A central character in a Cory Doctorow novel comments that the cast-iron railings donated by householders in Britain for use in making munitions during WWII were instead dumped into the Channel.
Doctorow takes liberties with the present and the future but not so much with the past. Even so I doubted this story. I doubted even more the reason given, that the iron was allegedly unsuitable for making munitions but that the people were not told in order to keep their morale up – the belief that their sacrifice was helping the war. While working in London I had heard stories myself of the railings going to help Soviet Russia, convoys carrying the iron on those awful Artic runs to Murmansk, across a sea infested with Nazi submarines and so cold that your body in the sea had minutes at most to live. And no ship would stop to pick you up either, because it would endanger their whole crew and the rest of the convoy.
Did I doubt that the British Government was capable of keeping the truth from the people in the cause of war morale? Not for one minute – they have lied and concealed truth from the people for reasons much worse throughout history …. and continue to do so. No, what I doubted was that the metal was unusable. I’ve worked in a few foundries and although they were non-ferrous, I think I know a little about metal and its preparation. I’ve been a welder too.
Cast iron is what it sounds like, iron that has been cast – melted in high heat and then poured into molds to the required shape. But it isn’t just iron – among other things it also contains carbon. So does steel, even the lower-carbon steels – but cast iron contains a much higher proportion of carbon, at least 2% and often just over 4%. Not much, you might think but it does make a big difference.
Once, many familiar objects were made out of cast iron – gutters, drainpipes, gas pipes, sewer pipes, manhole covers, gas lamp-poles, baths ….. A very hard metal but also brittle. You’ve seen an old metal broken drainpipe, right? Broken into a point? Cast iron, for sure. Steel doesn’t break like that. Corrodes, dents, bends and under extreme pressure, shears – but doesn’t shatter or break off like cast iron when it gets a hard enough knock. Well, maybe steel will shatter in extreme cold but we’re talking about within a normal range of temperatures here.
Cast iron is denser and heavier than steel and needs a greater thickness than steel to make something, it being possible to work the latter while very thin. Think of a food ‘tin can’: it’s not tin, though typically it had a coating of tin inside. It is steel, pressed very thinly – “thin can” would have been a more accurate name. Now, think of those cans you’ve seen, rusting away from the outside (the reason for the protective coating of tin inside).
So why use cast iron at all? Well, corrosion-resistance is one of the reasons to choose it as a material — cast iron doesn’t corrode as badly or as quickly as steel (stainless steel of course is something else). And cast iron melts at a lower temperature than steel, which makes it significantly cheaper to produce. Cast iron is very good under compression, i.e. at bearing weight and, when used in arches, could and did make effective iron bridges (though not good under tension or “pull”, where steel has it beat). And it can be machined well – so engine blocks and big machine frames could be made from it. And the kitchen range stove.
For years my mother wanted a big cast iron frying pan like those she had been familiar with from the Spanish state, because the heat stayed in the pan longer and food stuck less (this was before Teflon and other non-stick surfaces). The cast iron pan is heavy to manipulate but I prefer cooking in it myself.
Now, iron is common to cast iron, steel and wrought iron. All iron can be melted down and re-used. You might have to process some other elements out and add other elements but so what? Is it being suggested that Britain in the mid-20th Century did not have the technology to do so? Or even that it was cheaper to dump the cast iron, at a time when cheaper imports could not possibly be available?
But then what happened to the missing railings? They were definitely removed and to this day you can see some walls in Britain, with rows of holes filled with lead, where the railings were secured. The newspaper magnate and owner of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook (William Maxwell Aitken), who was variously Minister for for Aircraft Production and later for Supply, had put out the call for the public to donate the cast-iron railings for armament production.
There are at least hundreds of recorded eye-witness accounts of the removal of railings and gates, as well as quite a few photographs showing people working on their removal. But where they went is a mystery. There are no similar eye-witness accounts of the arrival of those railings in the steelworks of England, Wales and Scotland, even though the histories of those steelworks are well documented.
Discounting the popular belief that the metal was “unsuitable”, the London Gardens Trust website writer has this to say:
“Another more likely explanation is that far more iron was collected – over one millions tons by September 1944 – than was needed or could be processed. Certainly the huge underground munitions factory Beaverbook set up at Corsham in Wiltshire ran far below capacity for its short life.”
So why not just halt the collection? One reason might be that Government Ministers hate admitting mistakes. But another could be the desire to keep the war effort morale going among the population:
“Faced with an oversupply, rather than halt the collection, which had turned out to be a unifying effort for the country and of great propaganda value, the government allowed it to continue. The ironwork collected was stockpiled away from public view in depots, quarries, railway sidings. After the war, even when raw materials were still in short supply, the widely held view is that the government did not want to reveal that the sacrifice of so much highly valued ironwork had been in vain, and so it was quietly disposed of, or even buried in landfill or at sea.”
John Farr wrote an article in Picture Postcard Monthly, (‘Who Stole our Gates”, PPM No 371, March 2010), in which he claims that only 26% of the iron work collected was used for munitions. He also states that “most of the pertinent records at the Public Records Office had been shredded”.
A recurring tale in London is that the railings were taken out on barges and dumped in the Thames Estuary. The source for this seems to be an 1984 often-quoted letter to the Evening Standard by journalist Christopher Long. It seems too that this might have been Cory Doctorrow’s source, although his character said “the Channel” (hardly likely in time of war),
Christopher Long claimed to have this information from dockers in Canning Town, East London, who gave accounts of the disposal. So much was dumped, they said, that ships in the estuary needed local pilots to guide them because their compasses were made unreliable by the sheer amount of iron down below.
Sadly, we are unlikely to verify or disprove this story except through archaeological underwater investigation. Strangely, Christopher Long appears not to have rigorously documented his sources or to have recorded the names of his informants, much less made oral history recordings. If he did do all that, he did not refer to it in his letter or subsequent publication.
But it does seem extraordinary that, if true, this information could be kept a secret for so long. One possible reason is a political one – but from the Left rather than the Government. Support for the Soviet Union from British workers was a significant element in British Left-wing discourse during the War and afterwards. It may not have suited the Left to undermine the dominant narrative of British railings, torn out by British workers, going to make Soviet tanks. And collectors of oral history among working class communities tend to be of Left-wing ideology, it would appear.
But it would also seem that these stories are not too far away in time to be investigated, as other investigations of oral history of WWI in Britain or the 1916 Rising in Dublin have shown. And how hard would it be to investigate the often-repeated story that some of the railings are to be found in West African ports, as allegedly they had been used as ballast in ships bound for Africa?
It occurs to me that one unexpected effect of the mass removal of railings would have been rendering public many of the parks in bourgeois areas, previously accessible to “residents only”. Perhaps working class people living nearby would have been particularly enthusiastic about removing these to support the war effort?
Some links to information sources: