In 1939, with war looming, an Emergency Powers (Defence) Act was passed enabling the government to make orders as the need arose for the defence of the realm.
One such was the Removal of Direction Signs Order of 30th May 1940. This was in the middle of the Dunkirk evacuation, when fears of a German invasion were at their peak. To prevent direction signs being used by an invading army (albeit no doubt armed with maps), all such signs that were visible from a road were to be taken down or otherwise rendered useless.
Wooden sign-posts were dug up (or had their arms removed), enamel village signs were unscrewed, and all were put into storage – hopefully to be replaced at the end of the war. Milestones and boundary stones suffered varying fates: some were removed for safety to council depots, etc; some were covered over with earth, or buried. A council workman in Norfolk said that his instructions were simply to “dig a trench, push the stones into it and cover them up”.
Others, however, had the ignominious fate of being defaced, their legends chiselled away. This latter act was contrary to the government’s intentions, as the instructions said clearly that “a chisel should not be used to cut out lettering on milestones”.
Not everyone was happy. It was reported from the West Riding that milestones were being “chipped with a chisel … and now they are dumb.” This was clearly seen as an act of vandalism. “Never since milestones were first put up on the rolling English road have the milestones lost face – except when old age has made them speechless. Their gashed faces now have brought the war to the quietest of country lanes.”
Similar sentiments were evident in Derbyshire, their concern being that “Many of these stones represented an interesting link with the past and one wonders whether it will ever be possible to restore them in their original condition.” What was of particular concern was that the “old-time spellings and the quaint abbreviations” were not lost forever.
Such fears were not entirely misplaced. From 1944 the government permitted the re-instatement of signs in inland areas, though labour shortages did not make this a top priority for local authorities. Many milestones and signposts were replaced after the war, but some buried stones remained buried for many years (and some possibly still are).
Conversely, some stones still stand in their original locations showing the brutal treatment they have received. A few examples are pictured below. Some have had their legends restored, as far as possible, but current thinking is that they should remain as they are: the war is part of our history, and the defacement of milestones is part of their history.
Sources: articles in Milestones and Waymarkers: Keith Lawrence: Emergency powers and the milestones (2014, vol 7, pp 3-6) and David Viner: Emergency powers and the milestones – further examples come to light (2016, vol 9, pp 49-50).
RWH / August 2021