Pupils of Crich Junior School in Derbyshire take part in the outreach work of the Sherwood Foresters Museum. © WFR collection.
World War Two in the East Midlands is a story packed with vital components of the Allied victory – from industry to airfields, regiments to evacuees.
Throughout the war Leicester’s historic textile industry was a source of clothing and equipment for many of Britain’s troops, with the monolithic Corah factory in St Margaret’s playing a key role.
Still standing today, vast and more imposing than buildings erected decades later, the factory was built in 1865 by Leicestershire industrialist Edwin Corah.
A second, smaller factory was built by the company on Cold Overton Road, Oakham, but this was destroyed by fire in 1950, although the site is still used for industry.
The Corah factory in Leicester was one of the main uniform suppliers for the British Army. © Chris Breese/24 Hour Museum.
The largest factory in the county at the time, the St Margaret’s works was powered by a steam engine and employed 2,000 workers before technological advances meant output could be maintained and the workforce reduced.
During the war half of the company’s workforce was called up and the remaining employees had to cope with ever-increasing orders from the military. Throughout the conflict the factory produced 26 million items which included 17.5 million pairs of socks and close to half a million helmets.
The company’s engineering works also produced 80,000 gun parts and 30,000 components for tank landing craft.
The war was to take its toll in other ways however and 36 members of the workforce who were called up lost their lives.
A nineteenth century statue of St Margaret still stands in the courtyard. © Chris Breese/24 Hour Museum.
Another legacy of the company still in existence is the St Margaret’s Co-operative Bowling Club. The club was founded in 1921 when the firm purchased a sports ground on Thurcaston Road in Leicester.
The club survived the war years to become Corah B.C. in the 1970s and again survived when road developments threatened the sports ground in 1990, instead moving to the Co-operative sports ground on Birstall Road in Leicester where it survives to this very day.
Corah’s demise came about along with the decline of the rest of the textile industry in the 1960s and 70s. Reports as to exactly when the great St Margaret’s works finally closed its doors are hard to come by, but the building was home to a succession of nightclubs and today houses everything from modern hosiery companies to a martial arts school.
Women swelled the factory workforces throughout the region. Here they operate hand press machines at Collaro Ltd, Langley Mill, Derbyshire. © Derbyshire Library Service / Picture the Past
There are several local history archives in the East Midlands that give easy online access to resources exploring the region in World War Two. The East Midland Oral History Archive has recordings of interviews with local people - including fascinating pieces about evacuation and the Women's Land Army.
Picturethepast.org.uk is the online photographic archive of the North East Midland Photographic Record and features thousands of archive photographs. Easily searchable and informative, the archive includes hundreds of local pictures from the local area in World War Two.
Emsource, the East Midlands learning resource, is another website that contains many items relating to World War Two. Drawn from museums, libraries and archives in the region, topics include women's contribution to the war effort, the experience of children and life in the factories.
The cap badge of the Sherwood Foresters.
While the local factories like Corah helped to grind out the necessary industry of the East Midlands to fuel the war effort, the Sherwood Foresters Regiment drew men from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire that would help fill the uniforms.
Founded from five regional regiments in 1881 by the Carwell Reforms, the regiment has a long and proud history. Having already seen action in Egypt in 1882, the Boer War in 1899, and WWI the regiment’s 2nd Battalion landed in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force in September 1939.
Later to become the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters in 1970, the Sherwood Foresters went on to fight across the world over the next five years, from Italy to Singapore.
The ill-fated British Expeditionary Force foray into France in 1940 culminated in three battalions of the regiment enduring a period defending the Dunkirk perimeter followed by a fighting withdrawal from Cherbourg.
Actions in Norway, North Africa and the disastrous defence of Singapore followed (450 men from the regiment died in Japanese captivity) before a victory finally came at El Alamein in November 1942.
The Sherwood Foresters Museum at Nottingham contains many items brought back by the regiment in World War Two. © WFR Collections.
Following the bloody but victorious North Africa campaign (the regiment earned seven battle honours) the Foresters were sent into action in Italy and became heavily involved in the brutal slog from Salerno, Anzio and Cassino before the long and bloody fight to cross the Gustav Line in Northern Italy.
Service in the Sherwood Foresters is often a family affair, with sons following their fathers who had followed grandfathers into the regiment. It is a heritage preserved to this day in two unique museum collections in Nottingham and Derby.
The Nottingham collection can be found at the Sherwood Foresters Museum located in Nottingham Castle and has been a fixture there since 1963. The museum recently added a touch screen with a database of over 51,000 Sherwood Foresters.
Derby’s collection is located in Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Both collections combine to provide a unique educational service to local schools, tailored to the national curriculum.
The Crich Memorial commemorates the dead of the Sherwood Foresters in both World Wars. Here WWII veterans make their annual pilgrimage to the memorial. © Mr H Rhodes / Picture the Past
Ex-servicemen attend school visits and offer their knowledge of the regiment whilst special ‘Resource Boxes’ on various topics contain artefacts on anything from military badges to children’s gas masks.
The regiment also has a memorial at Crich Hill, Crich, Derbyshire, built to honour members of the regiment who have died in service. A tower structure and grounds with spectacular views over the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire countryside, the Crich Memorial was first opened in 1923 in remembrance of those who died in the great war and has remained the regiment’s memorial ever since.
The rolling Derbyshire countryside is also home to the memories of thousands of people who as children were evacuated to the area near the start of the war to avoid the Blitz.
Sent away from their homes by reluctant mothers, children would arrive in the whole East Midlands region in their hundreds on railway station platforms armed with luggage, wrist tags, gas masks and food parcels.
Mothers behind the barriers at Waterloo Station London, as they watch their children leave under the civilian evacuation scheme. © IWM.
The evacuation of Britain's cities at the start of World War Two was the biggest movement of people in Britain's history. In four days during early September 1939, nearly 3,000,000 people were transported from towns and cities in danger from enemy bombers to places of safety in the countryside.
This experience of children during wartime and evacuation has been addressed by the national exhibition, Children's War at the Imperial War Museum in London, but at the village of Sudbury in West Derbyshire the evacuees that arrived during wartime, notably from Manchester, are still remembered.
A stained glass window depicting the arrival of the evacuees in the picturesque village was constructed and fitted in the local church in 2001.
To cope with the sudden influx of children from cities such as Sheffield and Middlesbrough, village halls in many Derbyshire villages became temporary schools and some families would take on as many as six children at a time or more.
School classrooms throughout the East Midlands increased in size as evacuees poured into the region. This photograph of Epperstone Church of England School in Nottinghamshire has the names of several evacuees written on the back. © Mr D Bradbury/ Picture the Past
Today many former Derbyshire evacuees have begun to use the Internet to locate former friends and families from their time there. www.RootsChat.com, a website dedicated to genealogy, has recently seen an increasing number of former evacuees from the area looking for old acquaintances. The BBC’s World War Two People’s War Project has seen many evacuee stories from the region recounted.
These memories, like many from the East Midland’s wartime history, are being voiced more often now. The VE Day anniversary celebrations have encouraged people to preserve and re-discover that unique history. Many will be surprised to find it even broader than they already thought.
Visit the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.
With thanks to www.picturethepast.org.uk for kind permission to use images. You can see thousands more pictures like those above at www.picturethepast.org.uk.
The website makes historic images from the library and museum collections of Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, freely available at the click of a button to anyone with access to the Internet, anywhere in the world.
If you have memories of the East Midlands during wartime and would like to contribute or comment on this trail, try Storymaker our free and easy-to-use web facility that enables members of the public, working with the support of journalists at the 24 Hour Museum, to get their stories online.