The Spitfire Fund

We might find it rather strange today if someone suggested we have a collection to help the RAF buy a new fighter plane, but in 1940, that is exactly what happened.

A national campaign, supported by Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister for Aircraft Production, encouraged individual towns, factories and communities to raise money to buy a Spitfire. In total, 1400 campaigns were launched, collecting in the end £13 million, equivalent to about £650 million today.

It was suggested that Ripley might join in Derby’s appeal, but the townspeople refused, determined to attempt to raise the target sum, £5000 (around £200,000 now) themselves.

The fund was started by three women, Evelyn Fountain, Molly Bourne and Phyllis Bradley. They recruited some of the town’s most important men as figureheads including John Williams of the Ripley Manufacturing Company as President and Arthur Coote of the Butterley Company as Chair, but much of the work was done by themselves and a group of other women including the wives of John Marshall and Fred Ogle. They tried to get all the main factions in the town represented on the committee, including various councillors and the vicar.

Funds were raised by selling this booklet

The Opening Ceremony took place on Friday August 30th 1940, in the Market Place, with community singing accompanied by the Ripley United Silver Prize Band. Regular lists of subscriptions were published in the Ripley and Heanor News, starting with £100 from John Williams himself. Amounts ranged from £500 from the Butterley Company to 2d from “J.H. of Ripley”.

The range of fund-raising activities gives a good picture of life in Ripley at the time. Whist Drives figured prominently, as did sporting fixtures including a cricket match (England vs Derbyshire) featuring Leary Constantine, the famous West Indian fast bowler. There was a talent competition, tea dances, angling matches, a boxing demonstration, pigeon shows, football matches and several concerts including one by the band of the RASC Aldershot. The Empire Theatre put on a variety show and Mrs Marshall converted her shop on the High Street into an early version of a charity shop in aid of the Fund.

One of the last attractions was an exhibition of a captured German Messerschmitt Me 109 at the Hippodrome Garage in Slack Lane from the 10th to the 18th January 1941, when the Fund closed. The admission charge to see “the German Luftwaffe’s much vaunted fighter” was 6d, children under 14, 3d. The takings were over £50.

Me 109

When the Fund closed, it had raised just over half its target: £2500, the equivalent of £100,000 today.

By the end of 1940, factories were turning out around 350 Spitfires a month. Although the money did not directly pay for the aircraft, fund-raising like that in Ripley were an essential part of the War Effort. It also had the effect, as intended, of bringing the community together.

So, a whip-round to buy an F-35 ? At a cost of £70 million each, you’d have to have a pretty big hat.

First published in “All Things Local” in November 2019