Recycling to Win the Second World War
As the Battle of Britain raged overhead, the nation’s women were urged to salvage metal for the war effort. But was it just propaganda?
An official notice appeared in British newspapers on 10 July 1940, the first day of the Battle of Britain. Attributed to Lord Beaverbrook, the press baron turned Minister of Aircraft Production, it was addressed directly ‘To the women of Britain’. The notice called on the reader to give up any aluminium that they could spare. It explained that the metal was needed to produce aircraft for the RAF’s fight against the Luftwaffe. It said: ‘We want it and we want it now. New and old, of every type and description, and all of it … The need is instant. The call is urgent. Our expectations are high.’The appeal was the brainchild of J.B. Wilson, the former news editor of Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, who worked as the Ministry of Aircraft Production’s public relations officer. He was inspired by a campaign for scrap iron that had taken place in Germany three months earlier, but carefully designed Beaverbrook’s appeal to attract the attention of the British press.The ministry also gained the support of the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS), which had been set up in 1938, as war loomed, to encourage women to participate in civil defence. The WVS’s chairman, Lady Reading, echoed Beaverbrook’s words in a lunchtime radio broadcast. She said:The Minister of Aircraft Production is asking the women of Great Britain for everything made of aluminium, everything that they can possibly give to be made into aeroplanes … Now you’re going to be able to have a chance of doing something positive that will be of direct and vital help to our airmen … Very few of us can be heroines on the battle-front, but we can all have the tiny thrill of thinking as we hear the news of an epic battle in the air, ‘Perhaps it was my saucepan that made a part of that Hurricane!’To enable this, WVS volunteers set up a national network of collection points and began to canvass households for donations. Their efforts were met with an almost immediate response. WVS officials reported that gifts began to arrive just minutes after Lady Reading’s broadcast had ended. Within a day, many of its 2,000 depots were overflowing with scrap metal.As Wilson had hoped, these developments were widely reported in the press. Photographers were commissioned to take pictures of unusual donations and newsreel companies were invited to visit the WVS depots. On Lady Reading’s suggestion, the Royal Family was even asked to make donations that could be mentioned in a press release, once the original interest died down.Most reports seized on the juxtaposition between household items and weapons of war. Humorous examples of individual gifts sat alongside human interest stories, such as that of an elderly woman who was determined that her hot water bottle should be made into a Spitfire rather than a Hurricane. By the time the appeal ended on 27 July, the WVS had collected over 1,000 tons of aluminium. It was said to be the equivalent of around 300,000 saucepans – or 60 fighter planes.Propaganda stuntIn the years since 1940, the Pots to Planes appeal has been dismissed as little more than a propaganda stunt for Beaverbrook. Historians have pointed out that he refused to prohibit the sale of aluminium goods or requisition stocks from industry. It is true that this led some frustrated shoppers to complain that his appeal was simply a ruse and convinced others that their donations remained on scrapheaps throughout the war.The appeal, however, was motivated by a concern over resources. The fall of France in June 1940 had thrown British production plans into jeopardy by cutting established supply routes. Statisticians at the Ministry of Aircraft Production were particularly concerned that Britain lacked the capacity to process bauxite (the key ore used in the production of aluminium) at the rate required to replace stock of aluminium. Fearing that reserves would be exhausted within a year, they argued that latent materials needed to be mobilised in order to avoid bottlenecks. In the fevered atmosphere of the Battle of Britain, the 10,000 tons of aluminium estimated to be contained within kitchen utensils was identified as a vital reserve.Beaverbrook’s appeal was one of many attempts to promote salvage – recycling – during the Second World War. Although it tends to be overlooked within the broader history of the conflict, salvage formed an important part of life on the British home front. Civilians were encouraged to donate everything from books to binoculars to the war effort, while local councils were gradually compelled to recycle household waste. Not all of this activity was equally valuable. The collection of tins, rubber and railings all caused problems when stocks proved difficult to process. However, millions of tons of recycled material were put back into the war economy.As was the case with Pots to Planes, these activities relied upon a fundamental change in attitudes towards everyday objects. There had been very little recycling in Britain during the interwar years, so most people had become used to disposing of waste through tipping and incineration. These actions assumed a new significance in the context of a ‘total’ war, where thrift was imbued with military importance. A combination of government regulations and high-profile publicity campaigns encouraged civilians to see their household waste as raw material for munitions. This process reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1940, with a sustained publicity campaign that was even more deliberate than the one it replaced.Blurred boundariesThe campaign began with a broadcast appeal by the Labour MP Herbert Morrison, who was Minister of Supply in the Churchill government. Speaking on Sunday 28 July, he blurred the boundary between home and fighting fronts by describing salvage as a form of war work. Morrison warned that Britain was facing material shortages and said that ‘Every piece of paper, every old bone, every piece of scrap metal is a potential bullet against Hitler … You will shorten the war if you see we get it all.’ Here, he said, was ‘a chance for you housewives to get right into the fight for freedom and to stay in it until we have wiped those Nazis and all that they stand for off the face of the world’.Morrison’s message was continued by a series of posters and illustrated newspaper advertisements featuring three women and a small dog. The apron-clad characters were shown in a variety of poses. The first had them marching into battle, armed with a pile of newspapers, a bundle of bones and an old curtain pole. They were later shown hurling this waste at the enemy, before being thanked by three servicemen representing the army, navy and air force. ‘We can’t all be in the Fighting Services’, the advertisements conceded, but ‘we can all help to provide munitions … Every scrap is wanted, every scrap will be used. Do this and you are helping your country to victory’.Immediately after the appeal, a journalist was hired to write magazine feature articles and a version of Morrison’s broadcast was re-recorded for the newsreels. In the weeks that followed, the government issued a series of temporary displays for shop windows and enlisted the popular entertainer George Formby into the campaign, using his 1932 song ‘If You Don’t Want the Goods Don’t Maul ’Em’. All of these activities were united under the strapline ‘Up Housewives and at ’Em!’. The campaign, which ran for six weeks, was the most expensive carried out by the government’s Ministry of Information that year.People’s warThe fact that these messages were targeted at women should not be taken for granted. Although British women were extensively mobilised during the Second World War, their place in the war effort was not a simple one. The idea of a ‘people’s war’ put a moral obligation on all citizens to do their bit; the opportunities open to women, however, were often constrained by established gender roles.This tension can be seen most clearly in the case of paid employment. Despite recognising the need to increase the number of people working in the war economy, the British government was initially unwilling to change established employment practices. The proportion of women working in war industries grew very slowly as a result. In June 1940, women accounted for 13.2 per cent of the engineering workforce, an increase of just 2.7 per cent from the year before. It was not until January 1941 that the first steps were taken towards the industrial conscription of women. Even then, the number of adult women in full-time war work was always less than the number who had full-time domestic duties. In 1943, at the peak of mobilisation, the Ministry of Labour and National Service calculated that there were almost nine million housewives compared with the seven and a quarter million women working in industry, the auxiliary services and civil defence.The salvage campaigns launched by Beaverbrook and Morrison encouraged women to see themselves as bearing some responsibility for the production of armaments, but did so in a way that reinforced the primacy of domestic duty. Viewed in this way, they can be understood as an attempt to involve women in the war effort without upsetting patriarchal distinctions between male and female work. Salvage, said Morrison, was ‘A job for all of us, but particularly, it’s a job for women.’Yet neither campaign could have happened without women’s labour. With no local organisation of its own, the Ministry of Aircraft Production depended on the WVS to provide a mechanism for the collection of aluminium. Many of the same volunteers were also integral to the Up Housewives campaign, which was supported by local efforts to explain what and how people should recycle. The WVS organised an ambitious programme of house-to-house visits, delivering almost nine million leaflets. In some areas, it also maintained the collection depots set up in response to Beaverbrook’s appeal to help local authorities with the collection of paper and tins.Fundamental tensionThis contradiction was indicative of a fundamental tension within the government’s approach. Its urgent appeals exhorted individuals to act in support of the war effort, but the implications of such actions did not always seem to have been thought through. Problems were evident from the beginning of the Pots to Planes appeal, as nobody in the Ministry of Aircraft Production or the WVS had anticipated just how much aluminium would be donated in its early days. As depots struggled to cope with the weight of gifts, intelligence reports recorded various complaints that the appeal had been made too soon. It did not take long for the press to uncover this ‘Aluminium muddle’.These complaints provided the context for Morrison’s broadcast. Confronting the critics, he promised that the government had a policy to ‘clear away obstacles and hold ups’ and assured the public that local authorities were ready to extend their salvage activities. The ministry’s emphasis was placed instead on the individual. According to the leaflet delivered by the WVS: ‘Your Council will arrange for the collection of all this valuable waste material. But it depends on YOU – on how carefully YOU save it and keep it for collection.’Not everyone was convinced by these pledges. The Daily Mirror columnist Bill Greig drew parallels with previous appeals, claiming that these had ‘failed completely because, while the housewives did their bit, the minister’s orders were partly ignored and flouted by eight out of ten of the local authorities in the country’.The reality fell somewhere in between. Figures collected by the Ministry of Supply show that there was a marked increase in salvage during the summer of 1940. The total weight of material collected by councils rose from around 70,000 tons in June to 114,000 tons in August. However, many local authorities lacked the labour, vehicles and processing machinery necessary to cope with this increased supply. As the scheme broke down, there were spats between residents and refuse collectors, who were accused of undermining the war effort by throwing out valuable materials. Writing in December 1940, a frustrated government official explained that the campaign was abandoned early because ‘it [was] so successful that the transport of collected materials became embarrassing’.The impact of this embarrassment can be seen in an unusual meeting between representatives from the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Ministry of Supply and the WVS in August 1940. The meeting had been called to discuss plans for a renewed aluminium appeal and took place in a cramped air raid shelter after a siren disrupted proceedings. The WVS were told that Beaverbrook planned to launch a new appeal and that the Ministry of Supply would organise collection by local authorities. Lady Reading was unconvinced. She thought that the public would be unwilling to give aluminium to councils, as they simply did not trust refuse collectors to do the job. Without the support of the WVS, the government pulled the plug.The significance of these campaigns deserves to be reconsidered. Rather than just propaganda, the appeals were hugely significant to many British civilians at the time. While the Battle of Britain was fought by ‘the Few’, Beaverbrook and Morrison’s appeals consolidated the idea that victory in the Second World War rested with the people. The idea of the Second World War as a ‘people’s war’ was born. The conflict was, in Churchill’s words, one in which: ‘The whole of the warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire population, men, women and children.’ The government’s realisation in the summer of 1940 that its success depended on a careful balance between administrative efficiency and popular participation was also important. Having been told that their waste was vital to winning the war, it is little wonder that Britain’s housewives were sceptical when confronted with growing dumps of metal and overflowing bins. The salvage campaigns showed clearly what Churchill’s words meant in practice.Henry Irving is Senior Lecturer in Public History at Leeds Beckett University.This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue under the title ‘Up Housewives and At Em!’.