In a previous post we mentioned that Joseph Sankey & Sons Ltd were responsible for producing many of the soldiers’ steel helmets for the War Office during the First World War. This information has so far been anecdotal, but one of our volunteers, Ann Williams, who was doing research for her University course, has come across the attached memo which gives definitive proof of this. In all her research into the rather substantial collection we have of Sankey’s material, this appears to be the only reference to the First World War helment production, as there are no orders or other information elsewhere.
It is not clear when the memo was typed, but it gives brief details of the helmet production, including the difficulties that had to be overcome. Because they were made of Manganese Steel and Nickel Steel, this material was very difficult to press “and varied very greatly in quality”. Many helmets broke during the first experiements so initially it seemed doubful “if quantity production could be proceeded with.” These difficulties were overcome, however. Sankey’s worked closely with the firms who produced the steel sheets, Beardmore, Firth and Hadfield, in order to investigate the cause of the breakages, meaning that “the percentage of waste was gradually reduced from 50% to an average of less than 5%.”
This meant that Sankey’s were able to commence production of the helmets in October 1915, intitially producing 5000 a week. This output was gradually increased to 75,000 a week, and nearly 5 million helmets were eventually supplied to the Trench Warfare Department by the firm.
The memo in full:
When the War Office decided to use bullet proof steel for helmets there were many practical difficulties to be overcome.
The Manganese Steel and Nichel Steel, from which the helmets were made, was extremely difficult material to press and varied very greatly in quality. The percentage of breakage in the first experiements was so great that it seemed at one time doubtful if quantity production could be proceeded with.
The steel sheets were produced by the eminent firms Beardmore, Firth and Hadfield, and the closest co-operation was secured between these suppliers and ourselves so that the causes of breakages was scientifically investigated with the result that the percentage of waste was gradually reduced from 50% to an average of less than 5%. In other words material, the composition and treatment of which appeared to make it unsuitable for being worked by pressing, was ultimately found to be capable of being worked and pressed into a deep bowl shaped Helmet with as small a percentage of waste as would be possible with soft steel of ordinary Commercial quality.
Production commenced in October 1915 at these Works. The initial output arranged for was 5,000 per week. The weekly output was gradually increased up to 75,000 per week. Nearly 5,000,000 Helmets were ultimately supplied to the Trench Warfare Department from these works.