To ensure a steady flow of articles through this blog I’ve come up with a new regular piece focussing on ‘pillbox myths’. From time to time someone will state a ‘fact’ about pillboxes that quite simply isn’t true and is in fact a myth. Some of these myths have now entered common knowledge and are readily accepted as true. This is my attempt to debunk some of the most common myths surrounding pillboxes (and maybe vent a bit).
Bring on the myth!
‘All pillboxes are protected/listed/scheduled by Historic England/English Heritage/The National Trust etc. etc.’
A couple of weeks ago someone on a popular social media platform stated categorically that the recent preservation of a pillbox, within a new housing estate, was not due to the work of the local planning department, HER or the developers, but was because ‘all pillboxes are listed by English Heritage’.
This annoyed me somewhat as the statement had no factual basis and dismissed the hard work of those who had ensured this structure’s preservation; especially when the developers could have bulldozed the pillbox and built houses on the space. This spurred me on to write this post.
Every so often I encounter posts on social media by individuals wishing to learn more; enquiring whether pillboxes, and other Second World War defences, are all subject to statutory protection based solely on their perceived importance. Though some pillboxes are protected through scheduling and listing; often because of their rarity, level of preservation or historical significance (and the fact that someone took the time to apply to have the structure protected), the majority are not protected by listing/scheduling. This means that it is often up to the landowner whether to retain or demolish them. In England scheduling and listing of historic buildings falls under the remit of Historic England; it is a common misconception that English Heritage are still responsible for this process.
The word ‘listed’ is often used online to refer to pillboxes and other defences which are ‘recorded’. This is likely to be one of the main contributing factors to the confusion online surrounding listing. The term is used frequently on the many Facebook groups and forums when referring to sites that are known amongst urbex and pillbox spotting groups and forums, or presented on the poorly managed, plagiaristic, copyright breeching, dubious online map EDoB.
It is highly likely that in some cases people may assume this use of the term ‘listed/listing’ refers to the statutory protection of a Listed Building or Scheduled Monument, also known as ‘listed status’, which means a building or site is protected to a certain degree due to being on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) or the equivalent for the other countries in the UK.
Sticking pins into the online urbex and pillbox spotting map EDoB, or posting photos of pillboxes to Facebook groups, does not provide pillboxes with any form of statutory protection through ‘listed status/listing’. Such activity does next to nothing to record pillboxes either and contributes nothing to their preservation. By and large, efforts like EDoB are seriously hampering preservation as it is effectively stopping many well meaning people from interacting directly with the national and local heritage bodies responsible for the preservation of wartime heritage assets to make their voice heard; instead this responsibility is being left in the hands of a third party who has no responsibility for preservation. This is a very serious issue and desperately needs countering. It is highly likely that many people that ‘record’ sites on Facebook and through EDoB are doing so under the impression they are somehow aiding preservation and getting sites ‘listed’. They aren’t. Recording pillboxes and adding information to the existing records held by Historic Environment Records, on the other hand, does help contribute to preservation in the long term and is the only way that the significance of surviving wartime sites is appreciated. Otherwise, we are going to see the prolonged continuation of the current trend of site loss as few people bother to make their voice heard and advocate for surviving wartime sites at a local or national level.
Unfortunately, if people do believe that all pillboxes are protected, then the survival of significant/important remaining pillboxes can be put at risk, as people won’t take any action when a pillbox is threatened with demolition.
But all hope is not lost! Anyone can apply to have a historic site or building listed or scheduled. This can be done with the online form available on the Historic England website. The process is very straightforward and you don’t need to be a heritage professional to submit an application.
Information on listed buildings can also be added to through the ‘Enriching the List’ project and this is well worth looking into as well.
Countering The Myth
The best way to counter this myth is to simply explain that most pillboxes are not protected in anyway whatsoever; often the expense of demolition and sympathetic landowners are the only thing protecting a surviving pillbox. Pointing people in the direction of the online listing application form is also worthwhile. Who knows? More pillboxes, and other defences, may acquire listed/scheduled status!
Where possible, avoid using the term ‘listed’ online unless referring to an actual Listed Building or Scheduled Monument and point out the difference if you encounter this online.
Find Out More
You can find out more about scheduling and listing via the links below.
How We Determine Whether a Historic Building or Site Should be Protected (Thanks Ken!)
How To Get Historic Buildings or Sites Protected Through Listing
Preserving sites ‘in the record’ is extremely important. It is not possible to physically retain all sites and structures. Adequately recording sites and depositing that information within the archaeological record, through Historic Environment Records, is the best way to preserve a site. That way, if it is lost, the information is still there to tell future generations about the site or structure.
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9 thoughts on “Pillbox Myths #1: All Pillboxes Are Listed”
I’d just like to say thanks for this heads up. I didn’t know, I know know these facts. This information needs to be spread far and wide, to help preserve our wonderful and diverse heritage. Thanks.
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Thank you for your kind words. Please do feel free to share this blog post.
All the best,
For Scottish scheduled sites, the relevant info is here: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/advice-and-support/listing-scheduling-and-designations/scheduled-monuments/propose-a-site-for-scheduling/
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For anyone considering this I would say please ask anyone and everyone you can think of who might have an interest in it. We managed to get a defensive group of pillboxes at Steeton, West Yorkshire listed in 2009 and received help from many people who thought they should be saved. The pillboxes in question now have houses all around them so would very likely have been bulldozed and built on. It’s well worth trying, please don’t give up hope. Get support from local people, schools and history groups because local opinion is very important as it’s theif own heritage at stake.
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My Dad was in the Polish Army in WW2 and spent 1940 to 44 mainly in Scotland. He told a story ( possibly a myth?) that in 1940 the government issued massive contracts to build Pillboxes all over the country. They were still building them in 1944 when another set of contracts were issued to start knocking them down now the threat of invasion was over. As knocking down pillboxes was quicker than building them, in some places the demolition teams caught up with the building teams ( who were still contractually obligated to build the pillboxes) . This lead the instances of a pillboxes being built one week and a week later being knocked down ( sometimes by the same contractors). I’ve searched the internet for this story but never found anything, my Dad used this story as an example of the idiotic bureaucracy you can get in war.
Have you heard of this story / myth , is there any truth behind it ? I’m a bit dubious of the story when think of the amount of pillboxes littering the place even today but my dad wasn’t the sort to make up stories.
Thank you for getting in touch with this story. I haven’t heard this one before.
It is true that contracts were issued to build pillboxes in 1940 and that by 1944 demolition of these defences was often underway. However, pillbox construction was halted officially in February 1942 (Dobinson, 1996. pp. 51), while most commands had ceased their construction towards the end of 1941. Pillboxes were by and large obsolete, and it wasn’t practical to modify the structures any further to be proof against new enemy weapon systems, by the time the invasion threat receded at the end of 1941. Where construction did continue the pillbox was superseded by trench-based defended localities.
The anti-invasion defences themselves were all but abandoned by 1943, with examples in Scottish Command being abandoned as early as December 1942 (Dobinson, 1996. pp. 194).
I’m sorry to say that the story is most likely a myth and it is extremely unlikely that pillboxes were being constructed as late as 1944 while demolition was underway.
Dobinson, C.S., 1996. Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII. Council for British Archaeology.
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