What was the wartime salvage effort?

As the women of PBS Masterpiece's Home Fires discover, fighting Hitler on the home front was really rubbish – but not in the way you might think

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned from PBS Masterpiece’s wartime drama Home Fires it’s that winning the war at home was half the battle back in the 1940s.

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While the fighting waged at the front, back in Britain the people were doing everything they could to support the troops from afar.

That’s when the wartime salvage effort came into play – but what was it? And how did it work?

First things first, what does salvage effort mean?

Back in the 1940s the government really wanted to get everyone in Britain on board when it came to winning the war, so they began promoting the ‘war effort’ through radio broadcasts and propaganda posters.

During the First World War they’d learned that the price of goods would rise if imports were disrupted so, eager to avoid a repeat crisis, they sent out a rallying cry.

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The government encouraged the people of Britain to reinforce the ‘home front’ by salvaging and recycling various materials that they’d normally have simply thrown out.

Like what?

Scrap metal was highly prized and people were encouraged to hold on to as much of it as they could. BBC Children’s Hour even ran a scrap-collecting competition: the winners collected about nine tons worth.

Paper was just as precious though, and the government encouraged people to recycle it right from the beginning, following the outbreak of war in 1939.

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As the fighting rumbled on, efforts became a little more organised with targets being set and Princess Elizabeth encouraging the women of the nation to join her in making the most of what they already had.

They even started saving food scraps, bones, and old bits of material too.

And what exactly did they do with all these so-called salvaged materials?

Well, scrap metal could be melted down and used again so it was no surprise to see children setting off on the hunt for old pots and pans with push-carts and prams in tow. Who wouldn’t love to think they’d become part of the next Spitfire plane soaring through the sky?

Paper, glass bottles, tins, silver wrapping paper, bones and rags were all destined for bigger and better things too, according to the government propaganda posters.

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They could all contribute, in some small way at least, to the production of tanks, guns and various other weapons of war that were vital for the men fighting on the front.

The practice continued after the conflict had ended too, in an effort to speed up the country’s post-war recovery. In fact, it wasn’t until 1949/1950 that the government finally stopped the massive push for people to recycle paper and other materials.

What about Make Do and Mend? What was that all about?

Waste not, want not was very much the name of the game in all walks of life on the home front. Everything from food to clothing had to be rationed so people were encouraged to mend broken furniture, reuse their old clothes or even make new ones for themselves.

And considering clothes rationing lasted right up until 1949 it was no surprise that people embraced the Make Do and Mend philosophy.

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Did you know could could make shoes last longer by painting the soles with varnish? Or make coats from blankets? And baby clothes from pillowcases?

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Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the women of the Great Paxford Women’s Institute after all…

Home Fires airs on PBS Masterpiece on Sundays, 9pm/8c


Meet the cast of Home Fires

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