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What actually happened to Cumbria’s gates

Written by on July 12, 2020

From our reporter JASON RUSHWORTH

There are two walls in Seascale where Iron railings were taken away 80
years ago this year for the war effort. These were taken up from two
walls up the banks in the village, but there is a better example on the
front wall at the Methodist church on Gosforth road Seascale. Back in
the day, Dukes street in Whitehaven had a clear example of world war 2
requestions orders to take the iron railings down to build Spitfires.
These have now been covered over in front of St Nicolas Church (As in
the church that burnt down back in the ’70s). I remember my Grandfather
telling me all this and his story was backed up by many others over the
But what actually happened to Seascale’s iron railings during world war
Two?¬† Being big into our local history I thought I’d find out.
First stop an email to Steelworks at Port Talbot, Shotton, Sheffield and
Motherwell who had been in business since the start of the twentieth
century and their histories are well documented. Yet, while the removal
of the iron is recounted by hundreds of eyewitnesses, there are no
similar reports in Seascale of the lorries arriving and taking them away
to the steelworks with large quantities of railings and gates to be
loaded into the blast furnaces. During the Second World War Lord
Beaverbrook played a major role in mobilising industrial resources as
Winston Churchill’s Minister of Aircraft Production. Lord Beaverbrook
was nothing if not thorough and his logistics operations would have been
geared to deliver the iron to the steelworks.
So what did happen? One avenue of thought – is Seascale’s iron railings
that were collected – was unsuitable and could not be used. This seems
unlikely as recycled iron is a key component in the steel industry.
Another more likely explanation is that far more iron was collected –
over one million 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.
Were Seascalians sold a Propaganda story for the railings…?
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 on the west coast branch line. 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 a landfill or at sea.
This is the view of John Farr, author of a recent article in Picture
Postcard Monthly, (‘Who Stole our Gates). In it he says that only 26% of
the ironwork collected was used for munitions and by 1944 much of it was
rusting in council depots or railway sidings, with some filtering
through to the post-war metal industry. Yet the public was never told this.
Was there an official cover-up? Farr states that “most of the pertinent
records at the Public Records Office had been shredded” and that hints
remain that a cover-up took place to prevent names other than
Beaverbrook’s being linked to this sad pillage of our railings.”
Down south in London, the persisting explanation is that it was loaded
onto barges and dumped in the Thames Estuary, an account which seems to
have originated in a letter to the Evening Standard by journalist
Christopher Long in 1984.
Long wrote, “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.”
He 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. However, there are no first-hand records of this and the trail
remains elusive.
Other more fanciful explanations have also surfaced: one WW2 aircraft
website I saw has an account from a member saying that running out of
munitions towards the end of the war, the bombers flying over France
were simply loaded up with pieces of cut-down railings, which they
dropped on the enemy. Another has the ironwork used as ballast in ships
to Africa with unverified reports that houses can be found in ports on
the West African coast, surrounded by decorative Victorian cast-iron
railings. Perhaps Seascale’s Iron gates and railings are in use today
over there?
Meanwhile, the villages and towns around Seascale remain littered with
the stumps of removed railings. Recent years have seen a determined
effort by many communities down south, led by residents who recall the
removal of the original ironwork, to restore the gates and railings they
lost over 80 years ago. So if Seascale’s Iron gates didn’t make
Spitfires then perhaps they can be found again right under the Thames
estuary today….Along with Lord Lucan perhaps…

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