What happened to those iron railings?

Photograph by Claire Pendrous

In May 1942, the minutes of the Sheffield Town Trust recorded the following: – “Railings around the Botanical Gardens have been requisitioned by the Ministry of Works and Buildings – approximately 300 yards – bought originally at a cost of £877.”

Considering that £877 is worth about £41,600 today, and that the railings had probably been erected during Victorian times, it was an inconvenience that the Town Trust fought and lost.

This occurrence happened all over the country during World War Two, suggested by Lord Beaverbrook (in charge of aircraft production) to Winston Churchill, intended to make people think they were contributing to the defence of Britain following the catastrophe at Dunkirk.

“They took away our railings. Men came and cut the ornamental railings 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.”

Photograph by London Parks and Gardens Trust

The action, ordered as part of Regulation 50 of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939, left stumps of old railings in our walls, and if you look carefully around Sheffield, evidence can still be seen outside many private houses.

In 1950, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph said that “a generation is growing up which does not remember the iron fences and gates which adorned, in some instances, and gave a prison appearance in others, to our homes and public buildings.”

During the war, the willing public went along with the scheme, taking solace that old iron railings would be put to good use. However, if the truth had been known, their enthusiasm to co-operate might have been less agreeable.

In recent times, John Farr, a correspondent, reckons that only 26 per cent of ironwork was used for munitions, and that by 1944 much of it was rusting in council depots, quarries or railway sidings, with some filtering through to the post-war metal industry.

It started out as a conspiracy theory and turned out to be true.

By September 1944, over one million tons of ironwork had been collected, far more than was needed. Faced with an oversupply, the Government allowed the programme to continue, if only to save face.

Ironwork was stockpiled away and even after the war, when raw materials were in short supply, the widely held view was that the Government quietly disposed of it and even buried it in landfill or at sea.

Photograph by Garton & King Ltd

Of course, any evidence conveniently disappeared, with records of this wartime effort destroyed, and leaving some unlikely explanations as to what happened to this iron hoard.

Towards the end of the war, when munitions were running out, it is suggested that bombers flying over France were loaded with pieces of cut-down railings which were dropped on the enemy.

Another rumour suggests that ironwork was used as ballast for ships in West Africa, and that today houses in ports across Ghana and Nigeria can be found with smart Victorian railings.

In London, there are eye-witness accounts of barges dumping ironwork into the Thames Estuary, to which it remains, but we do know for certain that up until the 1980s there were scrapyards around Britain still piled high with the stuff.

And so, it makes you wonder what happened to those expensive iron railings from outside the Botanical Gardens. Perhaps they adorn the outside of a respectable house in Lagos.

Botanical Gardens. Photograph by Google Street View