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29 October 2014

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Cowbridge House
Cowbridge House

Malmesbury's Secret Factory

Malmesbury's secret World War Two shadow factory opens its doors to the public at the beginning of September...

From the air, in 1940, it looked like a sleepy Wiltshire Country estate.

But it wasn’t.

In the nearby town of Malmesbury locals speculated that it was an illegal black market manufacturing business.

But it wasn’t.

Even the 1,000 strong workforce, who worked there, didn’t know what they were making.

Now, 60 years on, on Sunday 12th September Cowbridge House is opening its doors to the public and revealing all its secrets as part of the Heritage Open Weekend.

Cowbridge House, near Malmesbury, has been many things in its 250 year history but none as interesting as its role in the Second World War.

The Second World War was, it’s said, as much a ‘Radar War’ as anything else.

Radar was the invention of the moment, top priority and top secret.

Cowbridge House
Cowbridge House

So much so that when the first German plane was shot down using radar, in the pitch dark, propaganda promoted the idea that a diet of carrots had helped British pilots see in the dark.

If radar was the invention of the moment than Cowbridge House was at its cutting edge.

But why Cowbridge House?

With the Second World War approaching a small radio manufacturer based in Southend, EKCO Radio, were approached by the Ministry of Defence to develop and manufacture highly secretive radar equipment for the RAF.

Being based in Southend though was out of the question.  What EKCO needed was a secure base, top secret, relatively remote and safe from German attack.

Cowbridge House, an 18th century House set in 14 acres of rolling countryside, turned out to be ideal and in 1939 it officially became a WW2 Secret Radar Shadow Factory.

A Shadow Factory, as its name suggests, is a factory where its real purpose is kept secret and in the case of Cowbridge top secret.

Rumours were rife in the local town of Malmesbury.  Was it a place where the sons of the rich could come, at a price, to avoid joining the armed forces? or was it a factory manufacturing black market radios?

The 1,000 employees working at the factory had no idea what they were making, security was tight and questions were definitely not encouraged.

Even from the air Cowbridge House had to keep up appearances as a country house estate. Packing cases piled outside buildings had to be kept hidden under camouflage netting and reconnaissance aircraft flew over the site regularly to check that there were no tell tale signs of activity.

Heritage Open Day

Sixty years on and Cowbridge House, now deserted, is being opened up to the public.  The original Shadow Factory buildings have all gone but most of the original house is intact.

Outside the main gates you can still see what’s left of the military ‘pill boxes’, used for security, and at the back of the house the old Gazebo where radar sets were tested before being sent out.

Organised by the Malmesbury Civic Trust, Cowbridge House and Grounds is one of many properties being opened up, across the country, as part of the Heritage Weekend.

And with the property earmarked for development this could be one of your last chances to see the property before possible demolition.

Located ½ mile southeast of Malmesbury, on the B4042 next to the River Avon and Cowbridge, Cowbridge House and Grounds will be open to the public from 11:00 to 16:00 BST on Sunday 12th September 2004.

last updated: 01/09/04
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