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A new city created by the defence industry

A new city created by the defence industry

9 min read

The new city of Karlskoga was born on a cold New Year’s night in 1940 – when it was the largest town in Sweden in terms of its area. The growth of Bofors as a defence industry was the engine behind its rapid development. It can be said without exaggeration that it was the company that created the city. This gave rise to the saying: “What’s good for Bofors, is good for Karlskoga”.

Originally Bofors was a fairly small ironworks – one of the many works built in the forestry and mining districts of Värmland and Bergslagen. It was not until well into the 1900s that Bofors started to grow into an industry of some considerable size. But it long retained the old industrial spirit and the company had its own sewers, refuse collection service, electric power, public baths – and even its own fire service and its own policeman, who was called Jonsson and lived above the Bofors tailor’s shop!

But the rapid development of Bofors as a defence industry, particularly after the First World War, resulted in a rapid increase in the number of employees and there was a risk of the area around the works being transformed into a ‘Wild West’. The small municipal community of Karlskoga, where conditions were quite orderly, lay west of the works. But the capacity of the fresh and waste water infrastructure was becoming inadequate. And a disorganised settlement without proper streets and neighbourhoods grew up around the works and the municipal community. In addition, there was a crying need for more housing.

A close examination of the population statistics paints a good picture of the dash to Karlskoga in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936, there were 19,027 people living in the municipality – by 1945 that number had increased to 29,464!

Choosing a new city

The problem required a solution and discussions went back and forth. It was obvious that a new city needed to be created, but where should they draw the boundary? Should the city only include the municipal community and the ironworks, or should it cover a larger area? The discussion resulted in the entire municipality of Karlskoga becoming a new city – with a surface area larger than London and the largest in Sweden (until Kiruna exceeded it some years later).

The issue of its name also generated a great deal of interest and the main national newspapers ran headlines such as ‘Sweden’s largest city’, ‘The forest that wants to become a city’, ‘Is Bofors becoming a metropolis?’ and ‘Karlskoga – a mega-city’. Many local residents wrote letters to the editor and the subject attracted rhymes and topical articles in the evening papers. One proposal that was aired was the name Karlsfors, combining Karlskoga and Bofors. There was a lively debate in the municipal council, which was held in the assembly hall of the old secondary school. In the end the well-established name of Karlskoga was chosen after all.

In the midst of the world war and in a time of crisis the birth of the city was celebrated on 1 January 1940. ‘Home-made’ Bofors guns fired the salute on that cold New Year’s night. The new city gradually took over many of the company’s old tasks, but there was also close cooperation on practical issues, including the acute shortage of housing.

Company commitment to housebuilding

Early on Bofors had been keen to help find various solutions to the housing problems of its employees. It was a natural commitment for the traditional ironworks, and may have been necessary to attract a labour force to settle down in the sparsely populated areas where the works were often located.

In the late 19th/early 20th century the company became interested in the Swedish movement for home ownership and the Bofors Arbetares Byggnads Aktiebolag was formed in 1903, which went on to help workers to acquire a home of their own. The basis of the Swedish movement for home ownership was that small farmers, workers and junior civil servants should be given advice on obtaining their own, comfortable homes surrounded by a small garden or patch of land – marking the beginnings of what subsequently became residential districts. In order to facilitate construction the company had a beautiful area in Sandviken planned, which contained 61 plots on the slopes down towards Lake Möckeln. Areas such as Stackfallsskogen, Karls Åby and Stackfallsängen were added later.

Cooperation with the city

After Karlskoga became a city, the ties between the company and city became closer and closer on housing issues and they jointly formed Karlskoga Bostadsaktiebolag (Karlskoga Housing Company), with the city and the company putting up half the share capital each. Bofors also initiated the creation of various housing foundations and supported HSB-type houses. (HSB = Hyresgästernas Sparkasse - och Byggnadsförening – ‘Tenants’ Savings and Construction Association’). Under the auspices of the Bofors housing foundation more than 600 apartments and 300 ‘bachelor pads’ were built after the Second World War with names such as Hultebo, Gasellen and Malmhagen. Bofors also helped to provide grants and interest-free loans to get homes constructed by other players and more than 1,000 apartments were created in this way.

Bofors made its mark on the lives of the residents of Karlskoga, from the cradle to the grave. The company made significant investment in promoting various activities for the general public. In 1908, the Bofors meeting house was built with the following motto over its doors: “Greater knowledge lights the way, stronger forces ease the journey”. The meeting room had a large hall for lectures, concerts and other events and a modern gymnasium. After the Second World War the meeting house was rebuilt according to drawings by the architects Backström and Reinius.

The company also supported sporting life in Karlskoga and many not-for-profit organisations in the cultural and charitable sector. The company paid for the Bofors sports ground in its entirety, including the fences and grandstands, and also had a hand in the creation of the ice hockey rink.

A new city created by the defence industry
Sport was an important part of leisure time. In 1926 Bofors Idrottssällskap was given an area of ​​the company to use as a sports ground. The heater was later built and was also funded by Bofors AB. Bofors AB archives.

Major focus on children and young people

There was a particular focus on children and young people. In 1918 Bofors built its own nursery or ‘kindergarten’, where the children were looked after while their parents were working. From 1942-43 a youth centre was built, which was the first of its kind in Swedish industry. A key aim of the facility was to provide young people with worthwhile leisure activities and with a sanctuary outside the home. Many families lived in cramped conditions as a consequence of the lack of housing.

The drawings for the youth centre were drawn up by the architect Gustaf Birch-Lindgren. It had a yellow brick façade and was built over three floors with a furnished basement. The basement housed a large handicraft room, weaving room, hobby room, playroom and changing rooms, toilets and shower rooms. The manager lived one floor up on the ground floor and there was also a fairly large coffee shop with a reading room and kitchen areas as well as premises for school kitchens. Another floor up there was a sewing room, library, art room, reading and writing room as well as a number of study rooms. On the top floor there was a meeting room with seating space for 250 people, a full stage area, sound equipment etc.

A glance in the archives indicates there was lively activity in the youth centre in the period from 1945-46. Five study circles were held for ‘young adults’ in English, a social conversation circle, metalworking, radio technology and home furnishing. There were various practical groups, including amateur theatricals, an athletic club, bookbinding, old-time dancing, fancy needlework, painting, knitting and even household courses for men!

The company’s apprentices’ workshop was located next to the youth centre and was built at the same time. A kind of apprenticeship had existed in every age – knowledge of a profession was handed down from the older generation to the younger one. But in 1918 the organisation of apprenticeship courses began in line with modern requirements and with the growth of the business. The new apprentices’ workshop was built to house 75 apprentices, who spent three years of their four-year apprenticeship there. During the last year they worked outside in the different workshop departments.

For young people the apprentices’ workshop was an affordable school, since the education was free and they even received some pay. The advantage for Bofors was that it was continually able to add to its staff from a well-trained workforce. Most of the apprentices remained in the company’s service.

A new city created by the defence industry
The company was largely involved in social development and contributed to financing the construction of various institutions, such as the schoolhouse. Photo: Axel Ehrenwall. Bofors AB archives.

An unusual transformation

Within a few years Karlskoga underwent a transformation that is almost without precedent in Sweden. In a short time the new city was built up with a town hall, fire station, hospital, hot baths, new schools, a district court and police house, post office, restaurants and cinemas etc. A large number of new homes were built, as already mentioned. In 1953 the People’s House or community centre was finished and there was also a department store, Aveny.

Bofors was a strategic industry during the war years and there was an enormous expansion afterwards with a great influx of people to the city. A well-known saying is attributed to Frans Andersson, who was employed at the company from 1880 to 1935. His last position was as chief supervisor. He was also a committed local politician. Andersson coined the phrase: “What’s good for Bofors, is good for Karlskoga.”

The saying matched the facts. The city of Karlskoga was dependent on the changing business cycles of Bofors, for better or worse. In the early 1970s Bofors had more than 10,000 employees and the city had more than 40,000 inhabitants. But when the defence industry fell on hard times in the 1980s and 1990s this naturally affected the municipality as well. There was a drastic reduction of more than 10,000 in the number of inhabitants and many apartments were demolished. But times have changed. In the 2010s the number of inhabitants is increasing again and there is once again a shortage of housing in Karlskoga.

If Bofors had not developed into an international defence industry, as part of the current-day Saab, Karlskoga would probably still have been a small parish village with rolling farmlands and forests. The fortunes of the company and the city are therefore closely intertwined.