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First World War: Engineering Factories

In 1914 Britain was still the workshop of the world and by 1915 her industries had been adapted to manufacture the huge amounts of equipment and munitions required by her armies. Heavy armaments work was concentrated at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, and ship building and armaments manufacturers on the Tyne, Mersey, and Clyde. A newer arrival was the Coventry Ordnance Works.

Royal Arsenal, Woolwich boring mill
Royal Arsenal, Woolwich boring mill. Huge gun barrels being bored to the correct dimensions. (Private Collection)

Many civilian workshops, for example, those managed by the large railway companies were easily adapted to new uses. The manufacture of tanks by an agricultural engineering firm in Lincoln is well-known, but there are many other examples yet to be discovered.

In addition to adapted factories new works were also constructed, such as, the National Machine Gun factory at Branston, near Burton-on-Trent, built in 1917. Its neo-Georgian administrative block looks like a grand country house and is listed Grade II.

National Machine Gun Factory, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire
National Machine Gun Factory, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is a good example of model factory built during the war for munitions manufacture and today is one of best preserved surviving First World War factories. Listed Grade II (EPW019687)

It also provided large welfare facilities, a canteen, and a bowling green - all highly innovative at the time. The war ended before production began, and later Branston Pickle was made here.

To assist in the development of new guns and to test guns before they were issued to the army and navy, the government and armaments producers maintained large test ranges. A new range at Yantlet Creek, Medway, was opened in 1917 which allowed test firing to take place over a 27km range.

Postcard showing 'Nelson' on show in Hartlepool, February 1918
At the war’s end, 264 ‘war battered’ tanks were installed in public places across the UK in recognition of local fund-raising efforts. After initial enthusiasm for a tank’s arrival, by the later 1920s the public mood was changing, and the triumphal display of rusty tanks and guns came into question. Many were removed and there were further losses in the scrap drives of the Second World War. Today just a single trophy-tank remains, in Ashford in Kent which was converted in 1929 to serve as an electricity sub-station. Listed Grade II.
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