By Richard Farmer
The Royal Mint has been tasked with producing Britain’s coinage since the 9th century, and throughout its long history it has been acutely sensitive to the possibility of counterfeiting and forgery. It is therefore ironic that during the Second World War the site chosen for the erection of a subsidiary Mint was Pinewood film studios, where fabrication and passing the artificial off as real were a way of life. Here is the Pinewood site map showing the subsidiary Mint’s location.
The Pinewood Mint commenced work in June 1941 and was located in the studio’s scene dock, delayed slightly by the need to find a new home for the numerous sets it had previously housed. It formed part of a wider strategy of dispersal – that is, moving key industrial infrastructure outside major cities and re-establishing it in supposedly safer places. Pinewood was not the only studio to be taken over; the large size and semi-rural location of many British film production facilities meant that they were requisitioned by government and industry (see Sarah Street, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television article to be published 2022/3). Establishing a subsidiary Mint at Pinewood was intended to allow for the uninterrupted striking of coins should the primary facility in east London be damaged or put out of action by enemy bombs. This turned out to be a sensible precaution: during the war the main Mint was hit by ‘several high-explosive bombs, four anti-aircraft shells, and many incendiary bombs,’ with damage causing temporary suspension of work (Craig 1953: 348). Pinewood was chosen because Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire was thought close enough to the city to be easily accessible, but far enough outside London to be less at risk from the Luftwaffe. Even so, the studios were camouflaged in an attempt to make them less visible from the air, as can be seen in this aerial shot.
Although the production of commercial feature films ceased at Pinewood during the war, the studio was home to several service film units, including the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU). The correspondence set out below – which has been lightly edited from originals contained in National Archives file MINT 20/1805 – demonstrates that relationships between the studio’s various tenants were not always entirely harmonious.
On 24 June 1943, Deputy Master and Comptroller of the Mint, J. H. Craig, wrote to the Undersecretary of State for War about recent events at Pinewood:
About 10 am on the 22nd June, 1943, a mass of high explosive was detonated at a distance of 100 to 150 yards from the premises of the Royal Mint in Pinewood studios, Iver Heath, Bucks, by a Lieutenant, R.E., acting as part of, or in behalf of, the Army Film Photographic Unit … The explosion was not created in connection with military exercises or for purposes of research, but appears to have been a mere preliminary operation intended to lead ultimately to the taking of some part of a cinematograph film to be exhibited, if successful, for entertainment.
The detritus from the explosion penetrated the roof of the Royal Mint in a number of places, the holes being up to 8 inch diameter, and injected into the premises a great deal of dirt, mingled with flying or falling fragments of glass from the roof. In present circumstances, the damage will be difficult to repair completely. I understand that a neighbouring electric power plant and a shed containing aeroplane parts were damaged somewhat more severely, and that this is not the first explosion of some magnitude which has occurred as Pinewood studios.
It is realised that the officers employed on each film work cannot be expected to be those of high efficiency, but it is hoped that the Army Council will take such steps as are requisite to ensure that the handling by them of high explosive or other lethal apparatus is so conducted as not to endanger life, plant, or essential work.
The Mint was clearly annoyed to have come under friendly fire, not least because it had come to Pinewood in an attempt to minimise war-related disruption to its operations. More than a month passed before Craig received a reply, sent on 27 July 1943 behalf of the Army’s director of public relations:
Sir, with reference to your letter … on the subject of damage caused to the premises of the Royal Mint at Pinewood studios by the exploding of an ammonal charge, I am directed to express regret that this should have occurred.
A full investigation has been made and in the view of the Royal Engineer in charge, the amount of explosive used was not excessive. It is, of course, difficult to predict with accuracy the precise effect of exploding a charge in the ground, as much depend on the consistence of the earth. In this instance clods of earth were flung further than was calculated, with the unfortunate result described in your letter.
I am to point out, however, that your animadversion upon the efficiency of the Royal Engineer officer detailed to carry out this work is without foundation. Far from being, as you imply, an officer of a low standard of efficiency, he belongs to a field unit highly trained in demolition work. In the view of this Department no blame connected with this incident attached to this officer or to anyone else engaged on the production of this important film of the North African campaign. That the damage should have occurred is unfortunate, and I am therefore to express the hope that you will accept the apology of this Department.
The manufacture of coins recommenced after a short spell of inactivity. The Mint left Pinewood shortly after the war finished, bringing an end to what wags suggested was the only period in which the studio actually made money.
John Craig, The Mint: A History of the London Mint from AD 287 to 1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953).
Sarah Street, ‘Requisitioning film studios in wartime Britain’ (forthcoming in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 2022-23).