World War II began just a few years after the administrative offices moved into their new headquarters, and Senate House was involved from the start. As well as the roof’s transformation into an observation post for the Royal Observer Corps, the Chairman of the Court of the University, Lord Macmillan, was appointed the first Minster of Information.
While situated in Senate House they oversaw campaigns such as the production of the Home Publicity campaign, including the famous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster.
However, it was a controversial office, due to its responsibility to censor official news. The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) justified the new ministry concerned by arguing: “…the national case to the public at home and abroad in time of war. To achieve this end it is not only necessary to provide for the preparation and issue of National Propaganda, but also for the issue of ‘news’ and for such control of information issued to the public as may be demanded by the needs of security.”
When the Ministry moved into Senate House in September 1939 the Central Administration staff relocated to Royal Holloway College until the War Office occupied the space in 1941, and they were moved to Richmond College.
While closed to the public, Senate House Library was used by the Ministry as a reference library during their occupation which caused some strains between Library staff and those of the Ministry. The Library planned to remain in situ for the duration of the war by closing its doors to readers and carrying on as a ‘mail order’ service. However, requests by the Ministry to use the Library’s Map Room left the University Librarian fearing that his collections were at risk, with complaints sent to Macmillan referring to the guests’ stay as an ‘annexation’ and ‘occupation’.
Despite the reservations the Press Room was set up in the Beveridge Hall, and was in operation as war was declared. In a written criticism of the Ministry, Norman Riley described the press room as: “One good big storey nearer stern reality… Day and night there is a clatter of typewriters and a babel of different tongues. Day and night smoke wreaths towards the ceiling. … On a dais extending right round the room are fifty to sixty telephone boxes, most of them with direct lines to Fleet Street offices.”
Riley described the second and third floors as a: “labyrinthine, (with) carpeted corridors… scores of them, occupied by experts on India, religion, broadcasting, films, public meetings, propaganda, politics or nothing in particular”.
The University’s Assistant Clerk of the Court recorded that: “it was sad to see [Senate House] vandalized by crude improvisations and the scruffiness that seems to prevail in all minor government offices.”
As the needs of the Ministry were different to that of the University, the strain on Senate House quickly became apparent. The Senate minutes of 11 December 1940 noted a deficit of £506, equivalent to £29,797.04 today. The reason was due to an ‘urgent’ request of the Ministry to annexe the Macmillan Hall for use as a bar and small restaurant for the Press. The Maintenance Officer noted that: “The hot service, where the meals were prepared, was designed for the service of University banquets, with elaborate hot plates, tea boilers etc. Its running costs were consequently high, the electricity alone costing as much as 30s every 24 hours, and were not justified by the small number of meals served.”
Literary descriptions of Senate House while the Ministry was in situ are less than flattering, with Evelyn Waugh’s character in Put Out More Flags finding it difficult to enter the building, thinking that ‘all the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry.’ Graham Greene described ‘the Ministry’ as a ‘high heartless building… where the windows were always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistled in’ (Penguin New Writing).