Walking with Alfie in the graveyard of Tewkesbury Abbey yesterday I noticed several tombs on plinths bearing the scars of the removal of the iron railings that once formed the enclosure; we walk often in the church yard taking for granted this sacrifice to the war effort in WW2. I knew, as most Britons do, that London and other big cities gladly contributed this vital raw material but I was surprised to see evidence in our little riverside town. It got me thinking.
When Churchill became Prime Minister he installed press baron Lord Beaverbrook 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.
One way was to requisition the 19th century iron railings and gates surrounding many of the cemeteries, parks and squares in Britain’s towns and cities. This was begun in 1940 and continued until the end of the war when many thousands of tons of iron were removed by the authorities. The public were also asked to donate aluminium kitchen utensils – although in practice these were only owned by the better off. Beaverbrook himself issued a press appeal: “We will turn your pots and pans (park gates and railings) into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons”.
Since then the rumour has persisted that the iron collected was unsuitable for making planes and instead buried in quarries or dumped at sea, and that it was basically a propaganda effort. It was a moral-booster. Thousands of tons were never melted down but loaded into lighters and towed down the Thames and dumped at sea. Witnesses say ships had to have pilots to guide shipping past these dumps because the amount of iron affected their compasses.
There is belief that the iron was loaded on to bombers and dropped over occupied France in an effort to stem German advances. This seems a little far-fetched; gate crashing?
The Public Records Office have records of what happened to the iron collected, it seems the records disappeared or were shredded after the war. In 1978 a journalist claimed the London iron was deposited out of sight in quarries and disused railway tunnels.
It is possible the iron could be recycled to make planes in WW2. The iron must have come from somewhere and since iron was a key part in aircraft manufacture it could come from recycled gates and railings. However there appears no record at any of the major iron and steel works of deliveries of salvaged iron arriving for smelted and re-used.
It might have been a good idea at the time and it was certainly continued throughout the war as a publicity exercise, giving the public a feeling they were contributing to the war effort.
I remember ‘Any ‘ole iron’, a familiar cry of scrap dealers after the war trawling the streets in London with horse and cart on the street my Grandma lived. To bad it’s all gone.