The Willans Works At War

Some of the volunteers working on the Boaters And Bright Sparks project at Warwickshire County Record Office to catalogue the Willans Works engineering archives have looked at what the Rugby site did during the two World Wars. At the time of the First World War the works was owned by Willans & Robinson and called the Victoria Works as it was opened in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

The outbreak of the war led to the site setting up different production lines to manufacture items for the government and the armed forces. One of the records in the collection is a ‘contract handing over notes’ file covering the period September 1916 – December 1918. This shows that order numbers for jobs for the War Department and the Admiralty were given a prefix ‘M’ (for ‘miscellaneous’) to help hide what the work was for. The jobs were also given obscure titles to disguise their true nature – for example submarines were called ‘oilers’ and conning towers were known as ‘lighthouses’. The file also shows that other work included parts, engines and turbines for aeroplanes; ash expellers for ships, and tank tracks. The site also worked on contracts for the Russian government.

Index for file on First World War orders. Reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd.

Index for file on First World War orders – CR4031/6/208 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

Other files highlight the manufacture of shell cases that were machined and fitted up together with cordite powder cases. Most of this was carried out in tin sheds, specially erected for the work, by an army of women operatives. This involved liaising with engineering rivals Dick, Kerr & Co., which was also making parts. This link in particular was important for the later history of the Rugby site.

The difficulty at first was to get proper ‘setters up’, but semi-skilled men were trained to do this and although this seemed to work the company always found it hard to recruit labour. Over 300 of the regular employees joined the forces and by June 1915 there were vacancies for at least 200 additional men. A few men known as Soldiers Workmen were employed and it was planned to get extra men from the Volunteer Munitions Corps. Despite this more people were required and in November 1915 over 30 Americans started work in Rugby. Their travel expenses were paid for by the company and a file of their contracts shows the cost of their travel and the job they were to perform when they arrived.

Belgian refugees that fled their home country because of the war were also offered jobs at the works. There was an acute housing shortage in Rugby and to accommodate the extra workmen temporary hutments were built. These were still in use in the 1930s but were eventually demolished. They can be seen on site plans and aerial photographs from the period.

The aeroplane engines were also tested in an outdoor corrugated iron shed and the noise of the engines, amplified by the drum-like construction of the shed, must have been very annoying for any locals living nearby.

Illustration from instructions manual for Salmson aero engine. Reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd.

Illustration from instructions manual for Salmson aero engine – CR4031/1/88 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

Indentured Pupils ledgers for the years 1914-1918 indicate that 28 people had volunteered to join the armed forces but there is no accurate record about those who were killed or who returned to the company. One of the youngest must have been Wilfred Tucker who was barely 18 years of age when killed in action in August 1916. He is commemorated on the Thiepval War Memorial in France.

Another indentured pupil was Sir William Eric Thomas Avery, of the well-known Avery Scales manufacturing family, who started at Willans & Robinson in October 1913 but left in July 1914 and subsequently joined the Army Service Corps. After receiving the Military Cross and being mentioned in despatches he died in France in November 1918 as a result of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic.

Two memorial plaques at the Willans Works give the names of the employees who died during the First World War.

Willans Works plaque for Drawing Office staff who were killed in action during the First World War © Clive Foote.

Willans Works plaque for Drawing Office staff who were killed in action during the First World War © Clive Foote.

Like all organisations that altered their production lines for the war effort Willans & Robinson had to re-assess its future and its products after the war. An indirect consequence of working with other engineering companies such as Dick, Kerr & Co. during the First World War was that the latter company took full control of Willans & Robinson in 1917. Both firms then became part of English Electric a year later and the Rugby site was renamed the Willans Works.

The Willans Works was also one of the many English Electric sites that manufactured items during the Second World War. These included turbines built for Frank Whittle’s Power Jets Ltd company to help with research into the jet engine.

Twin turbine built for Frank Whittle's Power Jets Ltd. Reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd.

Twin turbine built for Frank Whittle’s Power Jets Ltd – CR4031/5/141 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

After the Second World War English Electric published a ‘war diary’ to show how the company supported the war effort.