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War, Industrial Mobilisation and Society in Northern Ireland, 1939–1945

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 May 2007

School of History, University of the West of England, Oldbury Court Road, Bristol, BS16 2JP;


Archive-based regional studies can contribute much that is new to the economic, political and social history of the Second World War. This paper considers the process of industrial mobilisation in Northern Ireland, a politically divided region which was part of the United Kingdom but which had its own government. It examines the changing administrative framework of war production, the debate on military and industrial conscription, the role of women and the economic implications of geographical remoteness from London. The paper adds to our limited knowledge of regional mobilisation and contributes to a neglected aspect of the history of Northern Ireland.

Guerre, mobilisation industrielle et société en irlande du nord, 1939–1945

Dans la nouvelle historiographie économique, politique et sociale de la seconde guerre mondiale, les études régionales fondées sur des archives peuvent apporter une large contribution. Cet article examine le processus de mobilisation industrielle en Irlande du nord, une région politiquement divisée dans l'Europe du nord avec son propre gouvernement à Belfast mais aussi partie intégrante de la Grande Bretagne. On analyse l'évolution du cadre administratif de la production de guerre, le débat sur la conscription militaire et industrielle, le rôle des femmes et les conséquences économiques de l'éloignement par rapport à Londres. Cet article ajoute ainsi de nouvelles connaissances à celles, limitées, sur la mobilisation régionale, et contribue à l'histoire de l'Irlande du nord.

Krieg, industrielle mobilisierung und gesellschaft in nordirland, 1939–1945

Auf Archivmaterial basierende Regionalstudien können viel Neues zur ökonomischen, politischen und sozialen Geschichte des Zweiten Weltkrieges beisteuern. Dieser Aufsatz betrachtet den Prozess der industriellen Mobilisierung in Nordirland, einer politisch geteilten Region im Nordwesten Europas, die Teil Grossbritanniens war, aber eine eigene Regierung in Belfast hatte. Es werden der sich verändernde administrative Rahmen der Kriegsproduktion, die Debatte über militärische und industrielle Wehr- und Arbeitspflicht, die Rolle der Frauen und die wirtschaftlichen Auswirkungen aufgrund der geographischen Entfernung von London untersucht. Der Artikel ergänzt unser begrenztes Wissen über regionale Mobilisierung und beleuchtet einen vernachlässigten Aspekt der Geschichte Nordirlands.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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1 Harrison, Mark, ‘The Economics of World War II: An Overview’, in Harrison, Mark, ed., The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 23–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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5 On women workers see Summerfield, Penny, Women Workers during the Second World War (London: Croom Helm, 1982)Google Scholar, and Williams, Mari A., A Forgotten Army: Female Munitions Workers of South Wales, 1939–45 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002)Google Scholar. The neglect of business history is emphasised in Edgerton, David, Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 63–5, 145–6Google Scholar, and Peter Howlett, ‘“The Thin End of the Wedge”?: Nationalisation and Industrial Structure During the Second World War’, in Millward, Robert and Singleton, John, eds., The Political Economy of Nationalisation in Britain, 1920–50 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A rare essay on regional wartime history is David Thoms, War, Industry and Society: the West Midlands, 1939–45 (London: Routledge, 1989).

6 The government of Northern Ireland sponsored an official history of the region, since it was concerned that the British government's official history might leave the wartime role of Northern Ireland ‘discredited or belittled’. See Barton, Brian, Blake, foreword to J. W., Northern Ireland in the Second World War (Belfast: HMSO, 1956, repr. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2000), xiiiGoogle Scholar.

7 Harold Macmillan, The Work of the Area Boards, Jan. 1941, Ministry of Commerce Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast (hereafter PRONI), COM 28/2.

8 Macmillan, Harold, The Blast of War, 1939–45 (London: Macmillan, 1967), 118Google Scholar.

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10 Scott, J. D. and Hughes, Richard, Administration of War Production (London: HMSO, 1955), 419Google Scholar.

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12 Production Executive, Note of a Meeting of Chairmen, Deputy Chairmen and Secretaries of the Regional Boards, 14 May 1941, ibid.

13 The evolution of regional administration is well covered by Blake, Northern Ireland, 369–83, and Brian Barton, Brookeborough: The Making of a Prime Minister (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1988), ch. 9.

14 Ministry of Labour, Unemployment Insurance Acts – Estimated Number of Persons Insured, February 1943, PRONI CAB 4A/89. After partition the Northern Ireland ministry of labour assumed responsibility for collecting data from 1 Jan. 1922.

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17 Harry Mulholland, Chairman of York Street Flax Spinning Company to Sir Walter Smiles, 11 April 1941, PRONI COM 28/6; ‘Unemployment in the Linen Industry’, July 1941, PRONI COM 61/370; Isles and Cuthbert, Economic Survey, 566, 576; Hurstfield, Joel, The Control of Raw Materials (London: HMSO and Longman, 1953), 152Google Scholar.

18 For a denial that Northern Ireland was a ‘distressed area’ see the speech by Captain Hugh Dixon, government chief whip, to the Ulster Unionist Labour Association on 3 April 1939, in Belfast News-Letter, 4 April 1939.

19 Imlay, Facing the Second World War, esp. ch. 6.

20 Irish News, 17 April 1943. See also Keith Jeffery, ‘The British Army and Ireland Since 1922’, in Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery, eds., A Military History of Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 438.

21 Control of Factory and Storage Premises, Location of New Production (3rd edn), 30 Sept. 1942, PRONI COM 61/660.

22 Thomas Hennessey, Dividing Ireland: World War I and Partition (London: Routledge, 1998), 220–8.

23 The Times, 29 Aug. 1939; Irish News, 5 Aug. 1939; Viscount Templewood, Nine Troubled Years (London: Collins, 1954), 243–4. There were also attacks on Irish prisoners by other inmates at Dartmoor prison: Irish News, 29 Aug. 1939. The great political significance of the executions on 7 February at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, is clear from a letter from the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain to Hilda Chamberlain, 9 Feb. 1940, in Neville Chamberlain, The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters, ed. Robert Self, Vol. 4, The Downing Street Years, 1934–40 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 497. I thank Glyn Stone for this reference. On the IRA campaign of the early 1920s see Hart, Peter, The IRA at War, 1916–1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), ch. 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 See, for example, Londonderry Sentinel, 2 and 9 Jan., 24 and 29 Feb., 25 May, 1 June, 20 July and 3 Sept. 1940.

25 Elliott, Marianne, Catholics in Ulster (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 403Google Scholar.

26 Diary of Sir Basil Brooke, entry for 24 May 1941, PRONI D/3004/D/32.

27 Ibid., entry for 12 Aug. 1940, PRONI D/3004/D/31. For more detail on this debate see especially Barton, Brookeborough, ch. 8.

28 Londonderry Sentinel, 27 May 1941.

29 Lee, J. J., Ireland 1912–1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 267Google Scholar; Bew, Paul, Gibbon, Peter and Patterson, Henry, Northern Ireland 1921–1994: Political Forces and Social Classes (London: Serif, 1995), 242Google Scholar.

30 BBC Monitoring Service, extracts from a broadcast by Cardinal MacRory from Athlone in Irish Gaelic and English, 22 May 1941, PRONI CAB 9 CD/207/1.

31 Diary of Sir Basil Brooke, entry for 27 May 1941, PRONI D/3004/D/32.

32 Irish News, 15 May 1943.

33 Cabinet Conclusions, 21 May 1941, PRONI CAB 4/475/17. After the war the continuing employment of residence permit holders from Eire did cause a reaction in some areas: Ministry of Labour to the Manager, Londonderry Labour Exchange, 14 Jan. 1947, PRONI LAB 5/59.

34 Memorandum Submitted by the Minister of Home Affairs in Regard to Border Control, 24 April 1942, PRONI CAB 4/507/4.

35 Memorandum by the Minister of Home Affairs in regard to the Infiltration of Eire Workers into Northern Ireland, 16 March 1942, PRONI CAB 4/503/2. In just over three weeks, 10,000 applications for residence permits had been received: Belfast News-Letter, 25 Jan. 1943.

36 Belfast News-Letter, 30 Nov. 1938, 4 April 1939.

37 For a specific example see letter from Sir William Allen MP in Portadown News, 2 Nov. 1940.

38 Thoms, War, Industry and Society, ch. 1. An excellent case study of the implications of conversion to war production in Coventry is A. Shenfield and P. Sargant Florence, ‘Labour for the War Industries: the Experience of Coventry’, Review of Economic Studies, 12, 1 (1943–5), 31–49.

39 J. H. Guthrie of the Ministry of Supply to W. D. Scott of the Ministry of Commerce, 1 July 1941; J. F. Gordon, Minister of Labour, to R. T. Luney of the AEU 31 July 1941, PRONI COM 61/599.

40 Wilson Report, para. 7(c).

41 Meetings of the Area Board for Northern Ireland, 30 April, 10 May, 22 May 1940, PRONI CAB 3A/8.

42 William Hornby, Factories and Plant (London: HMSO, 1958), 91.

43 Williams, Forgotten Army, 52, 58. See also David Edgerton, ‘Public Ownership and the British Arms Industry, 1920–50’ in Millward and Singleton, Political Economy of Nationalisation, 164–5, 181.

44 Hansard (Commons), 1939–40, 362, Col. 1022, 4 July 1940.

45 Robinson, E. A. G., ‘The Overall Allocation of Resources’, in Chester, D. N., ed., Lessons of the British War Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 42–3Google Scholar.

46 Edmund Warnock, MP, Proposed Shell Factory in Belfast, 17 March 1940, PRONI COM 61/175.

47 Notes of a conversation between F. E. Rebbeck of Harland & Wolff and the Minister of Finance, 8 Dec. 1937, PRONI FIN/30/AC/8

48 Memorandum on Rearmament, March 1938, ibid.

49 Sir Samuel Hoare to J. M. Andrews, 31 Oct. 1938, ibid.

50 Inter-Departmental Committee on Unemployment, Second Interim Report, 1 Nov. 1937, ibid.

51 On the British experience see Inman, Peggy, Labour in the Munitions Industries (London: HMSO, 1957), 25Google Scholar.

52 Wilson Report, para. 7(a).

53 Sir Walter Smiles to Harold Macmillan, 15 April 1941, PRONI COM 28/7. For evidence of worker apathy and time wasting, and of poor management in wartime factories, see Robert Fisk, In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939–45 (London: Paladin Books, 1985), 463–6.

54 Over two years later almost £2 million had been spent by Belfast Corporation and £700,000 by private owners in repairing the damage to housing stock: Irish News, 15 Sept. 1943. The best general account of the air raids is Barton, Brian, The Blitz: Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1989)Google Scholar.

55 Memorandum by the Minister of Public Security, 12 May 1941, PRONI CAB 4/473/10.

56 Londonderry Sentinel, 15 May 1941.

57 Harold Macmillan to Ernest Bevin, 6 May 1941, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Macmillan Papers, Dep. 268.

58 The nature of the committee structure for economic administration between 1939 and 1942 is explained in Scott, J. D. and Hughes, Richard, Administration of War Production (London: HMSO and Longman, 1955), ch. 19Google Scholar.

59 War Cabinet Production Executive, Resources of Northern Ireland: a Note by Ernest Bevin, 4 April 1941, PRONI COM 61/460.

60 Wilson Report, para. 14.

61 Campbell, R. H., ‘The Scottish Office and the Special Areas in the 1930s’, Historical Journal, 22, 3 (1979), 167–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, ‘The Committee of Ex-Secretaries of State for Scotland and Industrial Policy, 1941–45’, Scottish Industrial History, 2, 2 and 3 (1979), 1–10.

62 Saville, Richard, ‘The Industrial Background to the Post-war Scottish Economy’, in Saville, Richard, ed., The Economic Development of Modern Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1985), 27–8Google Scholar; Lenman, Bruce, An Economic History of Modern Scotland (London: Batsford, 1977), 232–4Google Scholar.

63 See, for example, War Cabinet Production Executive, Note by Sir Basil Brooke, Minister of Commerce for Northern Ireland, 8 April 1941, PRONI COM 61/460; Training of Women for War Work – Note by the Minister of Commerce, 7 Oct. 1941, PRONI COM 61/649.

64 The agreements are reprinted in Inman, Labour in the Munitions Industries, 439–42.

65 Meeting of the Area Board for Northern Ireland, 9 April 1941, PRONI CAB 3A/8.

66 Summerfield, Women Workers, Appendix B, 199.

67 W. D. Scott to Sir John Greenly, Chairman of Babcock and Wilcox, 7 April 1941, PRONI COM 60/B/2/23.

68 Diary of Sir Basil Brooke, entry for 22 July 1941, PRONI D/3004/D/32.

69 ‘Ministry of Supply and Ireland’ (no date but c. December 1918), Ministry of Munitions Records, National Archives, Kew, NAS MUN 4/6724.

70 Meeting of Harold Macmillan and Allan Young with Representatives of Chambers of Commerce of Northern Ireland, 24 April 1941, PRONI COM 28/7.

71 H. C. Gordon of the War Office (Contracts Department) to W. D. Scott, no date but c. 23 May 1938, PRONI COM 62/1/707.

72 Joseph Welch to W. D. Scott, 12 Sept. 1940, ibid.

73 Minute of 29 March 1941, ibid.

74 Meeting of the Area Board for Northern Ireland, 28 Aug. 1940, PRONI CAB 3A/89; War Work in Northern Ireland – Past and Future: A Note by the Ministry of Commerce, 21 Dec. 1940, PRONI COM 61/441, suggests that twelve or thirteen firms were by then on direct contracts.

75 Howlett, ‘“Thin End of the Wedge”?’, 248.

76 The Shipbuilder, 6 (1911), 6, cited in Philip Ollerenshaw, ‘Industry, 1820–1914’, in Kennedy, Liam and Ollerenshaw, Philip, eds., An Economic History of Ulster, 1820–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 93Google Scholar.

77 W. D. Scott to Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Brown, 31 May 1941, PRONI COM 61/541.

78 War Work in Northern Ireland – Past and Future: A Note by the Ministry of Commerce, 21 Dec. 1940, PRONI COM 61/441.

79 Meeting of Harold Macmillan with Trade Union Representatives, 24 April 1941, and with the Engineering and Shipyard Employees’ Representatives, 25 April 1941, PRONI COM 28/7.

80 Shenfield, A. and Florence, P. Sargant, ‘The Economies and Diseconomies of Industrial Concentration: the Wartime Experience of Coventry’, Review of Economic Studies, 12, 1 (1943–5), esp. 97Google Scholar.

81 Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Brown to W. D. Scott, 16 May 1941, PRONI COM 61/541.

82 Northern Ireland's Industrial War Effort – A Note by Sir Basil Brooke, 19 April 1943, PRONI CAB 3A/8.

83 Northern Whig, 17 Feb. 1943, PRONI COM/61/915.

84 Ibid., 16 Feb. 1943.

85 Notes of a Meeting on Labour Problems at Harland & Wolff, 18 Dec. 1943, PRONI COM 61/266.

86 Rebbeck, F. E., Note on Short and Harland, 12 Feb. 1945, PRONI CAB 9F/164/1; Sebastian Ritchie, Industry and Air Power: the Expansion of British Aircraft Production, 1935–1941 (London: Frank Cass, 1997), 188Google Scholar.

87 Howlett, ‘“Thin End of the Wedge”?’; David Edgerton, ‘Technical Innovation, Industrial Capacity and Efficiency: Public Ownership and the British Military Aircraft Industry, 1935–1948’, Business History, 26, 2 (1984), 247–79.

88 J. S. Buchanan, Director General of Aircraft Production, to E. H. Cooper, 3 April 1942; W. H. Denholm, Regional Technical Officer (Scotland) to E. H. Cooper, 9 April 1942, PRONI COM 61/762.

89 W. P. Kemp, Managing Director at Short & Harland, to Sir Basil Brooke, 31 March 1942, PRONI COM/60/A/2/4. For an example of output and productivity of women at one dispersal factory see Belfast Telegraph, 10 June 1942. The age range of the women was 15 to 56: Northern Whig, 19 May 1942.

90 Howlett, ‘“Thin End of the Wedge”?’, 247.

91 Note of the Prime Minister's Meeting with Sir Frederick Heaton, April 1944, PRONI CAB 9F/164/1.

92 Herbert Morrison to J. M. Andrews, 13 May 1941, CAB 9/CD/208/1.

93 Sunday Pictorial, 4 April 1943, PRONI COM/915. Among several other critics was Jack Tanner, National President of the AEU: Northern Whig, 5 March 1943.

94 Isles and Cuthbert, Economic Survey of Northern Ireland, 212. Boyd Black, ‘A Triumph of Voluntarism? Industrial Relations and Strikes in Northern Ireland in World War Two’, Labour History Review, 70, 1 (2005), 8.

95 Black, ‘A Triumph of Voluntarism?’, 19.

96 Ibid., 11–12.

97 Report of the Visitation of Technical Representatives from the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Scottish Region) to Northern Ireland, 13–24 Jan. 1942, CAB 9/CD/208/1.

98 Report by E. H. Cooper, 28 Jan. 1942, ibid.

99 Report of the Visitation of Technical Representatives; Proposals for the Better Utilisation of Man-Power and Plant for War Production – A Joint Recommendation by the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Commerce and Production, 18 Feb. 1942; Munitions Labour Supply Inspectorate – Press Release, 21 April 1942, ibid.

100 James Larrard, Deputy Regional Controller, Ministry of Aircraft Production, Confidential Memorandum on Northern Ireland Labour as Affected by the Housing Problem, 19 May 1943, PRONI COM 61/955.

101 Ibid.

102 Ministry of Labour for Northern Ireland, Availability of Unemployed Women Registered at Employment Exchanges, July/Aug. 1943, PRONI COM 61/958.

103 Summerfield, Women Workers, 57–60. Posters advertising for women from Northern Ireland to train as war workers in Britain stressed that they would be wanted if they were between 18 and 25 years old, not already directly employed on war work, or else unemployed: Northern Whig, 6 Oct. 1941.

104 Ministry of Labour for Northern Ireland, Availability of Unemployed Women Registered at Employment Exchanges, July/Aug. 1943, PRONI COM 61/958.

105 Special Survey of Women Workers Between the Ages of 18 and 34 in the Area Round Antrim Town, 5 July 1943, PRONI COM 61/958. This survey was the first to convince the government that the ‘hidden reserve of potential women workers was much smaller than expected’: Excerpt from the Minutes of the Cabinet Committee on Man Power, 6 Aug. 1943, ibid.

106 Judges, A. V., ‘Irish Labour in Great Britain, 1939–45’, NAS LAB 8/1528, excerpted in Enda Delaney, ‘Irish Migration to Britain, 1939–1945’, Irish Economic and Social History, 28 (2001), 52–3Google Scholar.

107 Inman, Labour in the Munitions Industries, 167–75.

108 Ministry of Labour for Northern Ireland, Notes on Transfer of Labour to Great Britain, PRONI CAB 4A/89.

109 Ministry of Commerce Minute, 23 March 1942, PRONI COM 61/669.

110 Ernest Bevin to Sir Basil Brooke, 6 Nov. 1941, ibid.

111 S. L. R. Hollis to W. D. Scott, Regional Controller for Northern Ireland, 27 Feb. 1942, ibid.

112 Ministry of Production, Digest of Regional Controllers’ Replies to Questionnaire about Effect of Programme Changes, July 1943, PRONI COM 61/911. See also Parker, Manpower, 288; Angus Calder, The People's War (London: Panther, 1971 edn), 385.

113 Irish News, 28 Jan. 1943.

114 Ibid., 15 Oct. 1943.

115 Ibid., 16 Sept. 1943.

116 Buckland, Patrick, The Factory of Grievances: Devolved Government in Northern Ireland, 1920–39 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1979), 243–6Google Scholar; Phoenix, Eamon, Northern Nationalism: Nationalist Politics, Partition and the Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland, 1890–1940 (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1990), 381–2Google Scholar.

117 Londonderry Sentinel, 13 April 1940.

118 Ibid., 11 and 13 April, 1940.

119 Londonderry Unemployment Position – A Note for the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, 11 Feb. 1943, PRONI COM 61/943. See also Northern Whig, 11 and 12 Feb. 1943.

120 Irish News, 15 Oct. 1943.

121 Ibid., 18 Oct. 1943.

122 Parker, Manpower, 144–6, 284–5; Allen, G. C., ‘The Concentration of Production Policy’, in Chester, , Lessons of the War Economy, 167–81Google Scholar.

123 Note on the Shortage of Suitable Labour for Clothing Industry, 22 May 1943, PRONI COM 61/955.

124 Basil Brooke to Oliver Lyttleton, 25 March 1942, PRONI CAB 4A/9.

125 C. G. Wickham, Report on Compulsory Registration for Employment, 5 Oct. 1943, PRONI COM 61/958. On Britain see Parker, Manpower, 279–98; Summerfield, Women Workers, 34.

126 Wickham, Report on Compulsory Registration for Employment.

127 Belfast News-Letter, 4 Nov. 1943.

128 Belfast Telegraph, 5 Nov. 1943.

129 Diary of Sir Basil Brooke, entries for 25 Feb., 1 June, 3 Dec. 1943, PRONI D/3004/D/34.

130 Portadown News, 9 June 1945.

131 Minutes of the 18th Meeting of Regional Controllers, Appendix 2, 22 July 1943, PRONI COM 61/762.

132 For some detailed evidence on how one large engineering company managed the process of reorientation from wartime to peacetime production, see Directors’ Minute Book of Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd, PRONI D/769/1/2/5.

133 Deputation from the Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions, and Amalgamated Engineering Union on the Employment Position, 21 Dec. 1944, PRONI COM 61/1059. Fears about rising unemployment, especially the redundancy of munitions workers and disbandment of civil defence workers, surfaced at the Northern Ireland Production Council in autumn 1944: Meeting of the Production Council, 11 Oct. 1944, PRONI CAB 3A/8.

134 Prime Minister's Conference on the Unemployment Situation, 13 Feb. 1945, PRONI COM 61/1059.

135 Report by Roland Nugent to the Employment Group Committee of the Sub-Committee on Relief of Unemployment Problems during the Transition Period, 28 July 1944, PRONI CAB 4/597/4.

136 Harris, R. I. D., Regional Policy in Northern Ireland, 1945–88 (Aldershot: Avebury, 1991)Google Scholar; Scott, Peter, ‘Regional Development and Policy’, in Floud and Johnson, Cambridge Economic History of Britain: Vol. III, 339, 341, 360–1Google Scholar.