Hidden history: Parliament's secret Second World War munitions factory
Hundreds of men and women volunteered in the secret munitions factory underneath Parliament (Parliamentary Archives)
After the horrors of the Blitz, with much of Parliament in ruins, staff hatched a secret plan: as Zoe Crowther reports, a hidden factory was created in the basements of the Commons to help the war effort.
While thousands of soldiers fought on the western and eastern fronts in the Second World War, those at home were also in the firing line – and the Houses of Parliament were no exception.
In 1941, incendiary bombs fell on Westminster, destroying the House of Commons Chamber and damaging the Lords Chamber, Westminster Hall, and the Clock Tower.
Two years later, a pair of clerks decided to strike back. They came up with an idea to set up what became the Westminster Munitions Unit in the Commons’ basements. From then until the end of the war, hundreds of men and women secretly volunteered in the factory, producing millions of parts for anti-aircraft guns.
The unit remained secret throughout its operation, and it wasn’t the only mystery guarded by Parliament during the war: a deep network of tunnels was built connecting the Cabinet War HQ with different Whitehall departments, and civil and military administrators were given underground accommodation in the citadels.
The munitions factory became public after VE Day in 1945 when a few articles praised the volunteers for their work. However, as the nation began to focus on post-war reconstruction, the unit was quickly forgotten.
When the war ended, there was a brief period when the government was open about its subterranean activities, but this was promptly clamped down on as Britain entered the Cold War and many of the basements were expanded to become nuclear bunkers.
Dr Mari Takayanagi, senior archivist in the Parliamentary Archives, is keen to change that, saying Parliament’s secrets should be uncovered. She told The House: “It’s part of the fabric of the building.”
During the war, tradition was paused: after the destruction of the Commons Chamber, MPs sat in the Lords while peers used the Queen’s Robing Room. And just as the war changed the use of space in Parliament, it also challenged societal norms.
“It was a complete cross-section of the parliamentary community working together side-by-side.”
According to Takayanagi, Parliament in the 1940s was an elite and hierarchical place, but the secret factory broke down socioeconomic barriers as people from all levels of society volunteered together.
Unlike most wartime factories, those involved in the unit were largely voluntary and were, for the most part, Westminster insiders: MPs’ wives, civil servants, senior staff clerks, and Westminster police officers and firemen all took part.
“It was a complete cross-section of the parliamentary community working together side-by-side,” Takayanagi says. “It was a working environment you don’t often get in Parliament or outside Parliament either [at the time].”
As a female member of parliamentary staff, Takayanagi is inspired by the stories of the factory’s women workers.
“It’s great to walk around the halls and know they were walking there before me and operating under such difficult circumstances, stepping up to do their bit,” she says.
Today, the basement is part of the central heating system, a tangle of narrow passages with low ceilings and rusty pipes.
Although it is clear the working conditions would have been unpleasant, records show the volunteers enjoyed a great sense of camaraderie, hosting Christmas dinners, inviting MPs down to thank the workers, and even putting on “Panto-like” skits as entertainment.
Current Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said he was filled with admiration for the factory staff. “Excuse the pun, I’m absolutely blown away!”
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