Many housing estates throughout London are surrounded by black steel and mesh railings with peculiar notches around the edges. Although at first glance they appear to be some quirky architectural design, the notches have a purpose—or rather, had a purpose. These steel railings originally functioned as stretchers used to carry the wounded during the Second World War. The curves or the notches you see were the legs upon which the stretchers were laid on the ground. After the war was over many of these stretchers were repurposed to replace fencing that were lost in the war.
In the months leading up to the war in 1939, the UK government produced more than 600,000 stretchers at plants located in Hertfordshire and the West Midlands. The stretchers had a steel frame supporting a wire mesh; steel was chosen so that the stretchers could be easily cleaned and disinfected from germs, dirt and blood. The two notches on either end of the poles allowed the stretchers to be rested on the ground but still be picked up quickly and easily. Unfortunately, the stretchers were terribly uncomfortable and many volunteers from the Civil Defence Service, who were carried on these stretchers, complained of the hardness and discomfort.
After the war, the UK was left with a huge stockpile of stretchers that needed to be put to use, or recycled. As it happened, many estates in Britain’s cities had lost their perimeter fencing as these were removed and melted down to manufacture ammunition, tanks and other weaponry for the war. Then someone had this bright idea of welding together these stretchers and creating fences out of them.
These so-called “stretcher fences” can be found at many localities around London such as Peckham, Brixton, Deptford, Oval and East London.
The metal structures were also used in other cities such as Leeds and also in Scotland, but they are most prominent in south and east London.
Many of the surviving railings today are in poor condition. Others were removed by local authorities due to increasing degradation. The newly formed Stretcher Railing Society believes that these railings are an important part of Britain’s heritage and needs to be preserved. As starters, they have began cataloguing the locations of these railings. You can check them out on their website.