Interpreting Britain’s Second World War Experience From an #EnvHist Perspective

In the first of our blog posts on this year’s workshop theme of Intersections, Gary Willis (University of Bristol) shares some of his finding about the relationships between the Second World War and the transformation of the rural landscape in Britain:

Looking at Britain’s Second World War experience from an environmental history perspective can provide an entirely different dimension to military, political, economic, industrial and aeronautical approaches.

My research offers an alternative means of illustrating and measuring the scale of British preparations for war well before its actual outbreak. Analysing when land was requisitioned or purchased by the State’s various war departments for new war-effort related industrial plant sites reveals the under-appreciated rural location of much of Britain’s war-time industry.

Environmental history can also discover previously unknown or ignored material. Evidence for land requisitions comes from a perhaps unusual and surprising source – the Executive Committee minutes of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (or Council for the Preservation of Rural England as it was then). Its archive, held at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, shows an increasing pre-occupation with concerns over demands for land from late 1935 onwards, particularly by the Air Ministry for airfields, the Ministry of Aircraft Production for aircraft factories, the army for training camps, and the Ministry of Supply for munitions factories.

By the end of 1937 this led to CPRE successfully lobbying Neville Chamberlain, the relatively newly-appointed Prime Minister, and friend of the conservation movement, to intervene in a War Department land-grab free-for-all that had developed over the previous two years. Chamberlain responded by issuing a directive to all Government departments, requiring them to establish consultation mechanisms with CPRE and other concerned organisations over the future possible use of land for war-related purposes. This Chamberlain did despite being beset by both domestic and international political challenges, and his quite extraordinary intervention has not been covered by the existing biographies of Chamberlain; more proof, not that it should be needed, of the benefits of an analysis of history through an environmental lens.

Whilst there is a quite extensive historiography relating to Second World War airfields, much less has been written about the rapid expansion of Britain’s war-effort related industrial capacity, and indeed its impact on the rural landscape. Approximately 1,000 new war-related industrial plant sites were constructed from1936 onwards; a significant proportion were so-called ‘shadow factories’ run by private companies on behalf of the State, manufacturing anything and everything from military aircraft to clothing, and tending to be built on what would now be called “green-field” sites on the urban periphery. Around 50 Royal Ordnance Factories were also constructed under the direction of the Ministry of Supply – often – for obvious reasons – in relatively isolated rural areas.

My findings to date point to the vast majority of sites not reverting – post-war – to their pre-war agricultural or amenity use. The sites either continued at least for a period of time to serve a military function, or were sold off to private industry for civilian manufacturing or other commercial use. Only it would seem in picturesque cases – such as the Ministry of Aircraft Production’s seaplane factory at Calgarth on the shores of Lake Windermere – earmarked as a national park before the war – was there successful opposition (led by CPRE) to the post-war retention of the site for industrial purposes.

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DP176 seaplane ready to launch at the Calgarth factory on the shore of Lake Windermere; note the Lake District hills to the left (photograph courtesy of Allan King) Source [accessed 7/6/2018]
This reflected not so much a clear Government policy that CPRE could refer to in support of its position, but more that at the height of its fevered lobbying in 1941 to stop the factory from being built at all, CPRE had been able to extract a written commitment from the then Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, to the effect that the factory would be dismantled at the end of the war. This was subsequently done, albeit in the face of local community opposition on the grounds that the manufacturing potential of the site and the accompanying workers’ housing would be beneficial to people in the area in the post-war period, given the shortage of both jobs and housing.

As for the majority of sites which never returned to their previous pre-war rural identity, does this represent the last significant industrial land-grab before the passing and implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947? What cumulative impact on the rural landscape have these sites had, representing a visual and environmental legacy of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War? And what does it tell us about the future likelihood of sites acquired on a supposedly temporary basis by the State for military purposes being returned to their original use? These are all questions my PhD will seek to answer.


Gary Willis is undertaking a PhD on the impact on the rural landscape of Britain’s expanded war industry in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol; he writes in greater detail about the role of CPRE in the run-up to and during the Second World War in a forthcoming issue of Rural History.

Twitter: GaryW_Env_Hist
Email Gary

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