The Spitfire is an iconic emblem of World War II with its distinctive silhouette and the unmistakable growl from its Merlin engine, but what is not as well known is the amount of money raised by ordinary British people to supposedly fund the building of Spitfires. The fame that the Spitfire gained was worthy of a Hollywood star and when the Government appealed for public assistance in building them, the country took this appeal to heart and donations poured in.
The huge expense of World War I, between 1914-1918, had left Britain’s public purse very depleted and with the Great Depression coming so soon after in the 1920’s, the country had very little in the way of spare funds thus leading to Britain doing everything possible to avoid war in the late 1930’s. When it was clear that Hitler and the Nazi regime were intent on war, the British Armed Forces were in a sad state due to the lack of funds available between the wars to upgrade their equipment.
At the start of 1940, an Anglo-Canadian media mogul, Lord Max Aitken, Baron Beaverbrook, was brought into the Government to speed up the production of aircraft. Utilizing his media knowledge, Lord Beaverbrook launched public appeals to source raw materials and encourage people to save where possible, all in a bid to help the nation’s war effort. At the same time the star qualities of the Spitfire were splashed over the media and the hype around the plane grew, resulting in unsolicited donations to help build the planes.
Lord Beaverbrook was not slow to jump onto this bandwagon and in May 1940 the Spitfire Funds were launched. The planes were priced at a theoretical cost of £5,000, a sum that bore little resemblance to the actual cost, but was a nice number and seemed attainable by the public who were encouraged to raise the funds to buy a plane.
This idea took off like a fox before the hunt and funds poured in with donations ranging from pennies taken from children’s pocket money to hundreds of pounds from formal fund raising initiatives. Ultimately around £13 million was raised (approximately £650 million in today’s money.)
Aviation historian, Paul Beaver summed it up very well by saying, “The Spitfire Funds were a home front phenomenon. The aircraft, and the idea of buying one, seemed to hit the national psyche. Britain wanted to believe in something and the Spitfire, that combination of beauty and power, was the great saviour.”
Within a short time collection funds were set up all over the country with councils, churches, voluntary organisations, schools and businesses all making an effort to collect the very small charitable pound for their Spitfire Fund. The Spitfire, protecting London during the Battle of Britain, fired the public’s imagination further and it became a matter of national pride to have a Spitfire named after your Fund.
Not only was the entire plane given a nominal value but so too were the components, and people were encouraged to buy a piece, if they could not buy the entire plane. Thus wings were valued at £2,000, a gun at £200, one spark plug for the magnificent sum of 8 shillings and every rivet counted at sixpence per rivet.
Newspapers carried lists of donations to funds and the wide variety of people that donated was very apparent by the notations on the donations. It was common to see notations such as “From all at No.15 Station Lane”, or “My old age pension – 10 shillings towards our Spitfire”.
Not to be outdone, the BBC started to broadcast the names of the successful funds (i.e. those that raised the £5,000) at the end of their news bulletins further inspiring the national fund raising craze to such an extent that funds came pouring in at the rate of around €1 million a month; a staggering amount in war-torn Britain.
Another incentive thrown into the mix was having a dedication painted onto the nose of the Spitfire that you raised the money to build. This meant that every large town in Britain had to have their ‘own’ Spitfire and the councillor from Lytham St Annes was adamant that, “If we should have a dogfight over Lytham St Annes let us have a Spitfire of our own to deal with it and not have to send to Fleetwood or Blackpool to borrow theirs.”
Keeping up with their larger neighbours, Market Lavington, a little village in Wiltshire came up with the idea of drawing the silhouette of a Spitfire in the village square and asking residents to cover it with coins. A job they completed in a matter of days.
The British public threw themselves into their fund raising efforts and used imagination and more than a little bit of coercion to raise funds. An empty field in Kent was marketed by an audacious farmer, as ‘the only field in Kent without a German aircraft in it’, and he charged sixpence to have a look!
Air raids were common in the capital and one enterprising cinema manager used a wheelbarrow to collect funds during a raid, saying that the quicker the Spitfire’s were built the fewer raids there would be. Gentle blackmail at its best, but it resulted in four Spitfires all named “Miss ABC”.
In an attempt to alleviate criticism that gypsies were shirking their war duties, carnivals and circuses, collected for their plane, named “Fun of the Fair”.
Donations came from the cutest of sources. Patricia Boncey sent Lord Beaverbrook, a postal order to the value of 15 shillings with an accompanying letter, “When my mummy has taken me out and I have wanted to use a public convenience she has had to pay a penny. So I thought if we did the So I thought if we did the same at home it would help your fund.”
Even our four-legged friends came to the party. The Kennel Club ran their own fund raiser and purchased a fighter named ‘The Dog Fighter’.
Woolworths donated two planes named ‘Nix Six Primus’ and ‘Nix Six Secundus’. These planes tipped their hat at Woolworth’s policy of keeping prices below sixpence.
‘Dorothy of Great Britain and Empire’ was a Spitfire that was purchased from funds donated entirely by ladies whose name was Dorothy.
The Spitfire Funds eventually became a global phenomenon with Uruguay donating seventeen planes even though they maintained their neutrality throughout the war, and countries such as Trinidad donated an entire squadron (No 74), the Gold Coast (No 167) and Hong Kong (No 114).
The Red Cross helped prisoners of war collect and donate funds. British soldiers incarcerated at Oflag VIB donated a month’s pay for a plane named, “Unshackled Spirit”.
Inevitably some communities collected money and purchased planes in memory of men from their community that died in service. The little towns of Holmesfield, Derbyshire and St Michel-le-Pit in south Wales paid for planes named ‘Shepley’ and ‘Norman Merrett’.
As could be expected this fund raising frenzy was not ignored by the con-men and fraudulent funds were set up. Needless to say the courts took an extremely dim view of this practice and jailed those who tried to fleece the public in this way.
The Spitfire Funds raised were sufficient to build around 2,600 planes, but sadly due to inadequate records not all the planes can be traced. It is unlikely that the money raised actually went directly to the factories building the planes.
The funds simply went into the Government coffers and were used to support the entire war effort. They did have a profound effect on the morale of people who felt that they had ‘done their bit’ for the war effort and for those that were not actively fighting on the front line this was very important. Seeing the planes fighting to protect their country and knowing that they had purchased a plane was a morale boosting incident for many British people.
As Mark Harrison, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, says, “Spitfire funds did not pay for Spitfires, but they were still an essential part of the war effort. Without them the war would eventually have gone less well in one aspect or another. There would have been a cost.”