World War Two

As early as 21st September 1939[1], the firm had already identified several areas where they could help including machining parts for aircraft production and, as in the First World War, providing factory heating for those also engaged in war work. They were already preparing to convert their “L” shaped woodworking bay into a machine shop. Having fixed up a D.C. supply into the new shop, they were in the process of purchasing several D.C. motors, and applying to Loughborough Corporation’s Electricity Department for an additional 50 H.P. of power to run the motors.

Along with other firms in the town they provided Air Raid Precautions (ARP) volunteers, with Mr. A.F. Thornewell, who also acted as a first aider.

The firm received numerous queries[2] from the Ministry of Supply[3] for items including benches, portable workshops, trestles, etc. Notwithstanding returning all the complete tenders none were successful, presumably, as in the First Worlds War, they were too expensive.

Despite losing out to the Ministry of Supply, they did win a significant number of orders from the Ordnance Factory and Depot, at Chilwell, near Nottingham. Located between Chilwell and Toton, the Depot started life just prior to World War One as the Chilwell Shell Filling Factory, formally known as the National Filling Factory No. 6. Although run down between the wars, it was reactivated at the start of the Second World War, supplying tanks and other equipment.

The Ministry of Supply contracts were for large numbers of wooden packing cases and fittings; suitable for items such as radiators, cylinder blocks and Bedford engines. Because of the volume of orders, the firm ran a dedicated ‘production line’ consisting of both men and machinery. It appears that there was probably eight men working on Chilwell originated orders, ranging from the unskilled to the skilled, as was reflected in the weekly rates which ranged from £1 3s., through to a maximum of around £4 4s.

It is interesting to note that at the beginning there appears to have been a relatively relaxed attitude to orders and delivery dates; however, this soon changed on both sides. The firm requiring a constant stream of orders to maintain a production line approach; this was combined with the Ordnance Depot requiring shorter and shorter deadlines, in terms of both manufacture and delivery, with more and more orders becoming ever more urgent. However, such was the work being offered by Chilwell, that the firm was complaining (to a third party) that they didn’t welcome very large orders (e.g. receiving a tender for 141,000 packing cases from the Ministry of Supply, which Messenger’s felt duty bound to respond to, although they eventually decided to decline the offer to tender), because most of their woodworking department has been turned into machine shops, manufacturing machine tools, directly for the Air Ministry, etc.[4]

In a four-month period, between mid-May and mid-September 1940, the firm responded to 22 tenders from Chilwell; of which they were completely successful in 9, partially successful in 7 and failed in the remaining 6. The total value of these orders, whilst more than £2,000[5], appears to have been both low value and low volume. The average value of each item was just over £1, with a minimum of around 7s. and a maximum of around £2 13s.; volumes also varied enormously, ranging from 5 up to 360, although averaging a little over 45.

In the first ten months of 1941, the firm responded to a total of 114 tenders from all prospective clients, of which just under half (71) were from the Chilwell Ordnance Depot. Of the 114, they were successful in 48, of which 43 (including 13 partial orders) were from the Ordnance Depot. A total of 28 tenders were rejected, of which Chilwell contributed 24. The outcome of a significant number (27) of completed tenders is unknown. The total value of the Chilwell orders during this period was well over £3,300.

It appears that the most significant problem the firm encountered, in attempting to fulfil these orders, was the supply of suitable timber. All supplies were subject to permits being authorised by the relevant Timber Control Area Officer; in the firm’s case this was, in 1940, Mr. W.O. Woodward and his deputy, located at Vernon House, Friar Lane, Nottingham. The volume of timber required to fabricate these cases was significant; in May 1940, they attempted to reserve a supply of timber of more than 900 cubic feet, although the actual timber sizes were small, e.g. 2in. x 11in. and 3in. x 8in. Initially they used their long-standing timber suppliers including Messrs J.T. Stanton & Co., Ltd., based at St. Ann’s Fort, Kings Lynn, with saw mills at Bentinck Dock, Kings Lynn. In the early 1940s, they could supply imported Siberian Redwoods, albeit of apparently relatively low quality. In July, they were offering Red Deal or Prime Clear Columbian Pine, which would have to come off their National Stock, subject to their own Government quota. However, as early as August 1940, the timber control license was specifying the use of home grown softwood timber and by March 1941, Stanton’s were struggling to meet demand; indeed, demand far outstripped supply and some orders were taking up to 6 or 8 months to fulfil, whilst others were simply being rejected. However, due to their long-relationship, Stanley’s were giving the firm preference over others; they were also suggesting that the firm look elsewhere for some of its requirements, particularly packing case timber, which Stanley’s could only supply as freshly felled timber, which had too high a moisture content (greater than 19%). As the Ministry of Supply demanded the use of dry wood, with moisture content less than 19%, the firm was forced to look elsewhere for their supplies and consequently they went to Messrs Wintringham & Son of Grimsby. However, Wintringham’s could not supply from home grown timber and had to supply from imported Canadian Spruce. When the order eventually arrived in Loughborough, it was found to be of poor quality with many measuring less than the required ¾” thickness. This apparently originated through uneven sawing at source and something Wintringham’s had little or no influence over.

In addition to having to obtain timber, packing cases also necessitated the use of large quantities of bolts, nuts, washers, etc. For example, in constructing 93 Bedford engine packing cases it required 186 2ft. 7¼in. bolts, 186 1ft. 11½in. bolts, 186 2ft. 3¾in bolts, 386 3¼in. bolts, 1,488 hexagonal nuts, 1,488 washers, 372 1½in. x 1½in. x 1½in. plates (used as washers) and 372 spot welding nuts to plates. Some of these components were bought-in finished from specialist suppliers such as Abis & Co. (Birmingham) Ltd., Sydenham Road, Sparkbrook; Nuts & Bolts (Darlaston) Ltd., Foster Street, Darlaston; Johnson & Davies Ltd., Excelsior Works, Atherton; Essanbee Products Ltd., Nos. 26-27, Great Sutton Street, London. The firm also appears to have manufactured most of the bolts from ‘raw’ iron bars bought from iron and steel merchants such as Henry T. Billson of Kettering; Sutton and Ash Ltd., of New Spring Street, Birmingham; John Kidd & Sons, Ltd., Manchester.

Some of the bought-in components required special approval from the Ministry of Supply, based in the Adelphi, London. This added to the general delay in producing the finished articles. There were occasions when the ‘production line’ was held up because critical items were unavailable, with the firm having to seek approval to use alternatives.

Most of the cases and fittings were delivered, not to Chilwell, but to the General Stores, Ordnance Depot Sinfin Lane, Derby. On a few occasions the firm sub-contracted orders to a third party, such as in August 1941 when they passed an order for 50 small cases (internal dimensions of 2ft. 6in. x 9in. x 8½in.) to Messrs Bassford & Son, at a cost of 7s. each.

It appears that the Chilwell orders were regarded as a steady source of work, despite the inevitable problems in souring the ‘raw’ materials.


  1. Unless otherwise specifically identified all this information has been obtained from privately held records.
  2. Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office ref: DE2121/78.
  3. The Ministry of Supply was Government Department set-up in 1939 to co-ordinate the supply of equipment to the Armed Forces. It was finally abolished in 1959, when each Service had their own Ministry, which were later merged to become the Ministry of Defence.
  4. There is no known documentary evidence confirming the details.
  5. Obtained from Privately held records