David Winpenny looks at a wartime act of vandalism – and what’s happening today to overcome it.
The name of Dr Beeching has resounded down the years. The man who took an axe to the British railway system has become a byword for riding roughshod over the wishes of many people and depriving them of their valuable transport links.
But what of Lord Beaverbrook? Should his name, also, be anathema? There is a good case – perhaps an even better case than that of Beeching. (There was, after all, some justification for cutting some of the obscure and deeply unprofitable lines from the rail network – the Ripon rail argument is for another time, though!).
So what did Beaverbrook do that was so dreadful? And, indeed, who was he? As Max Aitkin, he made a fortune in cement (some say not entirely legally) in Canada before moving to Britain, where he developed his investments in newspapers, including the Daily Express and the London Evening Standard. Knighted in 1911 and made a peer in 1917, he was a friend of many in the Establishment, and when Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 Beaverbrook was made Minister of Aircraft Production. His time at the Ministry was successful, with the numbers of aeroplanes manufactured rising greatly..
To get the people of Britain more involved in the idea of helping the War Effort, Beaverbrook came up with two linked ideas. One was to get householders to donate their aluminium pots and pans to help build Spitfires. As a piece of propaganda this was very successful. Hundreds of thousands of utensils were donated, and, indeed, some did find their way into the aircraft industry. A popular ‘Salvage Song’ of the time celebrated it:
My saucepans have all been surrendered; the teapot is gone from the hob,
The colander's leaving the cabbage for a very much different job.
So now, when I hear the on the wireless of Hurricanes showing their mettle
I see in a vision before me a Dornier chased by my kettle.
Beaverbrook’s other idea was less rational, and was the one that should have his name remembered with at least annoyance if not scorn. In September 1941 he ordered all local authorities to survey their iron and steel railings and gates and to requisition them for melting down to make tanks. The challenge was taken up with enthusiasm, and throughout the country workmen were sent out to tear down ornamental railings. Only railings of ‘artistic or historic merit’ could be spared – and the decision rested in the hands of the same local authorities. One of the causes célèbres of the time were the gates and railings at former PM Stanley Baldwin’s home in Worcestershire. Baldwin lost all except one pair of gates.
And what happened in Ripon? You have only to walk around the city and you can see for yourself. Look at the low walls that surround any Victorian or earlier building and you will see the holes from which the railings have been wrenched, or, sometimes the stumps left as they were sawn off. Very little seems to have been sacrosanct. The railings alongside the cathedral in Minster Road went, and so did ones by St Wilfrid’s church. Those in front of the Workhouse gatehouse in Allhallowgate were taken, and so were the ones round the Spa Gardens. There was, it seems a reprieve for the ornate iron balconies in The Crescent, but that may have been for safety reasons rather than because a local panel had pronounced on them.
The effect on Ripon, as on many towns, was to take away one of the smaller pleasures that gave character to the city. Seventy years on, we are still living with the consequences. Some years ago there was a scheme to reinstate some of the railings, with grants offered through the North East Civic Trust; some new railings appeared then, and, through the good offices of private owners, more have been added.
Putting in new railings needs care. It is understandable that the labour-intensive method of cementing each upright separately should no longer be used, relying instead on panels with just one or two anchor points. Health and safety seems to have decreed that sharp spikes are out, but it is probably not really necessary, or particularly attractive, to end the rails with small spheres. Nor is the trend to paint the points gold or silver while all the rest of the railings are black especially pleasing. The 18th century ironmasters and the architects who used their work specified black or very dark blue paint, which seems entirely appropriate.
The recently-reinstated railings at the Workhouse Museum, in part funded by Ripon Civic Society, are a good example of how modern railings should be done. They really make a difference to the streetscape and add dignity to the building.
And what of the railings that were taken away? How many tanks did they make? None, it seems. There are conflicting stories about what happened to the railings and gates – either they were stored in a disused aircraft hangar in Ulster, or they were quietly dumped at sea after the war – or possibly both. So Beaverbrook’s great idea, that caused so much vandalism and detracted so much from cities, towns and villages across the country, was all for nothing. That’s why we should class him alongside Dr Beeching.
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