A stone wall showing the stubs where iron railings were once affixed

From the Archives: Knutsford’s Iron Railings

The Town Council holds an archive of documents containing a wealth of local history and, thanks to the work of two dedicated volunteers, the archives are being sorted and catalogued for the first time.

Jenny and Mary attend the council offices each week to sift and sort the various files and we are keen to share the information they unearth. Mary prepared this article for the Friends of Knutsford Heritage Centre newsletter when they found a survey of the iron railings taken for the war effort during the second world war.

During the second world war when resources were scarce there were several campaigns asking people to donate sundry items for ‘the war effort.’ These included rags, rubber, paper and metal.

Aluminium was needed for aircraft manufacture and housewives were ask to donate their aluminium saucepans and kettles.  Iron was used in the production of bombs, tanks, guns and battleships. This gave Churchill and his cabinet the idea to requisition iron gates and railings so they could be recycled and repurposed.  

To this end, local authorities were required to complete a survey of the iron gates and railings in their areas within 6 weeks and to mark those which in their view were unnecessary. That would exclude railings which served a useful purpose, such as to prevent cattle straying, or railings of historic interest or artistic merit.

Knutsford was as keen as any town to support the war effort and a recently discovered record shows how they comprehensively surveyed the streets, recording the length and height of all the iron railings and gates and their purpose. It also recorded the owner of each property at the time. Owners were technically allowed to claim compensation at 25 shillings per ton (the equivalent to £1.25 in decimal money) but not all contractors recorded accurate weight, if at all.

The street with by far the most properties with iron railings and gates was Manchester Road, where they were recorded as either ‘dividing gardens’ or ‘enclosing gardens’. Evidence still remains along this road showing the stumps where railings had been removed, as in this photo of the wall outside the Manchester Road Medical Centre. At the time these three adjoining properties, Nos 27, 29 and 31, all belonged to a Mrs J. Jackson. They were listed as ‘Medium weight railings on 3’ brick wall’, measuring 1½ feet in height and 15 yards in length.

The large detached houses on Toft Road and Leycester Road also yielded large quantities of ‘light weight hurdles’ and ‘light iron railings’, with lengths varying from 25 to 78 yards, and there were 87 yards of ‘light iron hurdles’ fencing the ‘pavilion and plantation’ at Toft Cricket Club. Nothing was spared in this survey, although it is uncertain how much of it was actually removed. It includes 280 yards of fencing around the Moor Recreation Ground and 100 yards of ‘pillars and chains’ outside the Old Town Hall (now the Lost & Found). There are pillars and chains at the front of this building to this day. Did they survive this war initiative, or have they since been replaced? Comparing old photos with what is there now I would suspect the latter, as the old pillars look more ornate and substantial than the present ones.

Looking at other old photos I’ve been able to establish that the original wall which gave Wallwood its name, had been replaced before WW2 with light iron railings – 200 yards of them, according to this wartime survey. These must have been removed and it is now surrounded by a wooden rail.

Just across the road we come to the longest measurement on the list – 670 yards enclosing the Tatton Park entrance. I imagine Lord Egerton would have been more than happy to give this up to help the war.

But what happened to all the iron collected? Being wartime everything was hush hush and what happened next is still the subject of debate. There is no doubt that patriotic fever, combined with over enthusiastic interventions by the contractors on behalf of the Ministry of Supply, led to hundreds of thousands of tons of ironwork being removed. Much of it was of poor quality and wasn’t as easy to use as politicians had assumed. In certain areas there was far more than could be used. However, they quickly realised the psychological benefit, as people felt they were doing their bit for the war effort. So surplus iron was dumped out of sight in old quarries or railway sidings.

Rumour abounded that the excess ironwork in London was dumped in the Thames with dockers in east London claiming that ships in the estuary needed pilots to guide them because their compasses were made unreliable by the amount of iron down below.

In other parts of the country there are anecdotes that piles of railings were lying around until after the war and then gradually removed. Though to date no dump or deposit has ever been found.

But on your next walk around Knutsford look closely at some of the older walls along Manchester Rd, Cranford Avenue or even round the Library Gardens and you can find evidence of railings having been removed, even if they have been subsequently replaced.