The Square at War

This post is another in my series about London squares and will look at what happened to them during  the war.  They were dug up for allotments and bomb shelters, used as bases for barrage balloons and most famously had their railings pulled down to be recycled into munitions.

However I discovered very quickly that while some of this was easily provable, an urban myth had grown up about others, particularly the fate of the railings.  There is now a “standard” internet version of the story, recycled with the help of  Mr Google from website to website,  but is it actually true?


When the London Squares Preservation Act,  became law in 1931 it protected about 640 of  the remaining squares and garden enclosures, but  it did not open them.  It also included a whole list of exemptions and exceptions. The University of London, for example, was able to do whatever it liked in both Tavistock and Woburn Squares,  while several more squares in the Square Mile, notably  Finsbury Circus,  were deemed safe enough already in the hands of the City Corporation. More worryingly the Act did not apply in a series of gardens and squares near Euston if the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company wanted to use them for “railway purposes” – which presumably is how it got away with the destruction of what was left of Euston Square recently.    

[You can find the full text and the other exemptions and exceptions on the act here  on website of the Ladbroke Association]

Just a few years after the squares were afforded a high degree of protection by the Act they were threatened with the devastation  of war.  Apart from the obvious risks from  bombing, a large part of the damage was self-inflicted as a contribution to the war effort.  Air raid shelters were built in some squares such as  Soho, Eaton  and Manchester .

Eaton Square bomb shelter facing NW, 11 May 1941
Copyright Westminster City Archives

Many others, like St James’s  Tavistock, Paulton’s and Finsbury squares were dug up and given over to vegetable growing as part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. Granville, Lloyd and King squares became the base for day nurseries.  Belgrave Square became a tank park, while Hereford Square was used as a baseball pitch by American GIs.  Some, like Cleveland Square and Grosvenor Square, became sites for barrage balloon moorings or fire brigade water tanks.   Britannia and Eve magazine [01 July 1943]  reported that Berkeley Square even became the home for guardsman to practice throwing grenades – one hopes not at the nightingales which reputedly sang there!

There were some other more unexpected uses: some squares including  Bartholomew, Northampton and Wilmington and most famously Russell  were used as the backdrop to propaganda such as the holiday at home campaigns or even for fashion shoots.

But it’s the loss of the railings which caused the most long-term damage.  It’s usually  assumed their removal  was a purely military matter, but in fact there was more to it than that.  It was in some ways, the culmination of a campaign against railings  per se anyway which had gained momentum through the 1930s.

There were two parallel arguments.  There were those who wanted railings removed from a political standpoint.  George Orwell was to write extensively about this as “a democratic gesture…because like the  dreary shrubberies of laurel and privet… the railings were merely put there to keep the populace out.” His was a view more widely shared than one might first imagine. There was, for example, an editorial in the Evening News in 1938  arguing that railings should go because they were “constant reminders of an outdated system of social hierarchy, for a lingering adherence to Victorian views of the sacredness of property.” While Wilfred Leon argued in the Times [ 20th Nov 1939]it would “be an act of democracy long overdue.”

The Bystander – Wednesday 21 April 1937

But there was another group who argued for their removal including  the Tory cabinet minister, Sir Thomas Inskip.  From 1936-39  Inskip was minister of Defence Coordination and then during the war became Secretary for the Dominions and finally Lord Chief Justice. He was also  a keen gardener who lived in Eaton Square, and in 1937 he addressed the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Institution’s annual dinner. Instead of just the usual platitudes he proposed taking down most railings   to help make the gardens “available for wayfarers” and suggesting   “it would be no bad thing  for the residents …and for people who dwelt in the neighbourhood.”  He seems to have started quite a campaign and was joined by a wide range of prominent people.

Margot Asquith, the widow of ex-prime minister Herbert Asquith backed him, and indeed seems to have been a long time proponent of the removal of railings. In her autobiography she recalls an encounter and visit from Gladstone in 1886 to her then home in Grosvenor Square and asking if “he would approve of the square railings being taken way and the grass and trees made into into a place with seats such as you see in foreign towns, not merely for the convenience of sitting down but for the happiness of invalids and idlers who court the shade or sun.  This met with his approval but he said with some truth that the only people who could do this – or prevent  it – were the “resident aristocracy.”    She lived on Bedford Square and was to continue to campaign vigorously for the removal of railings and the opening of gates right up until her death in July 1945.

from  The Bystander – Wednesday 05 June 1940

Inskip was also backed by Clough Williams-Ellis the architect.   When he heard that Hermann Goering had  ordered  German local authorities  to remove iron railings  to help in the supply of scrap metal Williams-Ellis wrote to the Times saying that “for once I find myself actually applauding the field marshal”   because most ironwork was not “in conformity with modern tastes and ideas”.  The English were, he argued, ” a nation of railers-off and railers-in” while the Englishman  “made his home his cage” even though we could get on quite well without such “elaborate defences.” Funnily enough he  installed quite a lot of railings at his own home  at Plas Brondanw [although they were painted turquoise], and even a few at Portmeirion which he had salvaged from elsewhere.

“Government Offices in St James’s Park, their appearance much enhanced by grass-plots instead of iron railings” from The Graphic 21st August 1926

It’s difficult to know without being able to search the professional journals of architects and landscape architects at the moment how widespread this feeling was.   Certainly it would have prevailed amongst modernists who preferred open flowing landscapes  and communal living to private spaces separated by what they felt were ugly iron railings. Yet  even Giles Gilbert Scott, one-time President of the RIBA and far from a modernist believed that the enclosure of open spaces  to keep people out was, as he wrote to the Times in May 1940  a sign of  the worst “puritanical designs of public authorities.”  Scott was also President of the new Building Centre which showcased the best in contemporary building and materials to the industry and public. It laid on an exhibition called “Railings for scrap” which as you can see from the photo was advertised using a section of the railings from Battersea Park with the words “removed to improve the park” as well as “provide scrap metal.”

By the summer of 1939 when it was clear war was imminent the Government set up a Ministry of Supply. Rather than begin the stockpiling of resources they seem to have taken their time. Iron ore and Scrap iron was still being imported and it was only when these supplies were threatened  that the ministry began to take action.

By the summer of 1940 the first call was made for household scrap, and the ministry began to consider plans for the removal of railings and other “public” iron on a voluntary basis, especially for their prominence in the public imagination.  The scheme was erratic to say the least. A letter to The Times in May 1940 pointed out that at the same time that the railings around Battersea Park were being dismantled new railings were put up along the new Kingston bypass. The irony [!] of this is that even in the run-up to war we carried on allowing the export of scrap iron – apparently in 1938 about 120,000 tons were sent to Germany.

Initially the Ministry of Supply made it clear they had no intention of removing railings of historic interest or artistic value, or those needed for safety purposes.

The Georgian Group, then a part of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was asked for advice about what constituted “historic” in this context. Probably on the advice of the architect Albert Richardson,  they came up with a cut-off date of 1850 when  mass production had become the norm.  


Berkeley Square 3rd March 1941. Imperial War Museum

Removing the railings in Parliament Square, Illustrated London News – Saturday 22 February 1941

Pressure began to be  put on local and public authorities.  Some needed no persuasion. Ruth Dalton chair of London County Council’s Parks Committee  had  “always felt that the beauty of London’s parks could be greatly enhanced by getting rid of unnecessary iron railings.”  By June 1940  345 tons of railings had been removed 32 open spaces  including   Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Leicester Square and Hackney Downs.   Their compliance was then used as a lever to persuade the trustees of other squares, the royal parks and even the royal family to surrender their railings voluntarily. Berkeley Square was one such even though its railings were 18thc and so exempt.    There’s a short Pathé News clip which shows them at the foundry. 

Of course this was happening all over the country by now. Householders were being urged to surrender garden fences, councils to surrender railings, bollards and fencing .  Once the removal began it soon gained momentum.  A quick google search will reveal a lot of images of people working on their removal, and there was a huge surge of support for what was seen as a morale booster – a visible sign of ordinary people making a real contribution to the war effort.

Nevertheless there were many trustees and residents of squares who resisted.  The Duke of Bedford’s agent  argued ” that if the metal is urgently required  it should be acquired under the compulsory powers which no doubt exists.”    St James Square trustees finally gave in in October 1941, even though again, their railings were 18thc and so exempt.

Some of those who objected did so, like the objectors in Chelsea squares for selfish reasons such as the  value of their houses being  adversely affected,  but most   cited other downsides such as  the dumping of rubbish,  the trampling of plants, the grass worn away to mud, or  police warnings that leaving the gardens barrier-less would cause social problems with vagrancy and prostitution.   Even when railings  were taken down  they were often replaced with wooden stakes or wires hung between trees and shrubs.

By July 1940 there were visible piles of scrap in council yards and the ministry had to issue an explanation why it was not already being used, even  issuing a propaganda film “Bedsteads to Battleships” to show that it was. Sadly not even the Imperial War Museum seems to have a copy .   

Russell Square, 1941
Elsie Evelyn Few
New College, Oxford

The arrival of Lord Beaverbrook as minister in June 1941 coincided with a complete change of attitude partly caused by the American decision to suspend exports of iron to Britain in the light of their own shortages.  Beaverbrook ordered local authorities to draw up lists of private railings to be removed under compulsory powers. Although these  did not finally come into force until March 1942, the Bedford estate had already accepted the inevitable and the railings of Russell and Bloomsbury squares soon disappeared.

The Georgian Society’s intervention managed to save those of Bloomsbury Square. Its secretary, Alan Oliver, wrote to  the Times  saying “the square might be damaged by German vandalism but let us not at any rate be answerable to posterity for any deliberate mutilation, however small, of the finest Georgian square in London.” Meanwhile elsewhere James Lees-Milne and Albert Richardson had their work cut out arguing for the retention of the historic ironwork on estates all over the country .

By June 1943 580,000 tons scrap iron had been collected from all over the country and there were no further shortages, despite increased demand.  

Collecting stopped in August 1944, partly because of a switch to using scrap from the large number of buildings destroyed or badly damaged by V1 and V2 rockets.

So was the whole exercise nothing more than a propaganda exercise?  The urban myth would have us believe that it was just that, and that most of the railings were the wrong sort of metal and therefore of no military use.    

from the Evening Standard 24th May 1984

The story seems to have originated in a letter to the Evening Standard by journalist Christopher Long in May 1984 in response to news about the replacement of the railings in Ennismore gardens some 40 years after their removal.  Long’s website has additional  comments notably that “This information came from dockers in Canning Town in 1978 who had 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 comment to the letter.”    Jonathan Meades took Long at his word and in an episode of The Victorian House  [at c 5minutes 30sec in] claims that the railings were dumped off Sheerness.  Unfortunately neither of them give any further sources or corroboration.


The London Gardens Trust has an interesting article “So whatever really happened to our railings”  which also explores the scant  evidence, and includes an account of a March 2010 article in of all places Picture Postcard Monthly.  This  claims that “only 26% of the iron work 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” and  “most of the pertinent records at the Public Records Office had been shredded”.  I guess that no documentary evidence or sources were provided.


The LGT article correctly points out  that “while the removal of the iron is recounted by hundreds of eye witnesses, there are no similar reports of the lorries arriving at the steel works with large quantities of railings and gates to be loaded into the blast furnaces.” However  there are quite a few showing the casting and munitions making including the one above that shows the fate of the Berkeley Square railings.   So while I’m surprised that Lord Beaverbrook missed a bigger visual propaganda opportunity I’m not sure that its proof that it didn’t happen.  There are some occasional descriptions including an article in the Times [28th March 1941] describing a trip “by train with a useful quota of these railings to an ironworks somewhere in England [to see]  them turned into raw material for war purposes.”  

Celina Fox  in an extremely well-researched  article in AA Files, published by the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture  is very matter-of-fact about it: “the scrapped railings… did reach Sheffield and were taken to the iron foundries, thus relieving the strain on the blast furnaces for pig iron and allowing them too supply more to the steel works.”   She argues that  the fact that there were no wartime steel shortages  is because  of the success of the measures to collect and recycle scrap.  

Another version of the myth claims that if it wasn’t the wrong kind of metal  there was a huge surplus over requirements,  so the rest was either dumped, buried or chopped up and used “raw” in bombing raids over the enemy  again Fox is clear. Her research showed that while more iron was collected  than could be immediately processed,  after the war the Ministry of Supply created a subsidiary company to seek it out and get it sold or used.    At the same time industrial recovery in Britain required huge quantities of raw [or scrap] materials, and in the late 1940s much of this was imported  as “booty scrap” either commandeered or at very low prices from Germany.  Surely no-one would have been dumping usable material at the same time.

The most comprehensive research on all of this has been by Peter Thorsheim in  his very readable Waste into Weapons.   Although he doesn’t mention the rumours about dumping at sea  he does analyse  the government’s various campaigns – and the infighting that accompanied them – as well as examining a large amount of documentary evidence before concluding very simply “there can no longer be any doubt that railings indeed helped to feed the war machine.”    

Whether his work will kill off the urban myth is another matter!

UPDATE – APRIL 2022.  I’ve been alerted to a very interesting book about  the question of railings and their role in public spaces.   Outsider: Public Art and the Politics of the English Garden Square’  by Catalina Pollak Williamson, 2015,   invites us to take a closer look at railings, and further, to question the politics of control behind their function and use. It is a complement to Catalina Pollak Williamson’s Phantom Railings (2012–2017), a public artwork inspired by a particular episode in London’s social (and spatial) history: the removal of railings from London’s private squares and gardens as part of the 1940s war effort, the subsequent ‘democratisation’ of green space in the city, and the ruling decision to reinstate fences in the newly accesible public spaces. 



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1 Response to The Square at War

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I was told by an old work colleague that in 1950s London she could see masses of rusting railings in a scrapyard that she passed by on her way to work by train. My old Victorian house had had its railings removed and I wished they hadn’t been as it made the garden much less safe for my small children.

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