27 June 2017 | 15.9 °C

How London's Railings Ended Up At The Bottom Of The Thames

How London's Railings Ended Up At The Bottom Of The Thames
Photo: Katie Chan from Wikimedia Commons

Walking around London's more aspirational neighbourhoods, one is struck by the dominance of spiked black railings guarding buildings. Many take them as a signal of London's inequality, the bars and spikes forming an intimidating barrier for those less fortunate. What's less known today about London's railings is that they played a large role in unifying the home front during the war effort, all for a rather phoney reason.

Fighting a war, countries need munitions. To make munitions, raw materials are needed, particularly iron. Britain wasn't blessed with heaps of iron ore, but the country — London in particular — was covered in iron railings. That led to a drive in removing railings and shipping them off to be made into weapons and tanks abroad.

Phantom railing stumps are still dotted around London today. Photo: Andrew Davidson from Wikimedia Commons

Bob Franks was just a child when his railings were removed, but he remembers when they were cut down from outside his home on Blenheim Gardens. He recalls that, "The only good thing about that was that I could then sit comfortably on the coping outside of our house."

Everyone got in on the act of removing their rails, even King George VI. He didn't personally get his palms grubby, but he did have some of Buckingham Palace's railings removed as seen below.

© British Newspaper Archives

Thousands of railings were stripped from buildings, then shipped off to help serve their country — except there were never any reports of the railings reaching their intended destinations. There'd been a massive miscalculation, and the amount of iron collected far exceeded the amount needed.

So it was all for nothing. Well, not exactly; the powers that be found out not long into the drive that the iron wasn't actually needed. However, the effect of people coming together and taking down railings was a real morale-booster, which they wanted to keep. So they didn't care about the loss of a few railings when looking at the big picture.

What happened to the railings? The government didn't want people finding out about its big fib. The iron was dumped them in the Thames Estuary off the coast at Sheerness in Sheppey, or so the story goes.

The coast at Sheerness. Warning to swimmers: rogue railings abound. Photo: afcone

This story has never actually been confirmed but is widely believed. It all stems from a letter the Evening Standard received in 1984 from journalist Christopher Long. He claimed the information came from dockers at Canning Town, who'd worked on the ships that dumped the railings. They even claimed that ships need pilots to guide around certain parts of the estuary, as their compasses were distorted by the iron beneath.

If the story isn't true, don't expect a rather more glamorous destination for the railings. Despite some fanciful rumours (including their being dropped on Germany), it's suspected that if the railings didn't make it to the bottom of the Thames Estuary, their next most likely resting place is landfill.

In the years since the war, many Londoners have chosen to replace their railings to stand tall once again. Or at least until someone comes up with another use for them. Summer barbecue skewers anyone?

Last Updated 21 June 2017