Secret London: the mystery of London’s World War II railings

I recently received this email:

‘Stumbled across your blog recently and wondered if you’d be interested in doing a bit of digging to find out what happened to London’s railings.

During WWII there was a national scrap drive especially active in London where a lot of railings were grubbed up and sent off to be scrapped. I have never been able to find out what really happened with this pre-emptive move to destroy London before the Luftwaffe but it seems that program was more of a public relations exercise rather than of any practical use and the railings were dumped.
I have heard tell of them being dumped in the Thames and being used as ballast for ships leaving the Port of London. It is said that seaport buildings in Guyana and Nigeria still sport rather nice Georgian railings.’
And that was it. In truth, I know little about London railings (image below from Knowledge Of London). I’d also heard the story that were used for scrap metal in the war, and was also aware that in Harleyford Street, SE11, some ARP stretchers used during the war to ferry casualties away from bombsites had been turned into railings (you can see a glimpse of them in Patrick Keiller’s London and they also feature in Peter Ashley’s excellent More London Peculiars).
So I turned to my dog-eared copy of London Street Furniture, which wasn’t much help. ‘Doubtless, railings have their devotees,’ I read. ‘The authors may be nerds, but this is one items of street furniture that even they cannot get excited about.’
Oh.
The section continues: ‘When we were children we heard all about the drive to uproot railings to produce scrap iron to assist the war effort in the early 1940s. We suspect that railings were seized and removed more keenly from working-class districts than from the fronts of the houses of people who had wealth and social and political clout.
Removing railings in WW2 (Imperial War Museum)
I’m not sure this is true, as I have read that railings were removed from many garden squares, making them suddenly accessible to the public (indeed, that is what is happening in the image above).
That the railings were removed is beyond doubt. Here is a typical quote from somebody who had their railings removed during the war, taken from the BBC’s People’s War site.
They took away our railings. Men came and cut the ornamental railing from the copings on the little walls outside of the houses, along the whole length of the road, they were taken away to be melted down to make weapons.
But did they really get melted down? A quick scour of the internet produces this interesting nugget from a WWII forum. It is a letter from 1984 to the Evening Standard and says in full:
I was interested in your item about the railings which are to be replaced in Ennismore Gardens. The tragedy is that so many of London’s railings were pulled down in order to support Britain’s war effort, bearing in mind that they never became the guns and tanks they were intended for.
In fact 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.
Christopher Long Earl’s Court Square, Earl’s Court,
London SW5.
The forum correspondent goes on to add: ‘This information came from dockers in Canning Town in 1978 who had 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.’
A great story, but is it true? If anybody can say for sure, please do let us know.
UPDATE: The fine Johnny L, a noted nerd and jazz lover, points us towards this documentary by Jonathan Meades about Victorian houses.

Meades begins talking about railings after 4min 40secs. At 5min 30 secs he reports:

There aren’t many railings left now in London. This is because in 1940 there were ripped up as part of the war effort. It may have been a morale booster, but it was impractical – the stuff was never melted down and was thrown into the Thames rather unceremoniously off Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. The stuff’s still there.’

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13 responses to “Secret London: the mystery of London’s World War II railings

  1. Pingback: Secret London: the mystery of London's World War II railings | The … « Sell Scrap Nickel

  2. There’s a Jonathan Meades documentary which talks about this — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cubBtQ4AxOQ&feature=relmfu — Meades didn’t write the script for this show, it as a very early C4 documentary, before he’s really developed his style.

  3. I know that when growing up we were told on more than one occasion about railings been used for the war effort (That’s WW2 not the Civil War btw)

    Being young I assumed the type you see in the video were made that way so they could be quickly removed and used as a pike. I didn’t appreciate the melting down process.

  4. The same thing happened in Glasgow. My father reports seeing vast mounds of railings piled up in a scrapyard on Alexandra Parade in the city. They were still there well after the war was over. Indeed, the sorry stumps of hacksawed railings can still be seen on low tenement garden walls.

    One garden in the street I grew up in stands out. It still has its original railings. My mother told me that, in 1944, it must have belonged to someone important in the council.

  5. I grew up near Ennismore Gardens and remember the chain link fences that were eventually put up around the garden at the centre of the square. These were replaced in the 1990’s (I think) by residents who raised the money amongst themselves. It was and still is quite a smart area so it wasn’t just the poor who gave up their railings. As a child I was always curious about the metal stumps that stuck up from the top of low walls and masonry where they had been cut off.

  6. Just happened to walk down the bottom end of Malet Street this morning and this started happening to me: http://www.londonarchitecturediary.com/event.php?id=3218. All good fun, but the explanation adds an interesting layer to your story, Pete, describing “a wartime initiative to democratise parks and gardens by removing their railings”, with the melting down for weapons only a pretext “better understood as wartime propaganda”. The British Government acting to democratise private space? Hardly credible, I think, but an intoxicating thought.

  7. This happened all over ther country. Wherever you go, you still often see the stubs of the railings on walls, and it wasn’t just the poor areas which suffered.

  8. I’m a railing nerd, and can get excited about them 🙂 During my career (I run an art blacksmithing company originally founded in 1932) I have been fascinated by the regular occurrence of railings coming to light having been hidden behind sheds and shrubs to avoid giving them up for the war effort. We also experienced the ‘finding’ of a large ornate pair of entrance gates, thought popularly to have been sacrificed for the war effort, secreted upright behind a fake wall at the end of a large house.

  9. Pingback: THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING RAILINGS – Generosity, Solidarity, Propaganda and Secrecy in WWII | rebelbreeze

  10. Pingback: The National Security Implications Of Failing To Support The Steel Industry « Semi-Partisan Politics

  11. I do not know much about what happened to railings but i am not so sure that the better off were spared. In around 1942 or 43 the tabloid press discovered that earlier Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (PM 1931-37), known as the “iron monger” by his critics (he came from a family who ran a metal foundry) still had his ornamental iron gates specially made in his family foundry, and considered specially beautiful by connoisseurs of such things, which stood at the entrance to his country home. A hue and cry was made about it, “why should he keep his gates, when we had to give up ours”, etc. Specially Baldwin for it happens Baldwin was already in the dog house as popular opinion blamed him for de-arming Britain at the very point we should have been arming to meet the growing German menace (as Chruchill continously badgered him about this from the back benches). He was considered one of the “guilty men” who had left Britain un-prepared and vulnerable to invasion. He thus avoided public meetings after 1940.

    As it happened a special commission had been set up to preserve Britain’s most histoically important railings or iron work to spare them from being melted down during the bid to melt down railings in 1940. Balwin’s railings had been given a preservation order. But such was the public out-cry that Baldwin’s gates had been spared that in the end he had to surrender them to the war effort to fend off the mob. That suggests to me the upper classes were no more spared from the edict than anyone else. In fact you can see in b&w pics of the time of Eaton Square, heavily bombed, and Knightsbridge area that all the railings of the great houses had been removed.

    The amazing thing is that since the 1980s most of the taken railings have slowly been replaced which has brought a charm back to London – possibly one of the only good things of a property boom, ie. people pay to restore features if the house is worth a mint.

    As to what happened to the iron railings taken down. Well, at the same time a parallel scheme took place asking people to give up old pots and pans and the response was enormous with each borough quickly forming a pots and pan mountain. This was in the critical summer months of 1940 when people expected an invasion and were keen to do anything to help. Now this was a waste of time as most of the metal was weak and useless and the pots and pans were just dumped somewhere. Maybe this is what the above contributor is referring to re: the Thames. But the effort was worth it for propaganda purposes as the pictures of the pots and pan mountain was widely publicised both at home and abroad. From what i understand the iron from railings though were not dumped as this was good solid metal, worth melting down to re-use.

    And regarding Baldwin’s beleagured reputation, well you never know how the public mood goes. When he was leaving Lloyd George’s funeral service in Parliament Square in April 1945 a crowd had gathered to watch the departing dignataries, Baldwin now near deaf, was in an open top car and realised he had been recognised. He saw the people baying something at him but could not hear. He said to his accompaniant, “are they booing?” and the accompaniant replied “no sir, they are cheering you”.

  12. Railings and gates are made of steel, wrought iron or cast iron.
    Tanks are stainless steel, guns are gunmetal, planes are aluminium — I’ve even heard grown men tell me railings were taken away to make bullets – which are lead and brass.
    Ships and vehicles would be the only use I can think of, wrought or cast iron wouldn’t be much use there …

  13. My grandparents lived in albyn road St johns deptford se8, my dad told me that the railings of their 3 storey house were removed during the war.

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