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Historical Perspectives

The Home Front in the Factories, Docks and Mines.

Jon Murden, University of Liverpool.

'The work you do this week fortifies and strengthens the front of battle next week… The production you pour out of your factories this week will be hurled into desperate struggle next week'

Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, Summer 1940.

More than in any previous conflict the Second World War was a war of technology, where the battle for increased production in the factories, docks and mines was of equal importance to that on the ground, air or sea. By December 1942 over 11 million workers were directly engaged in work for the Ministry of Supply at around 30,000 firms. As key strategic targets factories were also now in the front line, and the work was often dangerous - either due to the materials and processes involved or the threat of aerial attack. Total war placed new and unprecedented strains on British industry, ushered in fundamental changes to productive technology and produced significant improvements for those employed on the home front.

The factory war had actually begun with the start of re-armament in 1936. The government encouraged the expansion of aircraft production with the intention of producing 12,000 aircraft in just three years. Car manufacturers, electrical engineering firms and chemical producers were all brought into a 'shadow factory' scheme designed to enhance military output. Forty new Royal Ordnance factories were built from 1936 onwards, ultimately employing over 300,000 men and women, while re-armament brought a much-needed interwar boost for the declining nineteenth century heavy industries of coal, iron and shipbuilding. The outbreak of hostilities brought little further direct intervention in industry until after the collapse of Chamberlain's coalition. Churchill formed a government in which the Labour Party played a key role, none more so than Ernest Bevin as Minister of Labour. Immediately he entered into negotiations with the trade unions with a view to securing their support, gained enormous powers to control labour through the Emergency Powers Act, supplemented the existing collective bargaining machinery with a binding National Arbitration Tribunal and made strikes and lock-outs illegal under Order 1305. Bevin also acted to end the 'poaching' of skilled workers by rival employers, as the Restriction on Engagement Order of June 1940 made it compulsory for recruitment to occur only through employment exchanges or an approved trade union. In this way thousands of men and women were directed out of civil industries into war work. Effective arrangements were also made for the dilution of skilled labour and the curtailment of restrictive practices for the duration of the war. As a result of this shift in the industrial landscape during 1940, there developed a new spirit of co-operation in industry. Fewer working days were lost to strikes that year than for half a century and while deliveries of tanks and field guns increased only slowly, there was a dramatic leap in aircraft production. Inspired by urgent calls from the Ministry of Aircraft Production, factories worked twenty-four hours a day,
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The Home Front in the Factories, Docks and Mines by Jon Murden