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 The 'Mercury' and the Home Front in WW1

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The Slough Motor Depot - a White Elephant?

On March 15th 1919, the ‘Mercury’ quoted from a letter that Mr. J. C. Bell wrote to the ‘Times’ about the scandal of the Slough Motor Depot. He asked Winston Churchill: Why can’t it be dismantled, because it is just a ‘White Elephant’?

The following week, the contractors gave a detailed reply refuting the claims made against them:

‘The Slough Motor Depot – What the Contractors Say’

Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons, the contractors for the Slough Motor Depot, reply in “The Times” to the criticisms of Mr. Lovat Fraser and others as to the Slough Motor Depot. In the course of their letter they say:

“As contractors, our duties are solely directed to carrying out the works with speed and economy, and we have no more knowledge than has the general public of the merits or purposes of the completed scheme. We, however, feel that as statements have been put before the public, which to our knowledge are entirely misleading and have no relation to facts, perhaps it is advisable that the true facts should also be made public.

“Exaggerated statements have been made that extraordinarily high wages are being paid to the workmen, whereas the truth is that the rates of wages paid upon the works were considered by the trade unions to be too low and their appeal to the National Conciliation Board was upheld. The actual rates of wages being paid are under the awards of the National Conciliation Board.

“Statements have been made that the contractors are paid a percentage upon cost, and therefore the more lavish the expenditure the greater the profit. This also is in fact untrue, as we are paid the exact costs as certified by the Government auditors, and when the works are completed the Colwyn Committee are to decide what fee is to be paid for contractors’ services. Therefore, as the fee will be entirely based upon the value of services rendered, there is a great discrepancy between fiction and fact.

“Mr. Lovat Fraser refers to ‘the wasteful special railway station’, which is entirely wrong as this temporary station, instead of being wasteful, is an important factor of economy, and no more ignorant or wrongful term than ‘wasteful’ could have been applied. When we took over the works the workmen were walking from the railway stations at Slough and Burnham Beeches, a distance of about two miles each way night and morning, but we had a crossing put in from the main line, which passed through the works, and by putting in temporarily a few hundred yards of railway material and temporary platform the workmen are now conveyed to and from the midst of the work, saving at least 10,000 miles per day of walking. We admit that the railway cutting of about 4,000 cubic yards gives an appearance of heavy work having been undertaken in making this siding, but as we succeeded in handling this excavation by machinery at an average cost of less than 9d per cubic yard, the actual cost of the siding has been very little, especially as the rails, sleepers, and other material in temporary use will later on be used in permanent work elsewhere.

“Mr. Lovat Fraser states that ‘the greater proportion of the heavy unskilled labour employed has been Irish, while Englishmen are walking about unemployed. Much bitter feeling exists regarding the ‘preference shown to the Irishmen’. Fortunately we have been able to get at the truth of this matter, through the system of labour registration cards, and given facts showing Mr. Lovat Fraser’s statement to be entirely wrong, as in a total of 4,400 workmen we find that there are only 230 Irishmen, and are pleased to record that a very large proportion of these are demobilised soldiers who have done their bit overseas.

“A statement is made that the wickedest part of the whole business is that the pushing forward really began after hostilities ceased. Here we have at last found one factor of truth in the fact that our staff and organisation have been successful in making rapid progress with the works since we started 2½ months ago. Whilst we appreciate the compliment he pays us in recognising the speed being made by our organisation, yet we fail to see upon what line of thought he is working when he terms this the wickedest part of the business.

Mr. Lovat Fraser in the course of his reply says:

“I am most grateful to Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons for the letter you publish today. I have never seen a Government given away so completely.

“We now learn that six weeks after the armistice the present contractors began their immense work at Slough. They do not know what is the purpose of the scheme. Mr. Winston Churchill evidently does not know either, for he tried to foist the whole concern on the Ministry of Supplies, which refused it. I said that the most wicked part of the enterprise was that the ‘pushing forward only began after hostilities ceased. The contractors fully confirm my statement; only they can see nothing wicked in a huge post-war contract for pitching millions into cornfield for some unknown purpose…’

“I again express the hope that members of Parliament will go to Slough and look on this astonishing enterprise from the high railway bridge on the road to Farnham Royal. They will see work proceeding as far as the eye can reach, a whole panorama of waste.

“This question is being pressed because the Government must be made to feel that the country does not mean to tolerate any longer the reckless squandering of its finances in all directions. The war contracts were bad enough, but immense post-war contracts must stop, especially when they are given out without any decision as to their object. Efforts will now be made to pretend that this place will be of great use as a dump for Army stores. That cock won’t fight. It is a dump for the taxpayers’ money, and the Government must explain why they gave a contract for £1,700,000 for an object which neither they nor the contractors are able to define. They should now cut their losses”.

This historical note, adapted from Slough Estates' literature, shows that the 'White Elephant' served a long-term purpose after all, though not perhaps as envisaged by the Government:

This site was originally intended to be used to build a huge motor repair depot to service the war effort. It was still unfinished when the war ended in November 1918. Buildings to house the soldiers and workers formed an extensive complex of wooden huts which later became known as Timbertown, and which housed many of the unemployed who poured into the area in the 1920's and 30's looking for work.  

In 1920, two years after the end of the First World War, Sir Percival Perry, who later ran the British operations of the Ford Motor Company, and Sir Noel Mobbs, the grandfather of the current chairman of Slough Estates, led a group of investors who acquired the 270 hectare (600 acre) site on the Bath Road in Slough.

"The Dump" as it was known, contained 17,000 used cars, trucks and motorcycles left over after the war. The idea was to refurbish them and sell them to meet the steadily growing public demand for vehicles.

The Dump also contained 170,000 square metres (1.8 million sq ft) of covered workshops. These would become surplus to requirements once the vehicles had been repaired and sold and could be leased to local businesses.

What eventually came to be known as the Slough Trading Estate was extraordinarily successful; the Winnersh Triangle estate is part of the group.


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