WHAT DID HAPPEN TO THE RAILINGS DURING THE WAR ?
The loss of so much of our architectural ironwork for the war effort significantly altered our built environment. Where once stood ornament, it was replaced by stone copes with the stubs of railings sticking out and over time by the privet hedge. The truth of what actually happened and how it has become translated into distorted folklore is worth clarifying.
The use of architectural ironwork for recycling into war materials did not start in the UK, it started in Germany. Field Marshall Goering wrote to local councils to give up iron railings as part of the Four Year Plan to help in the supply of scrap metal but also to note that most ironwork was out of date and “not in conformity with modern tastes and ideas”. Observers overseas did notice that such ironwork was widely removed from public spaces for the munitions factories and that even canals had been dredged in the search for iron.
In 1938 architect Clough Williams Ellis wrote to the Times to applaud this move in support of amenity even if driven by preparations for war. His real issue was the proliferation of spiked ironwork enclosing public spaces ; “it is strange that we should cheerfully risk the immolation of our children by disembowelling spikes such as no humane person would dream of placing around his dog kennel”.
In March 1940 the Times was reporting that Hitler’s birthday collection had moved on from iron to non ferrous metals including bronze and nickel, again instigated by Goering. The donator would receive an ornamental certificate from Goring noting their contribution.
The Defence (General) Regulations of 1939 allowed for approved contractors to remove iron railings under Section 50 and 53. The removal would be followed by the production of a receipt showing the weight removed on which the owner could claim compensation.
The availability of wrought iron for re-use in the West of Scotland ironworks was causing downturns in employment and also spasmodic production. Wrought iron scrap could be re-purposed directly depending on the quality, whilst cast iron scrap required to be converted through the puddling process. This endeavour was about generating and securing employment before it was presented as supporting the war effort primarily. Another contributing factor was that scrap imports from the United States had dropped considerably post September 1941 to save shipping space and to meet the desire for the US to re-use their own scrap.
Edinburgh, Aberdeen and other towns such as Falkirk had started to give up ironwork in 1940, with the Lord Provost of Edinburgh going so far as to open an exhibition titled ‘Railings for Scrap’ at North Bridge.
Some welcomed the removal of railings from the streetscape - the architect George Gilbert Scott wrote in the Times in May 1940 that a great many railings were not required and a desire to enclose space and keep people out was down to the worst puritanical designs of public authorities. He was quick to point out however that not all ironwork was created equal and it was important to be selective and considered. He supported the opening of an exhibition called “Railings for scrap” opening at the Building Centre in London.
In February 1941 Glasgow Corporation agreed to a large scale railing removal plan to support the ironworks and in turn the war effort. The Glasgow Herald recorded that as Glasgow was the largest such public authority in the UK ;
“This marks the biggest single step in the countrywide movement and is likely to influence the whole future course of railing dismantling work in Scotland, and in due time in England…the potential tonnage of railings must be in the order of 50,000 or 60,000 tons from parks, public property, municipal housing schemes and private dwellings”.
The Ministry of Supply had a key role to play in recycling all sorts of material and took particular interest in iron. It responded to fears that things could get out of control and historic ironwork might be lost by seeking the support of the Georgian Group to maintain a watch nationally and to come up with a date before which ironwork might be deemed historic. They selected 1850 as the point where mass production came into play and interestingly therefore in their eyes less important. In a similar vein old ordnance was to be preserved if it was of historical importance.
Contractors tendered for this removal work and by 1941 complaints were being received that some contractors were being a little too enthusiastic. The Minister of Works had given assurances as to the quality of workmanship which should be accepted but removal with sledgehammer and often unannounced caused some public complaints.
The drive continued and was boosted further in 1942 with the arrival of ‘private scrap’ a cartoon figurehead and associated series of exhibitions promoting the value of recycling metals for the war effort.
The Ministry of Works issued guidance in 1942 to counter growing complaints of ham fisted removal and damage to masonry copes and walls. Contractors were instructed to make repairs but only insofar as materials and labour allowed - a repair gang would follow on from the removal team. The Ministry were quick to defend their approach ; “there are not enough hacksaws and saw frames in the country or oxy acetylene cylinders or the transport to move them” However, “one quick blow from a 2lb hammer in the hands of a skilled operative will often do the work of any random blows from a 7lb hammer in the hands of an unskilled man”.
Removal of ironwork from stone is not easy and the Ministry were delighted when an Edinburgh blacksmith invented an iron railing ‘stump remover’ operating on a lever principle - they bought a number and they were sent across the UK.
In the same year lorry driver Albert Shayle was transporting ironwork and was fined £10 for stealing 6 3/4 cwts of lead removed from extracted railings which he described as the “sweepings” from the truck !
In parliament Harold Macmillan noted ;
“Local authorities in England and Wales were asked on ninth September to complete a survey of the railings in their areas within six weeks and to schedule those which in their view were unnecessary. They have been asked to interpret "unnecessary" so as to exclude from scheduling railings which in their opinion serve a useful function and which, if removed, would require to be replaced by some other material. In particular, railings required for safety purposes or to prevent cattle straying, and railings of historic interest or special artistic merit will not be scheduled. The requisition of railings will commence as soon as possible after these schedules have been received. The scheme will be extended to Scotland shortly, as soon as the necessary arrangements are completed”.
The legislation allowed for compensation at 25 shillings per ton, but not all contractors provided accurate weights, if at all from which owners could claim compensation. Compensation did not account for any damage done to the masonry during the removal process. By 1942 some 200,000 tons of railings had been collected, by 1943 this had risen to 532,000 tons.
In July 1943 Lord Hemingford raised the matter in parliament ;
“I make no apologies for raising this matter of the requisitioning of iron railings and gates because, although it is a comparatively small one, it is one which I think has caused a considerable amount of obloquy to fall upon His Majesty's Government. It has been felt that an injustice has been done to a very large number of usually uncomplaining and patriotic people. This question of the requisitioning of railings and gates is rather like eczema; it is not very serious, but it is most confoundedly irritating, and causes a vast amount of bad temper” .
HANSARD 13 July 1943 vol 128 cc437-46
In response the Minister of Works Lord Portal empathised but re-inforced the need and noted that patriotism rather than administrative obstacles had been the reason for low levels of compensation paid out ;
“Up to the present 3,500,000 properties have been dealt with in this country and claims have been made up to date by only 130,000 owners”.
He did however acknowledge ;
“I can assure my noble friend that about a quarter of each of my mornings is spent in trying to help in cases of hardship. In this connexion I have had the greatest number of letters that I have ever received in the course of my life. I can assure noble Lords that I try to administer this matter in as fair a way as possible. This is one of the things that has to be done and I admit that there are cases of hardship, but I do my best to mitigate them. In conclusion I ask for the support of the British public in this matter in the future as they have supported us in the past”.
HANSARD 13 July 1943 vol 128 cc437-46
What happened next has been the subject of debate ever since. There is no doubt that the patriotic fervour put in train combined with the over enthusiastic interventions of Ministry Contractors led to hundreds of thousands of tons of architectural ironwork being removed. There are records of dumps of material at locations across the UK awaiting onward transfer to ironworks. Much of this ironwork did eventually find its way to such locations, but contributors were not unreasonably perturbed to find their ‘donations’ languishing in great piles.
Anecdotal stories have emerged over time. The Evening Standard published a letter in1984 from journalist Christopher Long who claimed that vast amounts of London ironwork had ended up in the Thames Estuary
Long 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.
In other parts of the country anecdote has piles of railings lying in old quarry and in railway sidings until after the war but gradually removed over time. Another well quoted view is that the iron was ‘worthless and could not be used”.
So what was the reality ?
The rate of removal caught the Ministry by surprise and post war the British Iron and Steel Corporation recorded in a 1945 report that “the situation was in truth chaotic”. This naturally led to stockpiling.
The US were also applying pressure for the UK to maximise its own resources before calling on those of the US via the Lend - Lease programme. Edward Reilly Stettinius Jr served as United States Secretary of State under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman from 1944 to 1945 and in a visit to the UK in 1942 he lamented that the iron railings in Grovesnor Square outside the US Embassy were still in place - they were quickly removed thereafter.
The claim that the iron was ‘of no use’ is not true of course. Any ferrous metal can be re-purposed up to a point, but paint covered mixed ferrous metals in wrought iron, cast iron and steel took effort to process. Tram or railway lines were high quality material which would require minimal re-working for example and would be preferred.
So was ironwork dumped in the sea or buried in landfill post war in a great conspiracy ? Possibly but it would seem unlikely. Ferrous scrap would always have a value, particularly when materials are scarce, and this in combination with the inevitable public outcry would suggest this did not happen. The other aspect is of course that no such dump or deposit has ever been found.
What is certain however that the streetscapes of the UK were changed forever as a result.