A Manufacturing City During Wartime - Leeds in World War Two

By Richard Moss | 18 May 2005
shows a black and white photograph of two men working machinery in a factory.

Production of Blackburn aircraft at the Olympia factory in Leeds during WW2. © Leodis.

A photographic trail developed in partnership with Leodis, an onlinephotographic archive from Leeds Library and Information Service, looking atlife in Leeds during World War Two. All photographs are under copyright and can be viewed in more detail on the Leodis website

Like many of the great industrial cities of the north, Leeds was at the vanguard of a manufacturing industry that turned out textiles and engineering components that were vital to the war effort.

shows a black and white photograph of a single engined propellor plane

A Blackburn 'Skua' fighter dive-bomber built by Blackburn Aircraft Ltd in Leeds for the Royal Navy. © Leodis.

Established firms in the city such as Blackburns and Avro made aircraft whilst the engineering giant Vickers Armstrong established a factory in Leeds during World War Two that concentrated on light and medium guns. By the end of the war it had churned out almost 9,000 pieces of ordnance to the British Army.

Nationally the company produced two thirds of the British Army’s field artillery during the period and was also responsible for the famous Vickers machine gun, which had been in production since World War One. There is a tableau of a Vickers machine Gunner at the Royal Armouries Leeds together with examples of some of the weapons used in the Second World War.

If you'd like to see how a Vickers gun works in detail look at this animation from the Science Museum's fantastic Making the Modern World website. You need a fast web connection to view this properly.

show a black and white aerial photograph of a factory surrounding by rows of housing and fields.

Aerial view of Barnbow Ordnance works taken in 1963. The factory occupies the top half of the photo. © Leodis.

By 1940 Vickers were also heavily involved in tank production with Cruisers, Valentines and Matildas all rolling off their production lines.

Other factories were established in Leeds as the race to re-arm gathered pace and in 1939 the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Leeds was hastily built on 60-acre site one mile from Barnbow. The area had already been the site of a famous munitions factory (closed in 1932) that employed thousands of local women during the First World War.

shows a black and white group photograph of a posed group of women munitions workers
First World War: having worked at the Barnbow Munitions Factory in great numbers during the first war, women returned to the munitions industry during World War Two. © Leodis.

ROF Barnbow manufactured guns for the army and navy and employed 3000 workers including over 2000 women. As in other cities in the UK the contribution of women to the engineering industries became vital and in Leeds women were eventually conscripted into working from 1941 onwards to keep guns and ammunition flowing out of the factories.

Women even moved to the area to work in munitions and 24-hour production was commonplace, achieved by working shifts in factories like the other ROF munitions plant on the city outskirts at Thorp Arch where hundreds were employed in the repetitive and potentially dangerous task of cartridge filling.

shows a black and white photograph of female nurses on parade
A contingent of St John's Ambulance Brigade nurses, on parade down The Headrow in 1942. This was part of an appeal to raise money to build a new Ark Royal for the navy.

Prior to the war the manufacturing industries in Leeds had suffered a slump in fortunes but they were saved for a while by the Second World War. Greenwood and Batley switched to munitions manufacture, as did Mann’s factory in Hunslett. Burtons started making military uniforms whilst John Fowlers Engineering Company in Hunslet, a coach maker, switched to making tanks and other fighting vehicles.

You can read a story about one Leeds man’s journey from shop floor at Fowlers to the slopes of Monte Cassino on the BBC’s People’s War website.

shows a black and white photograph of women working on machines tools in a factory.
View of the interior of the Wellington Street works of Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd. The female workers in the picture are boring two pounder gun barrels.© Leodis.

As an increasing number of local men were conscripted into the armed forces women poured into the factories to take up the slack - many of them taking on the traditional male occupations of forging, machining and other heavy manual work. The lack of 'manpower' also led women to volunteer in large numbers for the ARP and auxiliary services in the city.

Another company that adapted its production lines for the war effort was Fairbairn, Lawson, Combe, Barbour Ltd. Originally a manufacturer of textile machinery, during the Second World War their predominantly female workforce made mortar barrels and other munitions at the Wellington Street Plant.

shows a black and white photograph of an old car converted to an ambulance
This ambulance was originally a Vauxhall 20 saloon of around 1935 vintage converted by Charles H. Roe Ltd, at Cross Gates Carriage works in Austhorpe Road. © Leodis.

Adaptability was a feature of both people and industry throughout Britain during the war and in Leeds, Oxley’s Mineral Water Company began producing Coca-Cola from a special concentrate in 1943 when American troops were in the area.

The firm of Charles H. Roe Ltd, at Cross Gates Carriageworks in Austhorpe Road, converted the chassis of hundreds of private cars to ambulances and mobile canteens; private individuals in the city and abroad donating many of the cars to the war effort.

The company also produced utility double-decker and single-decker buses (to Ministry of Supply specifications) that were destined for all parts of the country as well as various military utility vehicles that ranged from mobile map printing wagons to articulated trailer kitchens. They also managed to produce 14,826 accumulator trolleys – invaluable pieces of equipment that were trundled out onto runways to start aircraft engines.

shows a ruined interior of a building looking out onto a street where two men peer in through a shattered window.

View from interior of museum entrance after bomb hit Leeds City Museum on March 15 1941 . Broken shelves, boxes and pipes can be seen as well as damaged exhibits.

Despite a profusion of vital industry and possibly because of its geographical location so far inland on the edge of the Pennines, Leeds escaped a sustained period of enemy bombing during World War Two. (A popular local myth says Leeds was spared because of the thick pall of industrial smoke that smothered the city).

Even so 77 people lost their lives and nearly 200 buildings were destroyed in the nine Luftwaffe air raids over the city.

shows a bombed out interior of a building with a wrecked staircase and broken lift.

An interior staircase of the Town Hall which was also damaged on the night of March 15 1945. © Leodis.

Although relatively small and not as concentrated as those suffered by other British cities the raids resulted in some significant damage - the heaviest being on the evening of 14/15 March 1941. During that night the famous Town Hall was hit on the Calverley Street side, which partially destroyed the Law Library.

The museum was also a target (part of the Egyptology collection was destroyed) and the City Station, as well some small industrial complexes. The Union Mills in Pudsey was narrowly missed in the same raid - with bombs falling short of the Union Bridge on Roker Lane.

shows bomb damaged house with a collapsed roof - two men with shovels stand at the top right of the picture

14 Ingram Road March 28 1941. View of bomb damage, caused by war time air-raid. On the right, group of workers with spades. There were nine bombing raids on Leeds, resulting in 77 fatalities. © Leodis.

Residential areas of the city also suffered. The Quarry Hill Flats, one of the first municipal flats to be built in the country were attacked on this night and parts of them had to be destroyed after the war – such was the damage.

Incendiary and high explosive bombs also fell in various parts of the Burley area. In Willow Street and Willow Grove a block of eight houses was destroyed. One of the bombs had a timing device that went off two minutes after the 'all-clear' siren had sounded. An elderly woman and her dog were killed and several people were seriously injured.

shows a photograph of a men in helmet and goggles shileding himself behind a bin lid whilst he extinguishes an incendiary bomb by using a long pole

A bin lid and a long stick: training to put out incendiary bombs at the Leeds Anti-Bomb School based at Sweet Street. © Leodis.

Raids by the Luftwaffe remained a constant threat and in September 1941 a bomb caused damage during an air raid on Cliffside Gardens in Woodhouse, which sliced off the end of a row of houses.

Other bombs dropped on seemingly disparate locations; a raid hit Bramley in late 1941 and, in 1942 a ‘stray bomb’ (according to local residents it was stuck in the bomb bay of an aircraft) demolished part of Fairfield Crescent. The Oak Road Congregational Church in the city centre was hit and partially destroyed in October 1941.

shows a black and white photograph of male and female wardens on parade.

Air raid wardens on parade on Marsh Street during the visit of H.R.H. Princess Mary, The Princess Royal, to mark Salute the Soldier Week on April 1, 1944. © Leodis.

The city had taken the usual precautions against bombing and although many residents were slow to build the government-provided Anderson Shelters, on Sepetmber 1 1939 18,250 children and 2,800 teachers and voluntary workers were evacuated on special trains leaving from City Station. Mainly to Lincolnshire and the Yorkshire Dales, they were followed on September 2 by 8,000 mothers, pregnant women and disabled people.

However, most of them were home again by Christmas but with the ever present threat of raids throughout the war children were sent to Ilkley or other nearby rural areas – enabling them to easily visit their families. You can read some of these fascinating and moving experiences related by Leeds evacuees on the BBC’s People War Website.

Like all cities in Britain, despite the privations of war, the public were encouraged to throw their weight behind the war effort. Iron railings and even factory gates disappeared into the local foundries - reappearing as armaments.

shows a black and white photograph of a large parade with crowds and marching soldiers in a city square.

Ark Royal Week 1942, this view shows crowds on the Headrow, outside the Town Hall and on Victoria Gardens. © Leodis

Beyond the obvious local raw materials, Leeds was at the forefront of a series remarkable fund-raising efforts to raise cash to buy armaments. Leeds was the first English city to host a 'War Weapons Week' with the first initiative, to raise cash for 250 bombers, happening in September 1940.

The most dramatic donation was the adoption of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal by Leeds during one of the Goverment sponsored 'Warship Weeks' in early 1940.

shows a black and white photograph of a crowd listening to man on a podium speak outside a town hall.

June 5 1944 Major General Shears is making a speech outside Leeds Town Hall. Behind him is an indicator to mark the progress of the appeal for funds. The target was £6,000,000, the final total was £6,848,594.

When a German U-Boat sank the Ark Royal in November 1941 the citizens of Leeds raised a remarkable £9 million for the building of a replacement vessel. Ark Royal Week ran from January 30 to February 7 1942 with an initial objective of £5 million.

Throughout the war many wartime appeals were launched in the city to raise funds to help finance the war effort. There was a ‘war week’ in September 1940 featuring speeches outside the Town Hall and a march past of soldiers. Over £3.5 million was collected during this fund-raising campaign. Between June 26 and July 3 1943 'Wings For Victory Week' raised £7.2 million for the RAF and a 'Salute The Soldier Week' in June 1944 raised over £6 million.

shows four scottish soldiers in kilts dancing on the steps of a town hall in fornt of an appreciative crowd

A quartet of soldiers in the uniform of a Scottish regiment perform a sword dance on the steps of Leeds Town Hall, May 13 1945. © Leodis.

On the announcement of Victory in Europe spontaneous celebrations broke out across the city, people tore down their blackout curtains, church bells rang out and, for the first time in over five years, bonfires were lit across the city.

In the centre of the city there were spontaneous outbreaks of celebration with crowds gathering along the Headrow before the Town Hall. However, an official civic celebration didn’t take place until May 11 when a parade of 2,000 auxiliary personnel marched along the Headrow after a speech and announcement by the Lord Mayor.

shows a black and white photograph of a children sat at a long table outside - surrounded by smiling women

May 9 1945, a street party in Cross Gates to celebrate VE day. A stamp on the photograph in the right hand corner reads 'VE Day+1. MAY 9th 1945. HAWKHILL DRIVE'. © Leodis.

Despite the rain, smiling crowds milled over the town square grabbing vantage points sitting on the famous Town Hall lions to watch the parade. Elsewhere people mingled and danced with the soldiers and other personnel who were stationed near the city.

In the suburbs, parties were hastily organised by the women of Leeds for the official, national VE Day on May 9. Photographs from this time show the smiling faces of mainly women and children sat around trestle tables - evidence of how many of the male residents had been serving in the armed forces.

shows a black and white photograph of people smiling and dancing in the rain

Jubilant Leeds people dancing in front of Leeds Town Hall celebrate VJ (Victory in Japan) Day, which signalled the end of war-time hostilities in the Far East. © Leodis.

After VE Day the city continued in its fervent support of the war effort. In June 1945 'Youth Marches On' was a five-day festival dedicated to victory organised by the Yorkshire Evening News and the Standing Conference of Youth Organisations.

When peace finally arrived with the announcement of VJ Day on August 15 the city could at last look forward to the return of some of the men who had gone away to war and a degree of normality.

Although the early post war years were a time of austerity and restrictions, shelters were dismantled and the rebuilding of a city, which had thrown its full weight behind the war effort, could at last begin.

shows a black and white photograph of partially collapsed terraced houses with a concrete mixer in the foreground.

Rosebank View - the post war reconstruction begins. © Leodis.

With thanks to Leodis for help and permission to use photographs. You can add your comments and order copies of all of the photographs used in the trail at the Leodis website

Visit the main 24 Hour Museum 'World War Two-60 Years' 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.

If you have memories of Leeds 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.

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This commemorative trail section was funded by the Big Lottery Fund through MLA.

Read personal stories contributed by people from Leeds on the BBC WW2 People’s War website.

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