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How Wardle and Littleborough came together to buy HMS Meadowsweet warship

Date published: 31 August 2017

Three quarters of a century ago in 1942, the British Navy desperately needed more warships to protect the Atlantic convoys. Local communities were given the seemingly impossible challenge of raising the money during ‘Warship Week’. Wardle and Smallbridge History Group have revealed the fascinating story of how Wardle and Littleborough worked together to make HMS Meadowsweet possible.

By early 1942, both naval and merchant shipping was being lost at an unsustainable rate, largely due to the action of the German U-boats. Convoys from Canada and America were essential to bring both food and armaments to this country but the slow ships were easy targets for the enemy submarines.

Many more naval ships were urgently needed, but they took a long time to build to exact naval standards in specialist shipyards. What was needed was a basic ship with good manoeuvrability and speed – and the ideal vessel already existed as a Whale Catcher. These were easy to build by any engineering company with access to the sea and were ideally suited to hunting U-boats and protecting convoys. They were fitted with a four-inch gun which could sink a submarine. Depth Charges could destroy one when submerged or force it to surface and there was an array of machine guns for surface or air attacks.

Hundreds of these ships were built on both sides of the Atlantic and were classed as Corvettes. An early version of them was known as the ‘Flower Class’ with each ship being named after a flower. They were also given a naval identification comprising the letter K followed by three sequential numbers.

Winston Churchill referred to these ships as `Cheap but Nasties' - cheap to build but nasty to the enemy Speaking of the Flower Class Corvette, he said: "The Flower played as big a part in the defence of this country as the Spitfire, but while the Spitfire was a sleek thoroughbred, the Flower was a junk yard dog."

Naturally, these ships had to be paid for: as an exercise in encouraging national savings, the concept of ‘Warship Week’ was introduced.

The country was divided into small areas, each of which was allocated a warship to finance; the size of the community determining the type and cost of the ship.

Milnrow and Whitworth were given a target of £62,000 each to pay for trawler/minesweepers. HMS Morris Dance was Milnrow's ship and HMS Moonstone was allocated to Whitworth. Rochdale had the cruiser HMS Frobisher.

Wardle and Littleborough were jointly asked to find £120,000 for the Flower Class Corvette Meadowsweet, which was built in Bristol. With a speed of 16 knots and a 3,500 nautical mile range, the Meadowsweet had a 2,750 HP steam engine. 205 feet in length, her beam measured 33 feet and her draught 11.5 feet.

Money was to be invested in the government in various forms ranging from savings stamps at sixpence through Defence Bonds at 3%, National War Bonds at 21/2% and Savings Bonds at 3% The National Bonds would mature in 1949 to 1951 and the Savings Bonds between 1955 and 1965. Schoolchildren were encouraged to save their pocket money towards their own saving certificates.

Rivalry between regions was encouraged by comparing this appeal with a similar `Weapons Week` which had taken place the previous year. Twenty-one counties having a population of over half a million were compared with each other; Leicestershire had saved the most with an average of £14 11s 4d per head. Lancashire came second with £13 11s 7d, followed by Yorkshire at £12 2s 3d.

Even the cost of the ship was used; £120,000 would provide a ship which was commissioned and ready to fight, but the lower sum of £55,000 would only pay for the hull with the implication that some other town would have to come to the rescue.

During Weapons Week, the combined boroughs of Wardle and Littleborough had raised £193,000 which was said to represent £13 per head. Dividing this down, suggests a population of 14,846.

Allocating a named ship to the town followed by visits from members of the crew was a subtle means of getting the population to feel that they were personally involved, and no doubt in this particular case there would be some amount of rivalry between Wardle and Littleborough.

Warship Week for Littleborough and Wardle started on Saturday 21 February 1942. The keel of the Meadowsweet had been laid down at Charles Hill's shipyard in Bristol on 12th August 1941, and she was commissioned on 8th July 1942 with the number K 144.

A few days prior to this on 2 July 1942, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander W Cole was present at what may be seen as neutral territory in the Main Hall of Birch Hill Hospital when a cheque for `Crews Comforts` was presented to him. This often consisted of cigarettes and magazines, although occasionally such things as a wireless set and hair clippers were mentioned.

An opening ceremony was held for the start of Warship Week, which included a parade comprising three contingents of Troops, Home Guard, Special Police, Wardens, National Fire Service, Women’s Voluntary Services, St Johns Ambulance Cadets, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. They were accompanied by bands from the Manchester Regiment and the Middleton Home Guard. The Co-op Hall in Littleborough housed an exhibition of weapons and war material. To keep up the interest of the public, indicators to show the progress of the appeal were fixed to Wardle Council Offices and to the Wheatsheaf Building in Littleborough.

Selling centres for savings certificates were at the Free Library on Wardle Road, as well as one at Hurstead and in Littleborough.

In an attempt to get children involved, a character named Sir Tiffy Cate was out and about in the area. If a child challenged him with the correct phrase and produced their savings certificate, the cost of it would be refunded. Not surprisingly, there were no winners.

The Headmaster of Wardle School kept a diary which covered the war years. In the April of 1943 he said that the school had raised £65 in the previous year's Warship Week.

The 1943 campaign was named `Wings for Victory` where their target was now set at £75. The first day brought in £39 10s and on the second day they had exceeded the target by reaching £81.

They were then given a new target of £200 with which they intended to buy `George the Automatic Pilot`. On Sunday, the Church collection sent the savings over £150. By the following day, they had reached £207 10s at which point the target was again raised to £250.

On the Tuesday, it was announced that the grand total was £311 5s 4d.

Clearly there were some large investors in the 1942 appeal but many small groups did what they could; Wardle Council School raised £20 by 'salvage hunting'. The school was organised into four houses which were in competition with each other. Franklyn came first, followed by Scott and each of the scholars in the winning house were given Savings Stamps to the value of 1/6d. Those in the second house had 6d stamps.

Up to the Monday night, only £37,509 had been raised. In a midweek speech Councillor Taylor; Chairman of the Joint Warship Week Committee said that £56,000 had been invested; another £5,000 had been promised and the Council were to donate another £1,000 which would make only £62,000. Rather gloomily, he announced: “If we cannot double the present figure, our Corvette is sunk before it's launched.”

By Friday morning, leaving only two days to go, it had risen to £76,879. However, by the time the appeal closed, they were delighted to announce that during those two days the target had been exceeded by £22,000, making a total of £142,000.

In round figures, this was made up from £26,000 in National Savings Certificates, nearly £5,000 in Post Office deposits, over £30,000 in three percent defence bonds, £730 in savings stamps, nearly £20,000 in three percent savings bonds, £60,000 in two and a half percent war bonds, over £22 in free gifts and £3 in gift tokens.

Further details were given at a meeting held at Littleborough Parish Church School on 18 March. Alice Holden, Honorary Secretary of the Social Sub-committee, announced that a plaque was to be bought for the Quarter Deck of the Meadowsweet – and there would still be £100 which would be used to provide comforts for the crew.

Albert Butterworth gave the exact figure of £142,356 15s 7d. Of this £62,302 8s 6d came from small savers which represented £4 3s 1d per head, said to be well above the average for similarly sized districts.

Visits by the crew

On Wednesday 11 August 1944, at short notice, the crew paid a visit to Wardle and Littleborough. It was not known until the Monday evening that they were coming and personal recollections suggest that they had just returned from Ceylon.

Visits to cotton mills were arranged, as well as a trip to Hollingworth Lake and Littleborough Cricket Ground but possible the most enjoyable for the crew was breakfast at Whittles Bakery, then again lunch at the same place followed by an invitation to tea at Shielings, the home of Mr Butterworth, director of Whittles Bakery. During their visit, they were taken to both Wardle and Littleborough Council Offices to see the plaques which had been presented by the Admiralty upon successfully raising the money for their ship.

A dance at Birch Hill was organised in the evening to the music of Bobbie Beck's Band - 'The best olde tyme band in the district'.

Afterwards, the men slept in the Wardle First Aid Post at Birch Hill while the officers stayed at the homes of members of the Committee. When the crew left Littleborough station, they were going on leave.

A 'Comfort Fund' had been set up for the crew, a wireless set – amongst other things – was to be provided. A few weeks later, a letter from the crew was received thanking the people of the district for their welcome; the crew especially remembered the food and the dance.

One tangible memory of this enterprise remains: the Admiralty Plaque. It is still on display in the former Wardle Council Office building, now home to the Wardle and Smallbridge History Group.

After the war

The Meadowsweet survived the war, as did the ships which Rochdale, Milnrow and Whitworth had sponsored. As she was built to a design copied from a Whale Catcher, this is what she became in civilian life when the navy sold her in 1952.

A Dutch company, Ned Mij Voor Walvishaart, renamed her Gerrit W Vinkle. After a life of 23 years, she was broken up in South Africa in 1965.

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Serenity by Kim Gregory.