Sunday, 4 September 2016

Lancaster War Mysteries: Whatever Happened to All Our Railings?

Donated for the war effort: Williamson Park's railings. Photo courtesy Andrew Reilly
A tour around Lancaster, delving into its history, is always interesting - sometimes for what isn't there, rather than what is.

A case in point is the many places where you'll see place where iron railings were once placed - but have now long gone, such as Williamson Park. Not the victim of some modern-day theft, similar to the stealing of public works of art, but the consequence of a genuine public effort to support the fight against the Nazis during World War Two on the home front... that was, perhaps, a little misguided.

First, a bit of a history lesson. When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he installed press baron Lord Beaverbrook (owner of the Daily Express) as the Minister for Aircraft Production.
It was Beaverbrook's responsibility to provide the desperately needed raw materials to help build the Spitfires and Hurricanes, and one way used was to requisition the 19th century iron railings and gates surrounding many of the cemeteries, parks and squares in Britain's towns and cities.

In 1941 the government passed an order compulsorily requisitioning all post-1850 iron gates and railings for the war effort, with a few exceptions made for items of particular historic interest, usually elaborate gates.

All 'unnecessary' railings from public buildings, parks and private dwellings were removed to assist the war effort. The only let-out, as noted here, was to be on the grounds of safety or artistic or historic merit, the latter referring to those railings dating from before 1820.

Protests to save some were not entirely unsuccessful: one lone vicar in Southwark lost his church railings, but not his gates after much correspondence.

Collecting aluminium at Middle Street School, 1940. Photo courtesy Andrew Reilly

Removal of the guns from Lancaster Castle during World War Two. Photo courtesy Andrew Reilly

Locally, railings around Lancaster's Willimason Park were one casualty of the drive, as were railings in residential streets such as Dale Street, Dorrington Road, Derwent Road, Baker Street, Skerton and elsewhere

So did Bulk Mission and even the walls surrounding Lancaster Castle - and even its guns.

Used for Home Guard grenade practice - a World War One tank that used to reside outside Lancaster Castle. Courtesy Andrew Reilly
The remains of Ryelands Park's railings today. These stones originally topped a much higher wall around what was once a private property belonging to Lord Ashton
The railings around Ryelands Park were included, where local residents also pitched in with "Dig for Victory" gardens to grow food.

A World War One tank that used to to be outside Lancaster Castle was not melted down - but it was used by the Home Guard for grenade practice. It was eventually buried on Ocean Edge Caravan Park, and was last uncovered during work there in 1969, according to a report in the Morecambe Guardian back then).

With thanks to David Chandler
"Most of the Victorian terraces had railings round their front gardens," notes Lancaster resident James Mitchell. "Just look for walls topped with limestone rockery and they will almost certainly have had railings removed."

Graham Fraser also notes that if you look along much of the A6 south from the Pointer, you'll see remnants of railings in front of many private houses.

Via the Wartime Kitchen
Many hundreds of tons of iron were removed by the authorities, and the public were also asked to donate aluminium kitchen utensils - although in practice these were only owned by the better off (and an appeal which didn't include shops, where new aluminium pots were on sale, much to the bemusement, and later, fury of housewives at being misled by Beaverbrook's whose excuses got short shrift). The Women's Voluntary Service that largely co-ordinated the collection, which was one million strong by the summer of 1941.

Beaverbrook himself issued a press appeal: "We will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons".

Salvage drives for all sorts of materials quickly became part of daily life. Parks, gardens, squares, even churchyards lost their ornamental iron gates and railings, while tins, bones, gramophone records, films, rags, jars, bottles and paper were all grist to the recycling mill. Everyone wanted to be seen doing something to aid the war effort.

In his book Waste into Weapons, Peter Thorseim (soon to be re-released in paperback) notes that, according to one estimate, some 5000 pots and pans were needed to make just one fighter plane.

A boy offers his toy plane to a RAF man after a national request for scrap metal for the making of aeroplanes. Colorised by Jiří Macháček from the Czech Republic

Image: IWM
Children were also encouraged to help the war effort by collecting metal, paper and rags for recycling. In the poster on the right, for example, soap cartons have been used in the manufacture of artillery shells. Children could earn the red Junior Salvage Steward cog badge as shown on the poster for their salvage efforts.

The “Cogs” even had their own song which began “There’ll Always be a Dustbin” sung to the tune of “There’ll Always be an England” which gave them a sense of belonging.

The public responded with vigour, from Aberdeen to Lancaster, to London. In all, by 1942, thousands of tons of scrap metal had been collected, including some 300,000 tons of railings, 485,00 tons of old or obsolete equipment and 90,000 tons of tram rails.

By September 1944, over one millions tons had been collected - apparently far more than than was needed or could be processed.

But since the war, although private donors of railings were eventually compensated for their removal, the rumour has persisted that the iron collected in Beaverbrook's campaign was unsuitable for making planes and instead buried in quarries or dumped in the North Sea and the Thames estuary, and that it was basically just a propaganda effort. The huge underground munitions factory Beaverbook set up at Corsham, Wiltshire ran far below capacity for its short life - so what happened to all that collected metal?

It’s certainly the view of Colin Hyde, from the East Midlands oral history archive, Centre for Urban History, at the University of Leicester, quoted in this article about how surviving railings were painted white to stop people walking into them in a blackout.

"Kerbstones, fences, and railings were often painted white in an attempt to help people see where they were going," he says.

His views are supported by Edinburgh's Gardner’s Crescent resident Derek Ainsley who has long been sceptical of the British scrap metal appeal. “The removal of railings and donation of aluminium pots and pans to be melted down to make tanks was a lot of nonsense, but it boosted morale,” he said, when it was reported the Crescent's railings were to be restored in 2012.

Jeremy Crang, a senior history lecturer at Edinburgh University, agreed, adding: “The pots and pans appeal was a stunt to dramatise the need to accelerate aircraft production in 1940. The amount of high-grade aluminium that could be extracted from pots and pans was negligible.”

John Farr, author of a 2010 article in Picture Postcard Monthly, ("Who Stole our Gates", PPM No 371, March 2010) also agrees. In it, he says that only 26 per cent of the iron work collected was used for munitions and by 1944 much of it was rusting in council depots or railway sidings, with some filtering through to the post-war metal industry. Yet the public was never told this.

Railings being removed from a London park during World War Two - final destination unknown, just like Lancaster's donations to the war effort... Image: London Parks & Gardens Trust 

In Rugby, a World War One tank, presented in 1919 in recognition of Rugby's contributions to ‘National War Savings', was sent for scrap
The Public Records Office apparently does not have detailed records of what happened to the iron collected, it seems the records disappeared or were shredded after the war.

It's claimed London iron was loaded onto barges and dumped at sea in the Thames estuary, the claim made by dockers, which an account which seems to have originated in a letter to the Evening Standard by journalist Christopher Long in 1984.

Long wrote: "I believe that many hundreds of tons of scrap iron and ornamental railings were sent to the bottom in the Thames Estuary because Britain was unable to process this ironwork into weapons of war."

He said this information came from dockers in Canning Town in 1978 who worked during the war on lighters that were towed down the Thames estuary to dump vast quantities of scrap metal and decorative ironwork. They claimed that so much was dumped at certain spots in the estuary that ships passing the area needed pilots to guide them because their compasses were so strongly affected by the quantity of iron on the sea-bed.

People also have claimed to have seen some remains of the dumps at low tides.

However there are those who insist that as we have no evidence to the contrary, the iron could well have been recycled to make planes in World War Two. The iron must have come from somewhere and since iron was a key component in aircraft manufacture it could have been the recycled gates and railings.

So, were kitchen pots made into planes? Or was the drive, in the end, a pointless and sad public relations exercise that helped the public feel they were doing something to support the war effort? Would recycled iron from Victorian gates and railings really have been any use, perhaps in the making of new tanks - and would the authorities have known this at the time if it was suitable?

Perhaps more importantly, given the success of other towns and cities in restoring lost railings, could we get ours back now, too?

Further Reading...

• Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War

During the Second World War, the United Kingdom faced severe shortages of essential raw materials. To keep its armaments factories running, the British government enlisted millions of people in efforts to recycle a wide range of materials for use in munitions production. Recycling not only supplied British munitions factories with much-needed raw materials - it also played a key role in the efforts of the British government to maintain the morale of its citizens, to secure billions of dollars in Lend-Lease aid from the United States, and to uncover foreign intelligence.

However, Britain's wartime recycling campaign came at a cost: it consumed items that would never have been destroyed under normal circumstances, including significant parts of the nation's cultural heritage.

Based on extensive archival research, Peter Thorsheim examines the relationship between armaments production, civil liberties, cultural preservation, and diplomacy, making Waste into Weapons the first in-depth history of twentieth-century recycling in Britain.

World War Two stretchers re-used as railings

In Rugby, a World War One tank, presented in 1919 in recognition of Rugby's contributions to ‘National War Savings', was sent for scrap

Railings Restored

Railings lost from one Edinburgh street thanks to the wartime scrap drive mades a comeback thanks to the efforts of a 92-year-old resident

My grateful thanks to Andrew Reilly and other members of the Lancaster Past & Present Facebook Group for their memories and information provided for this feature

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