National Factories

Identifying the places where wartime production was coordinated.

View of the remains of a factory complex.
Cliffe explosives works, Medway: in the foreground are the remains of the acetone recovery house and, to the rear, the acetone recovery stoves. © Historic England, image reference DP141667

The First World War was the first major conflict fought between the most heavily industrialised European powers, including Great Britain, France and Germany. They were not only leaders in heavy industry, coal and steel production, and engineering, but also in state-of-the-art technologies including chemicals, the internal combustion engine, wireless communications, and flight. Although Great Britain was a well-established armaments producer, the challenges it faced were to increase production to equip its newly formed citizen army and to devise innovative weapons, often combining novel technologies.

Prior to the war, state armaments production was concentrated in a handful of factories within striking distance of London, at Woolwich, Enfield and Waltham Abbey, along with a newcomer at Farnborough, Hampshire, devoted to balloons and aircraft. The royal dockyards at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth were also some of the great industrial enterprises of their age. Alongside these, large engineering firms such as Vickers were important suppliers and also amongst the world’s leading arms exporters.

Gearing up for modern warfare

The existing infrastructure was, however, organised to equip a small standing, professional army, largely charged with policing the empire, while a powerful fleet was maintained for its deterrent value.  

As the conflict in western Europe stagnated into entrenched front lines, shrapnel shells that were effective in the open had little impact on fortified field works. This came to a crisis in spring 1915, resulting in the so-called ‘shells scandal’. One response to this was the creation of the Ministry of Munitions.

In an unprecedented step the government took direct control of the most important factories.

These produced everything needed to wage a world war, from the mundane - wooden boxes and concrete slabs - to explosives, shells, and aircraft.

At the beginning of the war a pragmatic approach was adopted and extensions were added to existing factories, such as at the private explosives works at Cliffe, Medway.

An aerial view of the remains of an explosives factory.
Cliffe explosives works, Medway: remains of guncotton drying stoves. © Historic England 26891/019

Despite being a national scheme no standard factory types emerged and often a local manager would be charged with constructing a factory that he would later operate. In other cases the Ministry of Munitions, using experts from the Office of Works, was responsible for the design of some of the larger works. One of the architects who made the greatest contribution was Frank Baines, who prior to the war had been responsible for the conservation of many ancient monuments in the care of the government.

A building at a former National Filling Factory
Rotherwas, Herefordshire, National Filling Factory, designed by Ministry of Works architect Frank Baines. © Historic England, image reference DP195747

The new National Factories

Regardless of the huge manpower and material cost of the war, architectural standards were upheld and a plain neo-Georgian style typified many of the larger government factories.

In contrast to this conservative face, many of their workshops adhered to the most up-to-date principles of factory organisation. Following the theories of scientific management advocated by the American Frederick Taylor, mass production of complex items was broken down into individual tasks. In the munitions industry it was known as ‘dilution’. In the past a skilled worker might undertake a number of processes to produce a single item.

Under the new system an unskilled worker might carry out just a single task. Workshops were laid out to create logical production lines, often with electric motors powering individual machines.  

Increasing concern was shown for the well-being of the work force, especially for the growing numbers of women and of boys below conscription age.

Works canteens became commonplace, many factories also grew their own vegetables, and at Barnbow, West Yorkshire, a herd of cows was kept for fresh milk.  

An architect's elevation drawing for part of a National Factory
National Machine Gun Factory, Burton on Trent, Staffordshire: original architect’s drawing of the central offices, now listed Grade II © Historic England MD95-09210

At the outbreak of war Great Britain had been an industrialised nation for nearly two centuries and most large towns had engineering works, often manufacturing agricultural machinery. This local engineering know-how, applied by firms with little or no experience of armaments work, produced some of most inventive weapons designed to break the deadlock of the trenches. Famously, the agricultural engineers of William Foster, Lincoln, produced the first tanks. William Mills of Birmingham developed a hand grenade that took his name, and the civil engineer Wilfred Stokes, trained by the Great Western Railway, developed a new type of trench mortar. This well-established industrial base was in sharp contrast to many of the belligerent powers, especially in Eastern Europe, whose economies remained essentially agrarian. 

Gathering evidence of wartime industrial production

The centennial period has provided an opportunity to review what survives of this great enterprise. The project also illustrated the challenges of studying the industry of the recent past. As might be expected of a government department, the Ministry of Munitions kept meticulous lists of the factories under its direct control. Many of the factories were, however, only given general addresses and a century later it required considerable detective work to locate the individual works. On Clyde Street in Bootle, Liverpool, it is known that the Technical Engineering Company was producing gauges used in shell manufacture. However, it would require a significant amount of perhaps fruitless local research in attempts to pinpoint the exact building. 

The project illustrated the challenges of studying the industry of the recent past.

 Munitions production was, perhaps surprisingly, extensively recorded by contemporary photographers. For many National Factories, the Ministry of Munitions collected photographs to document the progress of construction and the production processes. The Historic England Archive holds a large collection of images by the commercial photographers Bedford Lemere and Company. Amongst this collection are a number of images showing war work, especially in the works of some of their pre-war clients, such as the shipping line Cunard. They are an important source of evidence for the factories and machinery, and also unique records of the working conditions and dress of the workers.

A group of women working in a First World War munitions factory making artillery shells.
Cunard’s Shellworks, Liverpool: women workers turning 8-inch calibre artillery shells. © Historic England, BL 24001/021

Another important source of information that has become available to researchers is the former Aerofilms collection, now available on-line as Britain from Above. Beginning in the 1920s, this series, with many photographs taken by former wartime flyers, presents an unparalleled record of the industrial scene shortly after the end of the war.

An archive aerial photograph of a National Factory.
National Machine Gun Factory, Burton on Trent, Staffordshire: the imposing central offices and regularly positioned production shops. © Historic England EPW019682

The task ahead

In common with other projects designed to locate and research the places on the Home Front crucial to the war effort, there is more investigation to be undertaken into wartime industrial production. Of the 170 National Factories in England, 28 still remain to be located due to difficulties in pinning down imprecise addresses. Even less is known about the 6,000 controlled establishments, their locations, products and wartime appearances. The industrial history of the war remains imperfectly understood and future comparative studies of the responses of the other belligerent powers would be a particularly fruitful area of research.

About the author

Wayne Cocroft

Wayne Cocroft

Historic Places Investigation East, Manager

Wayne manages one of Historic England's Historic Places Investigation Teams. His research interests include the industrial archaeology of explosives manufacture, the Cold War and the heritage of the 20th century. He has published widely on these topics and has recently co-edited a book on effects of the First World War on England. He is a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Further reading

Edgeworth, M 2013 Grain Island Firing Point, Yantlet Creek, Isle of Grain, Medway: Archaeological Desk-Based Assessment. English Heritage Research Report 39/2013

Cocroft, W D, Newsome, S, Pullen, R and Williams, A 2011 Curtis’s and Harvey Ltd Explosives Factory, Cliffe and Cliffe Woods, Medway: Archaeological Survey and Analysis of the Factory Remains. English Heritage Research Report 11/2011

Kenyon, D 2015 First World War National Factories: An Archaeological, Architectural and Historical review. Historic England Research Report 76/2015

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