Blandford Camp reopens
In the spring of 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War just months away, a decision was made to re-establish a military base on Blandford Down. Known as Blandford Camp, the site had been occupied by the Royal Naval Division and then the Royal Air Force during the First World War. However, the base was closed in the early 1920s and all the wooden huts were removed. Even the track of the little used railway branch line between Blandford and the Camp was lifted. Fields next to Blandford Cemetery together with the Milldown were also considered for the site of military bases but in May 1939 Blandford Town Council was told these would not proceed. Work would begin immediately to re-establish Blandford Camp as a military base capable of accommodating several thousand soldiers. First task was to make up and widen Black Lane – the road between the town and Blandford Camp.
An urgent call went out to local labour exchanges for the recruitment of carpenters and labourers. Tradesmen were offered attractive pay rates for a 48 hour week with unlimited overtime. The Bournemouth Master Builders Association protested at these ‘high rates of pay’ and as a consequence they were reduced. By early June several hundred construction workers had begun work at Blandford Camp. However, it appears that the changes to pay rates prompted them to down tools. Worker representatives reopened negotiations with the employers. A mass meeting was organised where the representatives had decided to recommend acceptance of revised offer. A car with a loud speaker was ordered from Bournemouth for the mass meeting and it was decided to use a hut’s base being constructed as a platform.
Also arriving early that morning from Bournemouth was a 45 year-old man who claimed he worked at the Camp. He stood in the middle of the road stopping all the workmen’s buses urging them to not enter the site. According to a canteen lady, he told the canteen workers that if they did not join the strike the Camp would be burnt down. At the mass meeting, he was heard to shout out:
‘Stay on strike lads. Your chairman wants you to go back to work but you don’t want to, do you? You want your three shillings & six pence!’
It was also reported the 45 year-old urged that picketing be organised and that deputations travel to army bases at Bovington and Tidworth to encourage them to join the strike.
A crowd member challenged the 45 year-old claiming he did not work on the site which he denied. However, no-one recognised him and then he had to leave the meeting for his own safety. The Western Gazette of Friday 30th June 1939 reported on the involvement of an ‘agitator’ who was charged with ‘interfering with the arrangements between employers and the men’s representatives which caused a breach of the peace.’ He denied claims that he was a member of the Communist Party but said he worked as a reporter for the newspaper the Daily Worker. It had been founded in 1930 as a paper representing the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. At Blandford Police Court he was found guilty, fined and ordered not to return to Blandford Camp which he agreed.
The first soldiers arrived at Blandford Camp in July 1939 and the Camp then received a visit from Chief of the Imperial General Staff Viscount Gort who would shortly be appointed as Commander-in -Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. A few months later Gort would be taken off the Dunkirk beaches by the minesweeper HMS Hebe as his defeated British forces withdrew from France.
(Image: Viscount Gort visited Blandford Camp)