From Bombs to Butterflies (The Context)

July Meeting Report

Guest Speaker - Margaret Lawson


The July 2005 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in the Centenary Lounge, Keyworth on 1st July. The guest speaker for the evening was Margaret Lawson and her subject was “Bombs to Butterflies”. Margaret herself had a large part in the production of the book “Bombs To Butterflies”, a book with which many of our members will be familiar, many of them having bought a copy. The presentation took the form of a talk with accompanied by slides. Margaret began the evening by relating how the book came into being. A great many taped interviews were conducted with people who had worked on the site at various times and from these interviews a selection was made for publication in the form of the book. The Ruddington History Society were fortunate in that they managed to get a grant from The Countryside Agency for £12,000 and this helped them to publish the book at the very low cost of £4.00 per copy.

The talk then related the history of the site from farmland, to wartime munitions factory through to the present day and the country park that now occupies the site. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 the site, which the Country Park now occupies, was farmland adjacent to the village of Ruddington. However, with the outbreak of hostilities the United Kingdom went onto a war footing. The whole nation became geared with one aim in mind, the defeat of Nazi Germany. The speed with which country mobilised for war was staggering. Whilst we may have been relatively unprepared for war in 1939, mainly thanks to misguided defence policies from the 1920’s and 1930’s once war was declared Great Britain lost no time in doing everything that could be done to prosecute the war with all the energy and resolve that could be mustered. To this end it was decreed that a munitions factory should be built just outside the village of Ruddington. The purpose of this factory was to produce 500lb and 1,000lb bombs for the Royal Air Force. Construction on the site began in December 1940 and by June 1942 production had begun. Ruddington was one of ten sites that were selected for this purpose; the other nine were spread all around the country.

The choice of location was dictated by certain essential criteria. The sites, because of their very dangerous nature, could not be situated in densely populated urban areas. However, it was desirably that they should be within relatively easy reach of the work force that would be needed there. To this end Ruddington was an ideal location. It had excellent rail links from Nottingham, Loughborough’ and Leicester and this would be vital in bringing in the large numbers of workers each day that would be required man the production processes. When the site was originally proposed it was planned that there would be around 6,000 workers on the site. Of this number 2,000 would live in a hostel, which was to be specifically built to house them. It was anticipated that a further 800 workers would find lodgings in and around Ruddington. This left the necessity of organizing transport to and from the site for around 3,000 workers. The factory was to be run 24 hours a day on a three-shift basis. At no time during the initial planning of the venture were the people of Ruddington or their representatives consulted on the issue. It was a matter of some peculiarity that when war was declared in 1939 that the democracies of the free world such as Great Britain, France and the United States of America were much quicker to mobilize themselves and put their countries on a full war footing than were the dictatorships of countries such as Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and Japan.

By the time that production on the site did commence the proposed plans had been greatly modified. The proposed hostel for 2,000 people was never built. In fact accommodation was provided for only about 30 people on the site! However, approximately 200 buildings of various shapes and sizes were erected and roads, paths and rail link to Ruddington station with passenger platforms and a large loading bay. Large “blast banks” also needed to be constructed around the site in order to minimize the effects of any explosions that might occur as a result of accident or enemy action. A whole new sewage and drains system also needed to be constructed on the site. The actual cost for all this work doesn’t seem to be available anywhere but other sites constructed along the same lines tended to cost in the region of £3,000,000 to £5,000,000.

Almost exclusively civilian workers staffed the factories, military personnel figured very little in the overall workforce. The person in overall charge of the site when it was in production was the Commandant, a title that smacks more of the axis forces than the allies. Amongst the first group of people to start work on the site were the security staff. They numbered about 36 personnel and operated around the clock. Everyone entering and leaving the site had to pass through a security gate and show his or her security passes. None of these security staff were armed which may seem a trifle strange to us today. Security of the site never seems to have been a major issue. The number of firemen employed on the site was approximately 72 personnel; double the number of security staff and it can be deduced that the threat of fire and explosion was considered to be far greater than breaches of security.

The site also was not defended in any way, there were no anti-aircraft measures taken to protect the site. This again may seem strange today but, in truth, there was never the need at the time. To locate and attack such relatively small sites in daylight was highly dangerous for the attacking aircrew, and at night with the blackout the site was impossible to locate. The only danger from aerial attack would be from a stray bomb that had been aimed at Nottingham. That never happened, indeed during the whole of the war none of the ten munitions factories were ever hit by bombs.

The running of these establishments was given, to what appeared on the face of it, some very strange bodies. The management of Ruddington was handled by the Co-op. Really this was quite a logical thing as the Co-op was used to organising a large workforce with all that that entailed. Bomb-making production on the site lasted for less than three years. Workers had time off for the V/E Day celebrations and when they returned to the site afterwards it was to be told that production was ending immediately and that the site was closing. By V/J Day in August the site had been mothballed and being looked after by a skeleton staff.

With the end of hostilities the Ministry of Defence found itself in possession of vast quantities of surplus war equipment from the armed forces. A means of disposing of this surplus was by auction and suitable locations to have such auctions were needed. Ruddington with it’s central location was deemed to be an ideal site for such auctions and so it was that in July 1946 the first of these sales took place. The amounts of vehicles that were involved was staggering. At that first auction some 800 trucks, 300 cars and 1,900 motorcycles were sold. Such was the success of that first auction that the stage was set for Ruddington to become the main location for future war surplus sales. It was these sales that put the name of a small Nottinghamshire village on the national map. The name of Ruddington became synonymous with war surplus sales and that situation obtained until December 1983 when the auctions finally finished.

What to do with the site was a major dilemma for both the Ministry of Defence and the people of Ruddington. Various schemes were floated. These included an open prison, a hypermarket, a retail park or a housing estate. The final solution came in the form of a proposed country park that would be a great local amenity for the people of Ruddington. However, the projected cost was felt to be to high, a means of funding the project needed to be found. It was decided to build a business park on one section of the site and this business park would fund the country park. That was what happened and today Ruddington has a beautiful country park for the benefit of its inhabitants.