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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Chesterfield's `Tube Army'.

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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Chesterfield`s Tube Army:

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them”.

Those well known words from Laurence Binyon`s famous poem will be repeated at the cenotaph in Whitehall and at Remembrance Day services throughout the land in November as the nation pays tribute to the many who made the great sacrifice for King and country in two world wars.

`Bull-Dog spirit of Britain's magnificent civilian `war effort'

But neither must we forget those who provided our valiant forces with the necessary equipment that would eventually bring victory - and the men and women of Chesterfield Tube Works (now Chesterfield Cylinders) typified the bull-dog spirit of Britain`s magnificent civilian `War Effort’.

In over 100 years since it`s formation in 1897 as the `Universal Weldless Steel Tube Company Ltd’ to produce steel tubes for warships of the Royal Navy, the company has changed it`s ownership and it`s name several times. In 1906 it became `The Chesterfield Tube Company’ – and remained so for 60 years, but it has always been known locally as `The Tube Works’.

The original `Universal Works’ on the Derby Road site produced the weldless steel tubes by piercing steel billets at high temperatures and then `drawing’ the steel to the desired dimensions of the tubes. Incredibly that same process is still being used 100 years later, although the original end-product of boiler tubes has long since been succeeded by seamless steel high pressure gas cylinders, making Chesterfield the home of the leading gas cylinder company in the world.

The ability to make top quality seamless steel tubular products that could withstand high internal pressures meant that the company was well placed to produce many items for use in the First World War, and the range and size of products increased dramatically during the early years of the century. Between 1914 – 1918 the workforce increased to about 1500 employees, and for the first time many of them were women.

In 1929 the Company joined the group of which it was to be a member for nearly 60 years – Tube Investments Ltd, and during the next decade much research and development work was carried out.

In 1932/33 the world`s first commercial extrusion press was installed for the manufacture of stainless steel tubes up to 5” in diameter, and once again the men and women of Chesterfield were able to contribute significantly to another war-effort as the national re-armament programme began. A much more important and successful project was the creation – with great encouragement from the Government –of the Heavy Tube Department in 1936/38. The plant handled steel billets up to 20 tons in weight and was officially opened by Lord Stanhope, the First Lord of The Admiralty in December 1938. It had an output of 1,600 tons a month.

From the commencement of the Second World War in 1939, production at the Tube Works went on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Factory windows were covered by corrugated sheet metal, the whole plant was camoufluaged with brown and green paint to blend with the surrounding countryside and a strict blackout was observed. The company was responsible for the defence of the factory and a platoon consisting entirely of employees was formed and attached to the 6th Battalion Home Guard, and the total number of employees increased to over 3,000, and included 750 women.

The Air Ministry ordered production of cylinders for a balloon barrage and the company produced 1,200 hydrogen cylinders a week, so that towards the end of 1939 the balloon barrage defence system was put into operation all around Great Britain. In 1940 the Small Tubes Department came into being as a `shadow factory’ built under the Governments `dispersal scheme’, and produced small tubes up to 4” diameter of high quality alloy steel. With only minor alterations to existing machinery the STD began producing bomb and shell casings. Over 147,000 were supplied by the end of the war, and 12 million feet of small bore tubing was supplied from this workshop for aircraft construction alone. The STD also produced 400,000 outer casings for sten guns, 12,000 mortar barrels, and over 20,000 gun barrels.

Once again the production of cylinders inaugurated by `the father of the company’, Joe Trevorrow back in 1906, proved invaluable to another war effort,- although even before war broke out in 1939 the company had already produced its first million cylinders!

During the 1939-45 war the company produced a whole range of cylinders for all three services, including a million oxygen breathing cylinders for aircraft crew and submarines, over 6000 torpedo bodies and submarine firing reservoirs and many thousands of 14” and 15” naval shell casings. Other uses included fire-fighting equipment, rescue-dinghy inflation equipment, oxy-acetylene welding repair work, and shipbuilding.

Many air crew owed their lives to cylinders produced in Chesterfield by men like Jack Dannatt, an employee for 45 years from 1932 to 1977, who was later to become production manager at the Alma factory. Now 82, Jack of Stanley Street, Spital, remembers earning £3 a week in 1939:

“When HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck we worked round the clock making battleship shells, so maybe we had a hand in eventuallysinking the German Battle Cruiser”?

“We worked 12 hour night shifts, 7 days a week, from 7pm to 7am” recalls Jack, -

Timeserved tradesman earned £3-6s-6d and labourers 2 guineas a week, - and every penny was well earned!”

“During the war there were three lights at the end of each bay” explains Jack, - `yellow, red, and green. The yellow light meant `Enemy aircraft approaching`,- the red light meant that they were directly overhead, and we had just four seconds to take cover, which usually meant diving under the nearest large lathe, - and the green light was for the `all clear’.

Jack vividly recalls a night in 1941 `as if it were only last night’ when the yellow light at the end of his bay turned red, and there was a massive explosion as he dived beneath his lathe; “It was a near miss” mused Jack, `but it didn`t affect us,- it only affected the day shift”. Bemused, I asked why and received the answer, -“because the German bomb missed the factory and hit the fish & chip shop on Redvers Buller Road, - and they had to bring sandwiches for the rest of the war!”

Jack also proudly remembers a visit from the Minister for Aircraft Production, Sir Stafford Cripps, in September 1944 when he congratulated Chesterfield Tube Works for their magnificent war effort, and cited the `production at short notice of very urgent demands for special types of cylinders required for operational purposes’.

The Derbyshire Times of September 14th 1945 paid tribute to `Chesterfield Tube Co.`s Splendid War Record’ and boasted that they had `Products in Every Naval Ship’.

In the 60 years since the war ended Chesterfield Tube Works have gone from strength to strength, winning the Queens Award for Export Achievement in 1976 and again in 1982. Now known as U.E.F. Chesterfield Cylinders, the Tube Works has been a major local employer for over a century,and has become part of the history of Chesterfield.

On this final Remembrance Sunday of the Milleneum, let`s also spare a thought for Chesterfield`s Tube Army and their magnificent war effort, - and `At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,……..’ - let us remember them.

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