With hindsight, the 1930s are overshadowed by the impending World War. It is perhaps surprising to find that this was recognised quite widely at the time, at least by 1937. It is unusual for people today to see themselves as living in ‘history’ indeed towards the end of the last century some historians were prepared to claim that history had ended (e.g. Fukuyama 1992). For the generations that had lived through the Great War followed by the Great Depression, however, the idea that historic events could occur at any moment was just common sense.
We have seen in an earlier post that the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany touched the activities at Heartbreak Hill, but on the whole the documents we have for this case study date from before war became a serious concern. Similarly, at Hamsterley, we know little of what happened there after about 1935. Of course we do know that it was used by the army during the war as a POW camp and it is possible, though perhaps unlikely, that it was requisitioned at an early date. Hopefully, further archival research will clarify this point.
At both Swarland and Team Valley however, there is ample evidence for the perception of the coming War by the members of the schemes and the steps they took to prepare for it. The training scheme for young men ran by the Fountains Abbey Settlers’ Society sent several boys into the Royal Navy, perhaps inspired by the fact that both Commander Clare Vyner and Captain Sutherland were ex-Naval officers (WYAS WYL/150/B1/8). It is possible that this was partly due to a concern for the armed-forces but could also be because the Navy was clearly a steady job that did not depend on heavy industry.
Re-armament began in earnest in the middle of the decade as international efforts towards disarmament collapsed. The Fountains Abbey Settler’s Society was very clearly influenced by this, as it ended its training scheme for young men at Studley Royal in 1937 because of the availability of jobs on Tyneside fulfilling armaments contracts. In a letter to Sir RH Price of Ilkley on the 6th July 1937 Mr Nott, the secretary of the Fountains Abbey Settlers’ Society, said: “Re-armament has meant that a number of boys have found work, and that most of the others are hoping to find work at home. That they cannot by any means all find work is certain, but meanwhile they are unwilling to come away from home for training and we have therefore, for the time being, given up training boys here, having placed ninety-eight boys in employment during the last three years.” (WYAS WYL/150/5623).
In August 1937 Mr Meller, who was the Settlers’ Society officer at the Swarland settlement left for training in the RAF Reserves. He was sent to the recently opened RAF Debden and wrote to Mr Nott from there. Interestingly, he observed that “Of course this is a new Station and a bit like Swarland all bricks and mortar. They must mean making this a big place.” (WYAS WYL150/5623, Fig. 1). The comparison is striking because the function of Swarland is was different, but both were planned and modern. It is easy to imagine that Swarland was supposed to be a rural idyll and so completely removed from the world of technology and global conflict, but the thinking of the people who designed and built it was clearly quite different; it was also a part of a modernist future as was the Air Force. Having received his training and witnessed a crash, he returned to Swarland, but presumably was called up to fight only two years later.
The Swarland settlement began to make its own preparations for war as early as 1937. In November of that year Mr Nott, the secretary of the Fountains Abbey Settler’s Society wrote to Superintendent Spratt of the Alnwick police station to ask whether Swarland could join the Alnwick Air Raid Precautions (ARP) scheme if there was one. Spratt replied that ARP wardens were to be appointed by the Rural District Council but that he would need to swear them in as Special Constables. He was willing to do this and asked Nott to send a list of suitable men (WYAS WYL/150/5623). At the same time the Society was setting up a volunteer fire service. It asked the Rural District Council for advice and training, purchased fire hoses and asked the Swarland Saw Mill to design and build a hose-cart. As they investigated the possibility of obtaining a Home Office ARP scheme grant for this it is possible that the fire service was set up with ARP measures in mind. It is likely that these preparations were inspired by the bombing of Guernica on the 26th April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. In this raid German and Italian forces supporting Nationalist Spain bombed a civilian population. This was something that had been feared across the world for decades and so was especially shocking.
As at Swarland the Team Valley Industrial Estate also prepared for war from around 1937. Perhaps the earliest indication of the oncoming conflict is the establishment of a Home Office gas mask store in building A14 in January 1937, though presumably this was for the benefit of the local region rather than the Estate alone (Loebl 1988, 373).
The Sudetenland Crisis of September 1938 galvanised the Trading Estate into emergency planning which interrupted the efforts to design a Physical Training and Recreation Centre. On the 4th October 1938, a few days after the crisis was resolved, Mr Bell, one of the Estate executives, wrote to the architect Prof Holford that “I am now almost ready to deal with the P.T.&R. again, having been saved by the impending war.” He closed the letter with the words: “We are now trying to adjust ourselves to normal conditions again. I think everyone is extremely relieved except our liaison officer, who is naturally somewhat disappointed that his emergency scheme was never completed, and who still refuses to believe that the danger is past.” (TWAM 1395/15, Fig. 2). War had been averted by the Munich Pact which Neville Chamberlain famously claimed had secured ‘peace for our time’. The liaison office was of course correct, though Bell seems to have accepted the Prime Minister’s assurances.
Later on as the situation worsened air raid shelters were built at the Estate. A leaflet for Shorter’s Construction Company Limited’s tubular concrete air-raid shelters has been filed among the papers of North Eastern Trading Estates (Fig. 3). This advertised shelters for homes, schools and businesses and urged readers to ‘be prepared!’ in case of ‘our being faced again with a state of National Emergency’ it went on to cite accounts of bomb damage in Barcelona and mentioned that its shelters could be made gas-proof (TWAM 1395/33).
In July 1939 North Eastern Trading Estates was given permission by the Commissioner for Special Areas, England and Wales to build air raid shelters on the estate. The Trading Estate invited its tenants to a conference at 10 o’clock on Tuesday the 25th July 1939 to inform them of the ARP preparations that had been made (TWAM 1395/34, Fig. 4).
War was declared on the 3rd of September 1939. A number of the Trading Estate staff immediately went into the forces including Colonel E.N. Eveleigh who went to the Headquarters of Scottish Command in Edinburgh. On the 7th September North Eastern Trading Estates wrote to him to ask him to settle his club bill and opened their letter: “I am so sorry to trouble you at a time like this…” (TWAM 1395/32, Fig. 5).
TWAM – Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
WYAS – West Yorkshire Archive Service
Fukuyama, F. 1992 The End of history and the Last Man London
Loebl, H. 1988 Government Factories and the Origins of British Regional Policy 1934-1948 Aldershot