HISTORY FEATURE: The factory that made a third of the nation’s rifles

HISTORY FEATURE: The factory that made a third of the nation’s rifles

By Gareth Dennison | 27/04/2022

HISTORY FEATURE: The factory that made a third of the nation’s rifles

 

A THIRD of the rifles produced in this country during the Second World War came out of a factory just a couple of minutes’ cycle from Maltby.

The Royal Ordnance Factory was opened by the Ministry of Supply near the start of the conflict — and it played a hugely important role in arming the nation following the losses at Dunkirk.

Top security RAF equipment and rifles were produced at the factory, on Tickhill Road, while armed police patrolled the grounds.

The site — today home to the Aven industrial estate — was ideally located. It had coal and steel supplies on the doorstep, for a start.

The ROF was close to Sheffield and Doncaster’s mainline train links — aerial views indicate a small siding on the site.

Being situated in a quiet spot of countryside between Maltby and Tickhill made it less likely to be bombed than if it was opened in a city.

There was a female labour force within a short distance, who could bike or bus it in just a few minutes — and suitable land to add more housing in Maltby had already been designated, ready for the workforce reinforcements.

Canon Clifford Auckland described the building of the ROF in 1939 as the last of Alderman Edward Dunn’s achievements.

“Sadly, it was concerned with the making of weapons of war,” Mr Auckland wrote in 1989’s The Growth of a Township, Maltby’s Story.

“The factory manufactured rifles and was responsible for one-third of the national output.

“It filled an important role when the army was re-equipping after the retreat from Dunkirk.

“Dunn obviously persuaded the government to site the factory at Maltby for the sake of work for Maltby’s women.

“At its height, the factory employed 3,000 people and worked a three-shift day. The managers came from the parent factory at Enfield Lock.

“To accommodate them and the engineers and lathe-setters, who mostly came from Sheffield, the Ministry of Supply built a housing estate on the north side of the town.

“It has been known by Maltby people ever since as Little London.”

The housing of Little London did not follow regular local plans. It was developed as a separate entity from the nearby colliery and council homes.

The radically different design involved concrete roofs — aimed at making the properties bomb-proof — and also brought Maltby’s first purpose built flats.

Streets were named after PM Winston Churchill and home secretary Herbert Morrison.

In 1944, as the final campaigns of the war were taking place, it was decided that the ROF would switch from rifles to miscellaneous ammunition components.

It was a gradual process, which took more than five years. New machinery arrived, which helped to keep the output at an economical price level.

Peter Vine started in 1954 and was among the next-to-last intake of apprentices. After the factory closed, he was transferred to ROF Blackburn, where he stayed for a year before being transferred to ROF Leeds.

In the war, his aunt worked at Maltby, assembling the 303 Enfield rifles. Metal parts were made there, with the wooden butts produced elsewhere and brought in. The weapons were test-fired before being loaded on wagons and sent away by train to London, via Retford.

The factory police force controlled all access points to the site, while the ROF also had its own fire brigade and medical room. There was also an active sports and social scene associated with the factory.

Jack Linton moved from Bradford to Maltby, with wife Margery and their two sons, to work as an electrician at the ROF.

They lived on Morrison Avenue in 1941 before moving to Greenland Avenue. Margery was a rent receiver in Little London, with half of her dining room turned into an office.

Peter Lounds, now of Greasbrough, lived on School Walk in Maltby as a youngster and remembers Little London being built.

He recalls the new Londoners and Maltby folk getting on very well, and he had five or six childhood friends who had made the move north.

Mary Fudge worked at the ROF between 1951 and her marriage in 1955. Her interview had taken place at the employment office on Morrell Street and her day shift commute involved catching the trolley bus from Sunnyside to Maltby, and taking the special ROF bus from the Queens to the factory gate ready for a 7.30am start.

The former Wickersley Secondary School pupil said security were “keen” and her uniform on the large factory floor was blue overalls.

Her job involved pulling a metal rod to the far end of her workbench, where she cut it off to a fixed length and made a hole for the bullet to go in.

There was no canteen but someone would come around and take orders for the chippy — every day.

Mary would take her unopened pay packet home and give it to her mum, who would return 2s a week pocket money.

John Adams, of Brinsworth, said his father worked as a labourer at Thurcroft Colliery, to which he cycled from Maltby, after being declared unfit for active service.

His dad later trained as a pipe-fitter at the ROF, and talked of the rifle range they had there to test the rifles. He also understood that hair nets were provided to the women after two got their hair tangled in the machinery.

Stephen North worked on the site in the post-ROF days of the 1970s.

He said: “This story was told to me by Gerry Armstrong, who was my boss, and a great bloke. He had worked there for ever.

“There were a few of the original ROF workers, and some were showing signs of press injuries such as pieces of fingers missing.

“There was no health and safety in those days as production was everything. On one of the big press tools, the operator used to have to lean fully in between the two halves of the tooling to retrieve the pressings. That was not a good place to be on a 600-ton press!”

“Someone came up with a brilliant idea,” said Stephen. “On the smaller presses, the operator had a pair of leather wrist cuffs with a rope attached to the press with a pulley to pull the operator’s hands clear of the tooling when the press dropped and it worked well.

“The 600-ton press was set up with a pulley system in a similar fashion, but the operator wore a waist harness. I was told it was from a horse, but who knows.

“The rope went backwards to a wall and through two old mattresses to cut down on the impact after the operator, who was being dragged backwards by the press as it operated.”

Mr Armstrong had started working at the site as a 14-year-old messenger boy in the ROF’s heyday of the early 1940s. He went on to become a skilled toolmaker, and later worked on security after Aven Tools took over the buildings.

He was still involved with the site in 1997, when he was 70. At the time, he told the Advertiser: “At its peak, there were more than 5,000 people working in shift rotation.

“On my return from the army in 1948, servicemen were the first to be made redundant, but I was redeployed as a millwright/maintenance fitter until 1858, when the site was eventually closed by the government over labour disputes.

“The 36-acre site and all its buildings remained vacant until 1961 when I was re-employed by the Hacksaw Company, of Sheffield, to reinstate the site to get it back into commercial use.

“Other manufacturers followed and in 1964 there were more than 200 contractors undertaking demolition of redundant buildings, refurbishing new ones and generally modernising the estate.”

The winding down of the weaponry arrangements at the ROF was discussed in parliament in 1958.

Rother Valley MP David Griffiths asked what progress had been made in getting private industry interested in occupying the site.

Minister of Supply William Taylor told him: “While I much regret the recent increase in unemployment at Maltby, less than 100 of the 500 people who have left the Royal Ordnance factory since January are registered as unemployed.

“My information is that about 90 of the established industrial employees are being transferred to the Royal Ordnance factory at Blackburn.

“All employees, both established and unestablished, were offered an opportunity to transfer to Blackburn. No cases of individual complaint or hardship have been brought to my attention.”

Mr Griffiths said all was not running as smooth as the minister said. Some workers had seen applications to go to Blackburn refused, including men who had been there 20 years.

“If that is satisfactory, I should like to know what is unsatisfactory,” said the Rother Valley MP.

Most of the original buildings are gone, but the ROF site is still used by a variety of firms as the Aven Industrial Park.

Largely based on the research of Alice Rodgers (right), secretary of Maltby Local History Society, following her successful appeal through the Advertiser for memories of the ROF.

 

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