How Cippenham Court Farm became The Slough Dump

Cippenham Court Farm, 1909/10. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies D11/12/14

Prior to the 20th century, Cippenham was a quiet country village consisting of humble terraced cottages surrounded by some large farms. East of the centre was Cippenham Court Farm which is the only one from which buildings survive to the present day. On Cippenham Lane, there is the attractive 18th C farmhouse which has been converted to offices. Next to the farmhouse, there are three barns which are also in commercial use. One of the barns is the oldest building in Cippenham and is believed to date back to the early 16th Century. Another is now the well-known Long Barn public house. In the 19th Century, the farm possessed well over a square mile of the finest cereal producing land in the Home Counties. It had a history of winning prizes for the yield and quality of its grain, including a 25 guinea cup personally presented by Prince Albert.

Outside the farmhouse 1909/10. Phil Headington 3rd from left. Earnest Headington centre with dog. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies D11/12/14

The farm had been tenanted by the Headington family since 1872 and this continued into the 20th century. By the time of the great war, the farm was in the capable hands of Ernest William Headington, Ernest having taken over from his father, Philip. By 1917, the U-boat blockade had almost succeeded in bringing the country to its knees and the supply of food had become severely constricted. Farmers were urged by the government to produce as much corn as possible. Naturally, Cippenham Court Farm was diligent in making its vital contribution to the war effort. Something was afoot however, that would mean that the 1917 harvest at Cippenham Court Farm would be the last. It would also lead to a change of the face of Cippenham over the 20th century, annihilating its rural identity as it became a suburb of a sprawling Slough.

One of the factors that shaped the nature of the conflict with Germany was that employment of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) on both sides went from practically non-existent at the onset of the war to playing a key role in many aspects of its conduct. The ICE provided a substantially more versatile and effective alternative to horse and steam-power for transport. It also enabled game-changing instruments of war such as the heavier-than-air flying machine, the tank and long-range submarine, each of which had a definitive effect on how the war played out. Vital roles developed for the motorcycle and well over 100,000 were supplied to the army. The greatest contribution of the ICE was in logistics for the battlefront. Although horses and steam continued to play essential roles throughout, to have kept a front line which peaked at 2 million troops supplied would have been unthinkable without ICE lorries.

At the time of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 1 April 1914, the British forces possessed only 47 ICE lorries. They could call on the use of a further 700 vehicles in civilian ownership but most of these were less than suited to requirements. The burgeoning British motor industry wasn’t able to cope with the subsequent demand for vehicles and in late 1915 the supply began to be supplemented with American imports. In the early days of the war, it was envisaged that the conflict would be concluded very quickly. By 1917, however, the end seemed a distant prospect. Although the industrial might of America was supplying large numbers of new vehicles, little provision had been made for the large volume of repairs and overhauls required by existing vehicles. As a result, increasingly enormous numbers of vehicles festered uselessly in fields and by the roadsides of France and England for the want of mechanical attention.

This situation was more serious than just a colossal waste of resources. At that time, the British war effort required 350 new vehicles each week, but the manufacturers at best could only supply 275. Thus, the provision of repaired vehicles was perceived as vital to bridge the shortfall. The Surveyor General of Supply (a newly created civilian seat on the Army Council) appointed a committee to investigate the situation. The committee reported in July and painted a dire picture of around 5,800 vehicles (including motorcycles) currently requiring attention and the current facilities that were distributed around the country being in a shambolic state. It went on to make the case that the best solution to the current problems would be to create a centralised national vehicle repair depot and urged that this should be put into operation as soon as possible. The recommendation was quickly acted on with plans drawn up and a search was undertaken to find a suitable site. Criteria included that it should be within 40 miles of London and to the west of it (to reduce air raid risk) and that it should be close to a railway line. The government enlisted the services of estate agents to assist in identifying candidate sites. Many sites were examined but one stood out as ideal in the eyes of the War Office. It was in a little-known Buckinghamshire village called Cippenham. The nearest town, Slough, was the not much better known. The site was Cippenham Court Farm’s 668 acres of prime cornfield. Adjoining land from five other surrounding farms would also be needed.

Despite the perceived need for urgency, it took a further six months for the proposal to be put before government. Many parties were critical of the scheme. These included the Board of Agriculture and the Food Production Department, which were angered at the prospect of sacrificing such high-quality farmland, particularly at a time of food shortage. The high estimated costs were criticised, also, by the select committee on national expenditure. The distinguished former athlete and politician, William Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough of Taplow, was a vehement and powerful opponent of the proposed scheme, He lived locally at Taplow Court and had personally presented prizes to Cippenham Court Farm for its corn in the role of president of the president of The South Bucks Agricultural Society. Lord Desborough did not believe that the concept of a centralised depot was justifiable and claimed that the private sector would be able to provide the facilities. He objected to what he considered was unwarranted extravagance, as well as to the agricultural loss.

Faced with so much objection to the scheme, the war cabinet delayed on coming to a decision. It asked the war office to consider alternative sites but none were deemed as suitable for the purpose. After months of wrangling, on 23 May 1918, the war cabinet finally approved the scheme. The next day, Ernest Headington, along with other nearby farmers were served notice.

Although the war was to end less than four months later, a speedy allied victory seemed very unlikely in the spring of 1918, The post-revolution Russian government was negotiating peace and as a result troops on the Eastern Front had been moved to the West. General Ludendorff was intensively aware, however, that the number of troops being sent from the US to the Western Front was increasing and that further large numbers were in training. He perceived therefore that Germany’s only chance of victory would to break through the allied line before growing American reinforcement ended any prospect of doing so.

Ludendorff had planned to put everything into a spring offensive. The first attack had taken place on 21 March. Initially it was highly successful; the Germans broke through the front and advanced 40 miles. The attack then lost vigor and no further gain was made. A second followed in April near Ypres with the objective of advancing to the coast and cutting the British off from the rest of the Western Front. Following initial substantial gains, it too petered out. Momentum couldn’t be maintained due to the high casualty rates, fatigue, hunger and illness of the troops. The third large scale attack was launched in May near the Marne with he objective of taking Paris, The Germans came close to achieving this but the by then the forces were so weakened that when the allies counter-attacked the German military was no longer able to check their advance, By the end of October the army was effectively spent and it imploded. Ludendorff’s last-ditch gamble had reduced the German order of battle by a quarter million, whereas American reinforcements in that time had reached a million. All discipline was lost and soldiers deserted in droves. There was full scale retreat. The German High Command recognised that surrender was the only option. Consequently, the armistice came into effect on 11 November.

In Cippenham, despite hostilities having ended, the depot was still under construction. It was decided that despite the armistice, the depot should still go ahead. At the time the case was made for the depot It had been anticipated that after the war ended it would still be needed to deal with the vehicles that would be returning from the continent. The Royal Engineers had been on site since 11 June undertaking the ground work but hadn’t yet got very far due to shortages of equipment and material. For this reason, the War Office practically struck a “gentleman’s deal” deal with the prominent builder, Sir Robert McAlpine, who was in possession of the necessary labour and resources to take over the development. By the end of 1918, little progress had been made. The scheme became heavily criticised in the press as a white elephant. The Times asked: Why did the government push on with a £2 million permanent scheme six weeks after the end of war ended what it was needed for and why do they not stop it now?” In early 1919 the as depot development got into full swing and costs mounted. The new Secretary of State for war, Winston Churchill, faced angry questions and accusations from both sides of the commons. Substantial objection came from other quarters, particularly the motor industry.

By March, the project employed all available local men, the rest of the 3,400 workforce commuting in by train. At that time, the train commuters alighted at Burnham Beeches station and walked down Burnham Lane and through an entrance gate of the depot. Later in the year, a railway line was run directly into the depot and passengers were able to disembark at a large concrete terminus. Other workers from outside the locality were accommodated in wooden huts. By the end of 1919, the workforce would top 5000.

While still under construction in 1919, vehicles began being moved to the depot. Repairs and overhauls commenced and auctions were held to dispose of the surplus stock. The depot had rows of buildings for vehicle storage and workshops. One building alone covered 8 acres and accommodated 15,000 vehicles.

By 1920, ministers were keen enough on the prospect of getting the continuing embarrassment of the depot off their hands that they were prepared to circumvent any open tendering process. The Great Western Railway had offered £1 million and Ford Motors who wished to have a manufacturing facility in Britain offered £3 million. As neither of these parties wanted the vehicles, their offers were dismissed. A price was negotiated between the government and a consortium of financiers and motor industry executives to take the ownership of the depot into the private sector. The deal included purchase of all surplus vehicles no matter whether they were at the Slough depot, in Britain, or elsewhere in the world for that matter. The total negotiated purchase price was £7 million, approximately half being the value calculated for the site and the other half being an extremely loose estimate of the value of the vehicles. By this time there were over 17,500 vehicles at the depot, over half of which had deteriorated beyond repair. The vehicles formed a striking sight in long lines on either side of the Bath Road. The site had earned its new nickname which was used by all: The Dump. The name soon came to be applied to the whole of Slough town rather that just the depot and it would live on for decades.

At the end of April, the workforce of 8,000 employed at the site was laid-off by the government. Spontaneous demonstrations took place, including one in the form of a mock funeral for a model white elephant. The newly formed company taking over the depot rehired a substantial amount of the workforce. The new owners were named the Slough Trading Company Ltd.

The new company quickly turned its attention to what it would do once the supply of army surplus vehicles was exhausted. An opportunity was perceived to lease buildings for commercial activities. By autumn 1920, a number of companies had moved in to premises on the depot. From there on, the Slough Trading Estate flourished. It became the largest industrial estate of its kind in Europe and large amounts of housing was built in the surrounding areas to accommodate the influx of people seeking a life with regular employment. The rest, as they say, is history.

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