nights of 1940–41. This was not the time to be in a trench or an Anderson shelter in one’s garden. There was a demand for indoor shelters. The choice of a new shelter was made in No. 10 Downing Street, not in a committee meeting, but at a demonstration. On New Year’s Day 1941 two prototypes were on show there: one, with a flat top, was by Professor John Baker; the other, with a curved top, by a Dr Merriman. The scene was rendered as follows in an official account: ‘The PM entering the room found a convenient seat on the flat-topped shelter and hailed “curvedtop” as “just the thing”. Professor Baker suggested that the convenience of “flat-top” as an article of furniture was perhaps causing its qualities as a shelter to be hidden.’ The upshot was that both would be produced and the public would have a choice. But tests on production models in March 1941 showed the curved top to be ‘markedly inferior’ and it was abandoned.
Baker’s own account was much more dramatic. He claimed that Churchill had himself come up with the curved-top idea, and had sketched an arched shelter for Herbert Morrison, the Minister of Home Security. Morrison got the idea worked up into a design and mock-up in his ministry. Baker, who worked in the ministry, was asked to look at sketches, but instead designed his own shelter, based on his novel principles for construction in steel. This involved using the buckling of steel to absorb energy. Baker had a mock-up of his shelter made and, to the surprise of the chief engineer of the Ministry, took it to Downing Street as a last-minute challenger to the official shelter inspired by Churchill. He recorded:
The Prime Minister presumably taking it for a piece of furniture, sat on the edge of the table shelter and looked at the arch type. ‘That’s the kind of thing to give them’ he said and the various points of the shelter were discussed. Mr Morrison then drew the Prime Minister’s attention to the fact that he was sitting on another shelter. He got off it and the Minister of Home Security described its virtues. This impressed me very much since he brought out all the points I had retailed to him a quarter of an hour before about an engineering product he had heard of for the first time. The Prime Minister addressed some question about the shelter to the Chief Engineer, he passed it on to me and I answered it . . . The Prime Minister then concentrated on me and plied me with questions.
Churchill, he continued, ‘was eventually satisfied, thumped the top of the table shelter, said, “that’s the one, make 500,000 in the next three months and give them to the people. Show them that it is safe, blow a house up on one, put a pig in it, put the inventor in it”, said he poking me in the ribs.’ Not surprisingly, Baker recorded that ‘It was most probably the most memorable three quarters of an hour of my life and I am never likely to forget it.’ In this version, Morrison asks Baker to redesign the arched version as well.
Baker’s novel design came to be produced on a large scale. The ‘steel table shelter’ was issued free for those earning under £350 per annum and was on sale for £7. It was better known as the Morrison shelter, though the Baker shelter, even the Churchill shelter, would have been much more appropriate. Had the bombing continued, it would perhaps have become even more famous than the Anderson shelter. Yet, given that the bombing was coming to an end, until a brief resumption in 1944, it was to save few lives. Britain’s cities would have been better off without it, in that the steel could have been used for something else. Of course, in this case, as in many others, it had to be assumed that Britain was likely to be bombed in the near future.