Pillbox Myth #4 Fivers and Farmers

It’s time once again to question another established pillbox fact and reveal that all is not what it seems. This time we’ll be looking at:

‘Farmers (feel free to insert any other landowner) were paid £5 to demolish pillboxes on their land’

Although oft repeated online, is there any truth in this statement, or is there any evidence to corroborate exactly where it came from?

Whenever someone asks about pillbox demolition on the myriad of Facebook based pillbox spotting and urbex groups and web forums there is usually a clamour to respond with ‘FARMERS WERE PAID £5 TO DEMOLISH THEM!!!!!’.

The is usually followed by a further statement along the lines of ‘the farmers just pocketed the cash and didn’t demolish the pillboxes’.

This has gone on for many years and I’m sure this factoid has been repeated thousands of times. Read on to get a better idea of what actually happened!

Initial Thoughts

Before we get into busting this myth, here are some of my initial thoughts when I was considering why this statement may be a myth.

Firstly, £5 would have been a lot of money at the time, approximately £221.36 in today’s money (Source: CPI Inflation Calculator). When you consider the country was almost bankrupt after 6 long years of war, and having to pay debts accrued to the US government in the form of War Loans, I’m pretty sure the government wouldn’t be prepared to simply throw money at farmers or other landowners.

When you consider how many defences were to be removed, it’s a lot of money for a cash-strapped government to be giving out with no oversight or legal requirement to remove the defences. Who would process such payments and ensure only farmers were paid?

Also, if the ‘farmers kept the cash’ statement is the only explanation of why defences survive, why do defences survive on land not owned by farmers, such as the coast, towns and cities?

Origins

As always, before we get into the truth, let’s consider where this myth started. Where did this factoid come from and how did it grow?

To trace the origins of the myth, I hit the books. The majority of Facebook dwelling pillbox ‘experts’ get their knowledge from the work and research of others; usually from a handful of books and websites on the subject of Anti Invasion defences of the Second World War.

The earliest mention I can find of the £5 Pillbox Myth is in the book British Home Defences 1940-45 (Lowry, 2004. p.54). In here it is stated:

‘As an incentive, farmers were offered £5 for each pillbox destroyed on their land.’

Unfortunately, no source or reference for this statement is provided by Lowry. It has therefore not been possible to trace the origins of this statement further and it must be assumed to be the result of anecdotal evidence, or an unidentified documentary source. There is no mention of the £5 demolition quote in any earlier sources I have access to.

Interestingly, the figure of £5 per pillbox demolished by farmers is not quoted in Lowry’s 2014 book Pillboxes and Tank Traps. It is simply stated that ‘Landowners began to be compensated for the cost of removal of defence works if they opted to do the work themselves’ (Lowry, 2014. p.58). 

This change of tack may have come about after William Foot’s Beaches, Fields, Streets and Hills was published in 2006, which is the first publication to take issue with the £5 farmer figure. Foot states:

‘Amongst the many stories associated with the 1940/41 anti invasion defences is the one that says farmers were given a sum of money (usually stated to be £5) to remove each pillbox on their land but pocketed the money instead. This story probably represents a confusion with the compensation lump sum, but may refer to some local schemes where farmers were asked to do the work…’

So, there we have it. This myth was pretty much busted by Foot way back in 2006. This now makes me wonder how many people that own (and show off that they own) this book have actually read it!

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for British Hardened Field Defences quotes the £5 myth, using Foot’s statement as a corroborating source. As you can see above, Foot does not support the £5 claim and ultimately questions the figure, concluding it is probably based on a misunderstanding. Did whoever wrote the Wiki page even read the source??!! (Update 20.11.2021: This has now been removed from the Wiki page)

The ‘How did it grow?’ part is easy to answer.

It’ll come as no surprise to frequent readers of this blog that this myth gained traction due to a lack of critical analysis, and a need by people online to look clever by remembering and regurgitating pillbox ‘facts’.

The popularity of this myth also comes down to a need to understand the post-war situation and removal of wartime defences, at a time when very few people have actually done any research into the subject. That is research as in looking at primary sources held in archives, talking to eyewitnesses, and analysing what has already been written. Not ‘research’ as in doing a quick Google and repeating what you’ve read online or in books that don’t quote their sources.

There is also an aspect of trying to simplify a massively complex undertaking, into a simple to repeat soundbite that anyone can repeat ad nauseum but instantly look knowledgeable and clever with little actual effort.

Alongside this is an element of trying to explain why some wartime anti-invasion defences survive and why some were demolished. 

As with most of these myths, the majority get traction through hearsay, repetition, a lack of research, a lack of critically assessing available information and an unhealthy dollop of acceptance of any old crap spouted by anyone online.

The reality is that the removal of the redundant defences towards the end of the Second World War was a huge undertaking; massively complex in not only its administration but also its implementation. The implementation of which is likely to have differed enormously not only county to county, but also council to council.

The Truth

As always, the truth is much more complex than a simple one sentence factoid.

Firstly, due to the endemic lack of research, the true cost of demolishing wartime defences is currently unknown.

To try to get to the bottom of this myth and find the truth, I started by consulting the one reliable report on the national picture of wartime defences, that is properly researched/sourced; Dobinson’s mighty Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII.

Dobinson’s report gave some key pointers, namely that the War Office ‘Required that each Command establish an ad hoc co-ordination committee, consisting of Command Land Agent, a representative of the CE [Chief Engineer], the Land Commissioner, the Regional Planning Officer, the Divisional Road Engineer and the Regional Engineering Inspector’ (Dobinson. 1996 p.195).

Dobinson’s report made it very clear that the ‘restoration’ of defences was very much coordinated at a local level, with the ‘categorisation’ of defences a further key element of this process. Local planning was also a key element.

You’ve probably guessed it, but Dobinson made no mention of farmers or fivers.

What do the documents say?

So, once again the documentary record is key to helping us to better understand the actual situation.

To start with, let’s first look into the military’s policy in regards to building on the land and property of others. At the outbreak of war guidance came in the form of the Defence Regulations, 1939. Thanks to my partner in crime, Peter Hibbs for providing a heads up on this avenue of investigation.

The Defence Regulations 1939 outline what the military can and can’t do in terms of building on land or property during times of war and in defence of the realm. The relevant sections of the Defence regs are as follows:

Section 50 (1) ‘Taking Possession of Land‘ outlines that the military ‘may, for any purposes connected with the defence of the realm, the prosecution of the war, the securing of the public safety or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community, do any work on any land or place anything in, on or over any land.’

Okay, to summarise, this means that the army (in this case) could build or dig whatever it wants, on any land it wants to as long as it is for the defence of the realm, conducting the war or protecting the public.

Section 50 (4) goes on to state ‘For the purpose of this Regulation, the doing of work shall, in relation to any land, be deemed to include the demolition, pulling down, destruction or rendering useless of anything placed in, on or over the land, the maintenance of any work or thing in, on or over the land, and the removal from the land of anything so placed, demolished or pulled down in pursuance of this Regulation.’

Right, so this gives the army, in this case, the right to demolish anything on the land they have requisitioned, including anything they have built or dug on the land.

So, the army could build what and where it liked as long as it was in support of the war effort or to protect members of the public and they could also demolish what they had built.

Section 8ull (5hit) went on to further state ‘Farmers, in pursuance of demolition of pillboxes, will be therefore paid the princely sum of £5 to cover the aforementioned cost. No attempt will be made to ensure said pillbox is demolished and make sure they don’t just pocket the money’. Only joking, there was no mention of fivers and farmers.

One County’s Records

For this one, thanks to my wonderful partner and genealogist Stephie, I ended up in the Norfolk Record Office. Here I got hold of the late/Post-War demolition records for the county. I’m sure there’s more of these records held across the UK in local archives.

Key thing to point out here! Don’t bother trying to apply the following to the whole of the UK. This is just one example, from one county. As you will see, there is no ‘one size fits all’ explanation of how defences were demolished.

The documents I got a chance to consult were massively detailed and I’m still getting my head around all the details held in them. So, the following will be by and large a summary of what the documents told me in regards to solving this myth.

The post-war process of ‘restoration’, as in restoring the land to what it was like prior to the war, was massively complex even within a single county.

Much of the work was coordinated by the County Planning Officer for Norfolk, working under the Regional Controller of the Ministry of Local Government and Planning, who was based in Cambridge. The task was further delegated to the surveyors of the Rural Districts of Norfolk.

In July 1945, a conference was held with the War Department Land Agent for Norfolk, Captain Winterton. This conference outlined the process of removing defences in Norfolk, with everything from the removal of barbed wire, anti-tank ditches, temporary camps, airfields and ammunition stores discussed in relative detail.

The ‘classification’ of defences (more on this shortly) within the Rural Districts was a hugely methodical process, which was by no means as simple as bunging farmers a fiver to demolish a pillbox!

The process also developed and changed over time, and it is not within the scope of this simple blog to outline these changes in detail. And, again, it needs to be stressed that these documents cover a single county and the information outlined should not be applied to all post-war demolition across the country.

In summary the documents tell us some key things that help bust this myth. Firstly, the documents highlight the Compensation (defence) Act 1939, which was key to assessing what options were available to the War Department and how much they paid in compensation. This also gives us a lead to how much compensation was.

So, let’s get started.

To start with, in October 1945 the documents refer explicitly to the Compensation (defence) Act 1939 in that:

‘Section 3(3) makes it clear that provision is made for: –

(a)          The land to be restored as far as practicable.

(b)          A lump sum to be paid in compensation in lieu of restoration.’

So, there we have two things which are important. Firstly, the Compensation (defence) Act of 1939, and secondly that compensation would only be paid as a lump sum if the land couldn’t be restored to its original condition. This also shows us that compensation wasn’t the only course of action the War Department could take. They could either restore the land or pay compensation.

Let’s take a quick look at what the Compensation (defence) Act of 1939 tells us.

So, I won’t repeat what is stated in the act as it’s really dull, but Sections 2 (1), 3 (1) and 3 (2) under the Right to, and measure of, compensation outline how compensation was to be calculated. 

In summary, Section 2 (1) highlights that compensation for requisitioned land was calculated by taking into account a sum equal to reasonable rent charges for the land, the cost of repairing damage to the land while requisitioned, a sum equal to the tenancy charges for agricultural land, or a sum equal to any charges accrued as a result of the land being requisitioned by the military

Section 3 relates to Compensation in respect of the doing of work on land. Sections 3 (1) and 3 (2) highlight that compensation is only payable if the annual cost of the land is diminished due to the work done and the cost of compensation would be calculated using the sum of diminished annual value; the cost would then be paid in instalments.

Okay, so according to the military’s own guidance, compensation could and would be paid to landowners whose land was requisitioned or worked on by the military. This guidance is highly complex but my conclusion having read it and survived is that at no point does it mention that a pre-specified lump sum would be paid to landowners, such as farmers. There is a great emphasis put on calculating an accurate value for the sum of compensation to be paid, taking into account numerous factors.

No mention is made that the compensation is to be used by the landowner to undertake the restoration of their land themselves. There’s no simple ‘one size fits all’ explanation here and no corroboration for the myth.  Fiver anyone?

Back to the docs, where the process of calculating compensation is reflected in the documents. 

In a report dated the 5th of July 1945, it is clearly mentioned that the cost of removal of barbed wire, for example, was compensated at an equivalent sum ‘to the diminution of value’ of the land on which it sat.

We also find in the same report the only mention found so far to paying landowners for the cost of removal, again relating to barbed wire. This comes in reference to a War Department rehabilitation scheme for coastal areas, where Local Authorities were paid for the cost of removal.

And now the big reveal! 

It is in this early report that we find the only specific mention of the monetary costs of demolishing pillboxes. In this case, relating to the cost of removing pillboxes on highways, coordinated by the Divisional Road Engineer. The cost of demolishing a pillbox is stated as £40, when removed by private contractors, and £120 when removed by the Highways Authority themselves. It’s a bit more than £5, isn’t it!

By July 1947, the situation complicates a bit when the War Department realises that the cost of restoration sometimes exceeds the maximum cost of compensation. But that’ll have to be a story for another time.

So, to put the sum of £5 to bed, we have seen here that there wasn’t a standard lump sum payment, each case was compensated differently after a sum was calculated. This is corroborated not only by the Defence (compensation) act, but also the documentary record. The documentary record also handily outlines that, in Norfolk at least, the cost of demolishing a pillbox was way in excess of £5.

But what about Farmers pocketing the cash?

So, what about the ‘farmers pocketed the cash’ being the reason why defences survive?

The Norfolk documents reveal one of the true reasons why defences still survive today. In a guidance document relating directly to the Categorisation of Defence Works, dated the 31st of October 1945:

‘Naturally the War Department are anxious to dispose of as many cases as possible and it would be convenient to them to pay compensation in lieu of restoration, particularly as the prospects of demolition and removal are for the time being remote, due to the shortage of labour.’

So, the reason, according to this primary source, why defences survive is not because farmers pocketed the mythical £5 notes they were paid to demolish defences, it was because the War Department’s preferred policy was to pay a lump sum of compensation instead of ‘restoring’ land as there simply wasn’t the workforce available to demolish all the defences.

Further to this, not all defences needed to be removed. 

This is where ‘categorisation’ comes to play. A system of ‘categorisation’ was put in place to assess the importance and urgency with which remaining defences were to be demolished. Defences were categorised by the rural district council surveyors who were dotted around Norfolk. These surveyors reported to the County Planning Officer.

Defence works earmarked for removal were categorised as follows-

(a) Those where restoration is urgently necessary.

(b) Those where restoration is necessary some time but not now.

(c) Those where restoration is not required in the public interest.

We can see here that Category (c) clearly shows that not all defences needed to be removed and there was a specific category for such defences, which ultimately led to their survival. This has led my archaeology orientated brain off on a tangent and has got me thinking about how surviving defences can be used to investigate why they weren’t removed. Again, another story for another time.

So, due to this policy of county-wide assessment of surviving defences, examples were surveyed and categorised, which was an overall decision of whether restoration needed to take place or not.

There’s so much information held in these documents that I could almost be here for ever busting the Fivers and Farmers myth. But I’m going to have to stop there given I am already past the 3000 words mark.

Conclusion

BUSTED!

I’m going to say this one is busted. It’s possible that there may have been a local example where a farmer was paid £5 to demolish a pillbox, but without a primary source or reference to corroborate that, this myth is busted. Even if evidence does come to light, it has been made abundantly clear here that it wasn’t national policy to bung farmers five quid to get rid of pillboxes on their land. So claiming all farmers, landowners or anyone else was paid £5 to demolish a pillbox on their land is pure myth and falsehood. Anyone spouting such a myth is simply repeating an unreferenced source from a book published in 2004. And the reason why pillboxes survive isn’t because said landowners pocketed the cash.

The documentary record for the county of Norfolk clearly shows that the whole process of demolishing wartime defences, and returning land to its pre-war state, was much more detailed, complicated and well administered than the myth gives credit. This is quickly becoming a theme of these myths, in that the reality is much more interesting than a one sentence factoid posted around social media.

Addendum (03.03.2022)

Just in case it isn’t clear in this instalment of Pillbox Myths; the key lesson here is that due to the regional level at which the wartime defences were planned and constructed, it is not a good idea to try and explain the history and archaeology of surviving defences with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. This approach over the last 2 to 3 decades has largely failed and we now see massive generalisations and simplifications of history are deep routed in much of the public’s perceptions. This hinders our understanding of the often unique and diverse history of these defences at a regional level. I need to clarify here, so as to avoid future myths, that the information and primary sources presented in this blog only applies to the county of Norfolk and nowhere else. The regional organisation of post-war land restoration likely means that other counties handled the issue differently, and applying the content presented in this blog to other counties is not recommended. I really want to avoid people copying/parroting what I have written in this blog and applying it to the whole of the UK. The aim of this pillbox myth blog, and the others, is to show the problems that we now encounter through a lack of research, a lack of critical analysis of published works and established ‘facts’, and the application of what can be considered localised facts or factoids to ALL defences in the UK. The history of this period is simply too broad and complex to make generalisations and sweeping statements. This oversimplification now hinders our understanding, with the knock on effect of hindering preservation as localised history and strategy is rarely if ever investigated and demonstrated.

Countering the Myth

As always, ask for a source if you see someone spouting facts online. If it’s not from a primary source, then in all probability it’s not true. Also, take whatever you read on unsourced websites, pillbox spotting/urbex social media groups, and even books with a pinch of salt. If someone can’t provide a reliable or primary source, then the fact is likely to be questionable.

A key problem with the study of wartime defences is that few people do any actual study. This is seriously hampering our understanding and the preservation of surviving wartime sites and structures.

On a final note, and as a treat to you for making it this far, I’ve had a good laugh recently because the £5 figure has started to creep up and has increased to £10. Possibly due to inflation, LoL. Thankfully, this is being quickly ‘corrected’ by one of Facebook’s resident pillbox experts as being the ‘accurate’ sum of £5. Unfortunately, they are also getting fed up with ‘correcting’ this mythical figure with another mythical figure. It must be hard work helping to perpetuate myths online…

I produce this website in my spare time and at my own expense but if you would like to help support my work, why not Buy Me A Coffee over on Ko-Fi?

Until next time. Byeeeeee!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Peter Hibbs for providing copies of the Defence Regulations 1939 and to Norfolk Records Office for putting up with me geeking out over their documents.

Sources

Lowry, B. (2004). British Home Defences 1940-45. Osprey Publishing Ltd. Oxford.

Lowry, B. (2014). Pillboxes and Tank Traps. Shire Publications. Oxford.

Foot, W. (2006). Beaches, Fields, Streets and Hills. Council for British Archaeology. York

Defence Regulations 1939. 4th ed (1940). HMSO. London

Compensation (Defence) Act 1939

Dobinson, C.S., 1996. Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII. Council for British Archaeology. York

Documents

C/P8 Series documents Norfolk Records Office

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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