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How industrial war impacted life in Colnbrook

For many, 2020 has become ‘virtual’ in all sorts of ways, with meetings and events being online. For others, being at home has led to sorting out boxes that remained untouched in busier, normal times. For Bucks Family History Society’s Tony Sargeant, one collection has led to thoughts on how war has changed lives on the home front as we go through our own changes. Below, Tony has put the findings of his research in chronological order, in his guest blog for Buckinghamshire Virtual History Festival.

Book cover Hurricane
Book cover Hurricane

Part 1. The Great War and a factory

In 1906, on the borders of the historic county of Buckinghamshire, a factory opened. Messrs Cosgswell and Harrison applied for an explosives licence after the purchase of Poyle Farm in the parish of Colnbrook. Edgar Harrison spoke in support of the application that was granted. By 1911 the local census shows a variety of jobs appearing linked to the works. In the past the local mills had been used for flour, paper, and asbestos, in Staines, four miles away labouring jobs existed in the Linoleum factory. The new factory offered a different sort of employment for both men and women. Some employees were from outside the locality, bringing members of their family with them. There were also jobs for established families as sons and daughters worked for Cogswell and Harrison. A new generation of young men became apprentice gun-makers which provided a skill based alternative to the manual jobs in farming or market gardening. Before the factory there were no jobs for young women, who normally went into service or took up dress making. Dexterity was required to make shotgun cartridges, and the women were most suited.

The 1914-1918 war changed the work at the factory with large scale Cordite production taking place. During April 1915 experiments were taking place to improve quality and ease of production. At 3pm on Friday 16 April 1915 there was a terrible explosion when seventy pounds of gun-cotton ignited, causing the death of Mr Cogswell Harrison and Miss Dorothy Moss lost their lives. The blast could be heard five miles away in Uxbridge and the building was severely damaged. Three other workers from Colnbrook were injured, receiving first aid from the local doctor who rushed to the scene. Also on the scene was the Rector of Horton Revd. Reed Davis who was the Commandant of the local Special Constables. On the 21st he would have the job of burying Miss Moss in the burial ground extension that was opened that year. Dorothy Moss made her last journey from Colnbrook to Horton churchyard in a Washington car according to the report in the newspaper.  The funeral turnout was exceptional with over 50 mourners, including the workforce of Cogswell & Harrison who closed the works for the day.

Burial entry for Dorothy Moss in the Horton Burial Register
Burial entry for Dorothy Moss in the Horton Burial Register

The penultimate paragraph of the report named Mr F Sargeant as the funeral director. Which opens another line of research as in Berkshire Record Office are “Records of Sargeant’s Funeral Parlour, Colnbrook 1910-1950” D/EX1801. Next time I am there will check the entry, which should give more detail about the arrangements on the day.  Dorothy Moss has not made it on to any of the war memorials in the area, although recently somebody mentioned that flowers are still being left on her grave.

Part 2. The Explosives Works

The disaster bought great change for the powder mills at Poyle. One of the questions concerned – whether aliens were involved in the accident – could be seen as prophetic, while the reply was negative. It may have been a surprise to some, that aliens, in the form of Belgians, took over the factory and supplied a much expanded workforce. The Belgian Government required factories in England to supply ammunition for their weapons as they were a different calibre than the British equipment.

I have not found any direct records concerning the factory while it was managed by the Belgians, all the information comes either from parish registers, the 1939 register, or newspapers. There was an assessment carried out by Historic England in 2015. Some comparisons can be made with the National Projectile Factory Birtley, Co. Durham, but that was much larger, employing 3500 people. The clues appear when the factory and equipment was sold off after the armistice.

In the Uxbridge and W. Drayton Gazette Friday 11 July 1919:

SALE TUESDAY NEXT.

On View Saturday and Monday.

THE BELGIAN GOVERNMENT WORKS,

COLNBROOK, MIDDLESEX

THE SURPLUS MATERIAL, LOOSE PLANT and STORES, including 200 tons  steam coal, new lead tanks and coils, earthenware and silica pipes, 6,000 deal cases 8.700 yards unbleached calico, Worthington, Wilcox, and Douglas Philps weighing machines, new 25-h.p. Siemens motor. 6-h.p. and 3-h.p. motors, dynamos, ironmongery, electrical fittings, chemicals, office furniture, typewriters, desks, filing cabinets. 75 bedsteads, mattresses, and 500 blankets.

Note the beds and mattresses, required as local accommodation could not provide for the workforce.

With factories working night shifts there could be as many as 150 people accommodated, but there is no proof.  Another advert for the same sale included a “substantial timber building of 5000-ft floor space”. This building appears to be the canteen that was not part of the original factory. Some enterprising Colnbrook residents must have purchased the building and moved the components to Tan House Farm, Mill Street. The sales of machinery and the site did not go to plan, with subsequent adverts repeating lists of items for sale.

In Uxbridge & W. Drayton Gazette Fri 29 Aug 1919:

COLNBROOK BUCKS.

SALE OF FIRST-CLASS BUILDING

MATERIALS

Messrs. ROBT. NEWMAN & SON

Are instructed to Sell by Auction, at the Tarn House Farm, Colnbrook (to where the materials (to where the materials have been removed from the Belgian Government Works at Colnbrook).

On FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 5th 1919,

At 11 for 12 o’clock, in convenient lots.

ABOUT 8,000-ft of nearly-new quartering of various sizes,  from 3 by 2 to 7 by 2 1/2. 200 square of matching, 100 square feather-edge boardding, 50 square flooring, 300 sheets of galvanised iron, 50 casement sashes, 20 doors, quantity of ironwork, nails and other useful items.

May be viewed the day previous and morning of Sale.  Catalogues can be obtained at the “George” Hotel; and Mr F Sargeant, High Street, Colnbrook; or of the Auctioneers, Harlington, Middlesex. Telephone : 39 Hayes

A similar advert appeared on the 30th August 1919 in the Slough, Eton & Windsor Observer. The adverts were not repeated as building materials were in short supply after the war. In contrast there were no takers for the factory site which was left derelict until Faulkners Ltd occupied the site. There are photographs on Heritage England’s Britain from Above website.

Faulkner Works, Poyle, 1947
Faulkner Works, Poyle, 1947

Part 3. A man with many jobs

In the previous sections, a Frederick Sargeant has appeared in the story as the funeral director at Dorothy Moss’s burial. There needs to be some explanation concerning his role. He was a Colnbrook boy, who became apprentices to a plumber in Tottenham, then going on to start a business in that area. Evidently Frederick was still in touch with friends in Colnbrook, as he found out about a business opportunity there, and was able to take a lease of a house with shop from Lt Col. Meeking of Richings Park, starting Ladyday 1899 for the sum of £22 per annum to be paid quarterly. Frederick Sargeant was already describing himself as a plumber, painter and decorator, although his entry in Kellys Directory only said Plumber. Being an undertaker and monumental mason started in 1910, and by 1912 Frederick Sargeant was employing men to build four houses in Meadfield Road, Langley. We have seen that Frederick Sargeant was taking on large jobs with little notice like the removal of the building from the explosives works.

A further note about the shop in the High Street, Colnbrook – besides a shop, there was also a lounge and kitchen on the ground level, three bedrooms on the first floor and another in the second floor. It was demolished in the 1960s.

Counterpart of 1899 agreement between Frederick Sargeant and Lt. Colonel Meeking
Counterpart of 1899 agreement between Frederick Sargeant and Lt. Colonel Meeking

Part 4. Another factory, another war…

With Colnbrook being an old town with a narrow High Street, it was a candidate for a bypass. It was constructed in 1927. This moved through-traffic away from both Longford and Colnbrook and rejoined the old Bath Road at Brands Hill on the edge of the parish.

Major new industry did not appear in the area until 1937 when Parluant Farm, Langley was purchased by Hawker Aircraft Limited. Work started building a factory complex with a grass airfield. For the projected numbers of Hurricanes required it was clear that the company’s factories at Kingston upon Thames were inadequate. The aircraft were built at Kingston and transported to Brooklands for final assembly, clearly another facility was required.

In 1939 the factory was nearing completion and workers were moving into the area. The construction company McAlpine were still on the site. Many histories about machines during World War 2 say little about the people involved with the actual production. There are plenty of discussions about all the various marks of aircraft and the test pilots, but little inside the factory doors.

Hawkers Factory, Langley, aerial view
Hawkers Factory, Langley

There must have been materials and components being delivered. There has been one report that High Duty Alloys, normally based at Slough Trading Estate, had a shadow factory at Langley. The distribution of aircraft was organised by Air Transport Auxiliary, headquartered at White Waltham, with pilots flying in to collect Hurricanes, and later Tempests and Typhoons. The place could be quite busy. Security would have been in place, probably involving R. A. F. personnel. For further protection Hawker Aircraft Ltd. workers formed their own detachment of the Home Guard. The workforce was distributed in local accommodation in the surrounding parishes of Colnbrook, Horton, Langley and Iver. There were also two hostel camps in the area, one near St Mary’s church, Langley and another at Crown Meadow, Colnbrook. Air raid precautions were taken around the factory with the use of smoke screens. An elderly resident recounted to me that the smoke screens were a problem as the smoke was created by burning dirty fuel oil in barrels. Houses nearby would stink of the smoke for a few days and all the net curtains needed washing.

Part 5. A memento

Book cover of Hurricane, by F.H.M Lloyd
Book cover of Hurricane, by F.H.M Lloyd

In my collection there is a rather scruffy book, Hurricane by F.H.M Lloyd published in December 1945.  Its contents said a lot about Hawkers Aircraft Ltd at Langley. 

The image below shows the directors of Hawker Aircraft Ltd, who are seated, with the managers standing behind them. The text names the individuals and their roles, including Sir Sidney Camm who was the designer and P. W. S Bulman the Chief test pilot. Other companies were represented like Rolls-Royce and Rotol the propeller manufacturer. There is still more to discover about these managers, and how the company operated with the logistics involved in aircraft production. 

Photograph from 'Hurricane', taken at Langley on the day the last Hurricane left the factory, July 1944
Photograph from ‘Hurricane’, taken at Langley on the day the last Hurricane left the factory, July 1944

Inside the book is a collection of signatures including some individuals who appeared in the photograph. The original owner of the book appears in the photograph – W. F. Clark, Works Manager, Homewood. Homewood was the name of the smaller factory unit north of the main building at Langley. Clark’s career started with Hawkers after being an Air Mechanic with the R.N.A.S. in Malta. Clark was working for Hawkers at Brooklands in 1935 when the prototype of the Hurricane was first flown. In 1942, he was transferred to Langley to manage Homewood. One person whose signature appears, but is not in the photograph, is Neville Duke who became a production test pilot at Langley on the 1st January 1945, for a year on secondment from the R. A. F. It was probably during this time Neville Duke and W. Clark met. Later they were both working for Hawkers based at Dunsfold, Surrey. There is a section about Langley in Neville Duke’s autobiography “Test Pilot”.

Signatures on the inside cover of 'Hurricane'
Signatures on the inside cover of ‘Hurricane’
Signatures on the inside cover of 'Hurricane'
Signatures on the inside cover of ‘Hurricane’

Notes

First World War National Factories:

An archaeological, architectural and historical review

by David Kenyon

pub Historic England 2015

Aero Films image reuse covered in Britain from Above

Blogging Use – use of specially prepared images on a non-commercial basis on a personal blog or website that is free to use and presents no logins.

See https://britainfromabove.org.uk/en/legalities

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