Today (March 13) in London History – Gasmasks for Babies

Gasmasks for babies, that’s what happened on March 13, 1938. It’s the subject for this Today in London History podcast.


I’ll tack it on the end today.

So let’s plunge straight in. 

Today in London? A couple of years ago an American visitor memorably said, “what I really love about London Walks is the degree of granularity that you get.” Well, in keeping with those sentiments, howzabout if here I don’t stop at recommending a favourite pub, I recommend a favourite seat in that pub. The pub is St. Stephen’s Tavern. It’s the pub that’s closest to Parliament, closest to Big Ben. That charmed seat is through the door and turn left. It’s the first stool on the left, by the window, not the bar. You want it for the view it affords of the most famous clock in the world. And while you’re perched there, savouring the view – here’s a couple of London Walks tidbits about what you’re looking at. The Tower is 323 feet high. The bell weighs 13 tons. The clock mechanism weighs five tons. So there’s 18 tons of iron at the top of that football field-high tower. The clock faces are 23 feet in diameter. How long is 23 feet? A two-storey house is about 23 feet high. The minute hands are 14 feet long. How long is 14 feet? A black London taxi is about 14 feet long. The minute hands weigh 224 pounds, they’re made out of hollow copper, they travel 25 miles a year and they’re phenomenally accurate for a huge 19th-century mechanical clock.

Now look really closely. For nearly a century we’ve all got used to thinking of the hands and the hours and minutes as being black. But they weren’t originally. They were Prussian blue. It’s a really handsome colour. And if you look closely you can see that they’re not black, they’re that deep blue. The clock’s having exactly the same colour scheme it was intended to have and did have for the first 70 years or so of its existence – that’s compliments of the recent restoration. I don’t know about you but I like it very much. There’s a richness to it, a felicity that was lost when they painted the hands and numbers black. 

Ok, that’s today in London. Let’s turn the page. Turn the page to Today in London History. 

Here we go again.

It happens to me all the time. I’ve even got a name for it. I call it double vision. Or sometimes, X-ray vision. 

By that I mean, there are now literally hundreds of London buildings that when I walk by I don’t just see the building, I see a flashcard moment of something remarkable that happened in the building. Or a remarkable man or woman who lived or worked in the building.

Thanks to this series – and this date, March 13th – I’ve got another building to add to that catalogue. Never again will I be able to walk by the Holborn Town Hall without seeing that baby. That baby wearing that horrible World War II gas mask.

That image – in part because of its inevitable associations – is indelible. It’s now part of my permanent mental furniture.

The image is the knock-out punch of an illustrated, News in Brief newspaper story that ran in mid-March, 1938. That page of newsprint probably hasn’t seen the light of day in nearly 85 years. I’ll read you the story.

It’s headlined – it’s a horrible headline – The Government Gas-mask for babies. The subheading is: A Mother and her child demonstrating the device in London.

The story – it’s all of 74 words –four sentences – reads as follows:

“A demonstration of the Government gas-mask which has been designed for the use of babies was given at the Holborn Town Hall on March 13. The device consists of a hood, made of gas-proof material, fitted with a large window. The hood is padded and a stream of filtered air is supplied to the baby by means of a rubber bellows fitted on the right side. The hood is attached to a metal frame.”

End of story.

No, actually, it’s the beginning of the story. The thing – the device – was horrible. A search for World War II gas masks for babies will fetch up some images. They make uncomfortable viewing.

They look like those old deep-sea diving helmets. They were airtight. Had to be for poisonous gas. But oxygen’s a gas as well. Parents were told to put their infant in an airtight gas chamber. 

There was a rubber tube attached to it. Imagine a concertina fitted out with a handle. It was basically a hand pump. A hand pump operated by the baby’s parent. There were reports of parents being very unhappy about the contraption. Who wouldn’t be. And reports of babies falling asleep, babies going very still in the masks. Were they getting enough air? Probably not. The picture doesn’t improve. The helmets had an asbestos filter. Cold comfort, surely, that those 1938 parents had no idea of the carcinogenic properties of asbestos.

And for a final point, our schtick, what we do as guides, is anecdotal, peripatetic history. The sunlit uplands of that – we don’t always get there but we try – is what it felt like to be alive back then. Whether back then was 1381 or 1665 or 1938. 

Well, reading that story – and looking at that image – and I hope, hearing this podcast – we get just a glimpse of what it must have been like, what it felt like to be a Londoner in – in this case – 1938. My guess is the radioactive core of feeling back then was a compound of dread and resignation. If in March 1938 – that’s nearly a year and a half before the war started – if in March 1938 the government is producing gas masks for every baby in Britain – and demonstrating them in Town Halls – and running stories about them – well, what conclusion would you draw? My conclusion – and I don’t think I’m more pessimistic than most of my fellow human beings – my conclusion would be, it’s coming. The rough beast slouching towards us is getting closer.  And how would I feel about that? I’d feel resignation. And dread.

We don’t really have an equivalent today – though being anxious about what’s going on in eastern Europe right now and what that could escalate into – is maybe partway along on that spectrum. As would be two or three renewed attacks by Covid, each wave a new, deadlier, more contagious variant. Well, that would usher in, for me at any rate, a 2022 equivalent of how those ordinary Londoners must have felt in 1938. Our very own cocktail of dread and resignation. 

Final thoughts: you have to wonder how the next few years went for the people in those photographs. The parents. And the babies. Unless one of them was a teenage mum and is now an ancient old lady – 102 years old maybe – the parents will all be dead now. Part of the silent majority. Though they’re not silent – their drawn, anxious faces speak to us across the gulf of 84 years – the activity that they were part of there in Holborn Town Hall on March 13, 1938 – that speaks to us. We see them. And feel for them. 

And of course some of the babies might well be alive now. Octogenarians but very much with us. I’d very much like to meet a couple of them – talk to them – find out what it was like for them. I’m guessing they’ll still have vivid memories of their very first chocolate bar – maybe from a G.I. when food rationing was very strict and sweets for kids just weren’t to be had.

And on that note – something sweet on the buds – let’s come up for air.

And wheel out a three-fold valediction. 

  1. Please help us to get out the vote for the Tourism Superstar Award. The link’s at the top of the page.
  2. Good night from London.

3.   See ya tomorrow. 

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