The Airship Heritage Trust Timeline



For those wishing to know more about the history of the Trust, here is the story of hard work, effort and determination of a band of enthusiasts, who continue with the project whilst every obstacle is thrown in their way. For more information then please e-mail the webmaster
In the beginning... 1936
When the Royal Airship Works closed in 1936, L A Speed, who had been engaged on the 1924 airship programme, had the foresight to salvage and store a collection of archives and artefacts. After the war these formed the basis of a small airship museum at Cardington, later to became well known under the voluntary management of the late Frank Kiernan. When he retired from the Civil Service in 1981 the collection was crated and moved into storage at RAE Bedford.
Formation of F.O.C.A.S ..1985
In 1985, the late Geoffrey Chamberlain, author of Airships-Cardington, became concerned about the future integrity of the collection and together with relatives of the 1921-34 airship programme, set up the "Friends of Cardington Airship Station" (FOCAS). After Geoffrey's untimely death in 1986, FOCAS was incorporated as a Company Limited by Guarantee and a Registered Charity Sir Peter Masefield, a legend in the aviation world and the author of "To Ride the Storm" thought by many to be the definitive work on the R101, became (and still is) President.
FOCAS was given access (rent free) to a small building inside the old RAW ( then used by the RAF Museum as an Reserve Collection & Restoration Centre) where the documentary and photographic archive was stored. The original collection had been recovered was held by the RAF Museum in store at Cardington and made available to FOCAS. 250,000 was donated by our Patron, Mrs Doreen Rope (wife of Sqn Ldr Michael Rope, a most talented engineer who died on the R101 to allow the construction of a Museum. In addition, the Rope Trust agreed to a grant of 10,000 a year to pay for the running costs of FOCAS. Since then the collection has grown considerably ~ with Skyship Gondolas~ a USN K ship gondola ( one of two remaining) a working hydrogen compressor and a large number of large and small models, diorama, artefacts and memorabilia.
The change to The Airship Heritage Trust ..1995
Since 1995 we have been known as "The Airship Heritage Trust" (AHT). We are closely linked with the Royal Air Force Museum, the British Balloon Museum and Library, the Airship Association and many other bodies connected with airships and aeronautics in the UK and abroad. Our quarterly journal "Dirigible" is distributed free to all members.
What are the objectives of the "Trust" ?

o To establish a National Airship and Balloon Museum at Cardington.

o To foster and promote the study of the history of airships and to present this to the public.

o To stimulate interest in Cardington as an airship base and to conserve its principle buildings

Whilst the second and third objectives are being met with varied success, the first - to establish a national Airship and Balloon Museum at Cardington, has proved more difficult.
Establishing a Museum - Trials and Tribulations - 1989
In 1989 it was seen that the AHT would be starting to build a museum within 6 months, on a site leased from Airship Industries (AI) between No.1 Shed and the A600. A disagreement over the design suggested by AI for the museum building which had a suspended diaphragm type roof, was solved by AI being forced in into liquidation by the failure of its main backer, despite all attempts to save the Company by Julian Bencher who bought the Shed and most of the airfield and leased it back at a peppercorn rental to AI.
The '92 Appeal
In the process FOCAS was required to give up the lease of site to the west of No.1 Shed, but was offered 6 acres of land on the eastern side of the airfield. We had just 24 hours to make up our minds but agreed to buy the new site at a cost of 18,000, this was subsequently refunded by Julian, as a gesture of support and an application was made to Beds Borough Council for outline planning permission to build a museum. To our astonishment and horror the application was rejected. Later we found out that it was hoped that the rejection would force us to buy the shed (now empty with the demise of AI). We could not afford this and so, in 1991, after 16 month's work and the expenditure of some 12,000 in professional fees (paid for by the Rope Trust), we appealed against the rejection and won our case. Unfortunately the Inspector barred access from the A600, which would mean using the road through Cardington Village We knew that this would be controversial.
However sketch plans were drawn up for a museum on the site and fund raising for 1M was launched - a picture of the brochure. After 16 months it had amassed a mere 4,000, 3,000 from the Clothworkers Foundation and l,000 from a Charity in Northampton (who gave 1,000).. Although the failure was put down to the recession and the mechanics of the appeal were given a clean bill of health by a consultant appointed (at our request) by the MGCA, we were very fed up.
Enlargement of the RAF Display and Shuttleworth - 1993
As a sop to our injured pride, the RAF Museum allowed us to expand into four rooms in the old RAW , two of which our Curator, Dennis Burchmore, turned into attractive display areas. At last we were able to accept visitors, albeit by appointment as we were behind the wire of the Royal Air Force unit still active at Cardington. Despite this hundreds came to look at our material and see the Sheds. Whilst we were licking our wounds over the failure of the fund raising, it was decided that to achieve publicity for the cause, an invitation to establish a small interim L T A display at the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden would be accepted. In due course, an extensive display of story boards models and diorama was created with the significant help of Peter Davidson a graphics expert from the Science Museum to whom we had been introduced by AHT Council Member, John Bagley recently retired as the Keeper of the Aeronautical Division of the Science Museum. Although largely self-help, the display cost some 10,000 to set up -again funded by the generosity of the Rope Trust and proved to be popular with visitors. A direct result of the display was a doubling of our membership which rose to some 300.
The 1995 Heritage Open Days
In 1994, English Heritage asked BRE to open No 2 Shed to the public as part of the national weekend in September to give access to listed buildings not usually open to the public. Then and again in 1995 AHT was invited to stage a display. Amongst the 9,000 plus very enthusiastic visitors who came through these large displays each year were sufficient members of the Bedfordshire County Council for us to convince them that a museum was needed.
The National Lottery Application - 1997/8
As a result of these contacts, the County Council decided to fund a formal Feasibility Study to determine the best site for the museum; some financial assistance also came from Bedford Borough Council, South Eastern Museums Service and from our own capital. BDO - a branch of Stoy Hayward was commissioned to undertake the study ~ at a cost of 25K, and it was completed early in 1996. The study confirmed the viability of the concept of establishing an L T A museum at Cardington and identified No.1 Shed as the prime location. A forecast of 130,000 visitors a year was made, based on the experience and research of the company undertaking the survey The Feasibility Study which was accepted by the County Council and AHT, recommended an application to the Heritage Lottery Board for a significant sum to allow the purchase of No. 1 Shed, its refurbishment and the establishment of a national Airship & Balloon Museum in one half, with the other area being used commercially (preferably by an airship company). The "WOW" factor was to be a full size walk-through replica section of the R101. On the advice of the County Museums Officer ~ a consultant was acquired and a Steering Committee~ with representation from all the relevant interests was formed. In due course a "Concept Document" was produced to accompany the formal application to the HLB in addition a professionally shot video, narrated by our Chairman, Anthony Smith, was produced to support the bid.
The total cost of producing the Feasibility Study and the HLB application was in the region of 55,000 some of which came from the County. Unfortunately, although the HLB expressed appreciation of the draft application, they had just lost their Wednesday income to the Government and so were grossly overextended. We were asked to re-present in phases to reduce the capital sums being sought at anyone time. We were also warned that there was considerable resistance amongst the HLB Trustees to giving money to new museums.
We become "Homeless" - 1999
Whilst we were still recovering from this setback, MOD decided to close No.217 MU (based at RAF Cardington) and sell the whole site; as a result, AHT was given an eviction order to be effective from January, 2000. We were agonising over the possible options to house the collection when our executive Secretary, Peter Garth, received a phone call from the Shuttlworth Trust (ST) inviting the AHT to co-locate with the Vintage Aircraft Collection at Old Warden. Initial discussions resulted in a three year lease of two offices at old Warden Park. and two large storage areas in agricultural buildings on one of the ST farms at a cost of some 15,000 per annum.
The AHT and the collection moved to Old Warden at the end of 1999 over some 10 days at a cost of some 11,000, two panel van loads, eight pantechnicion, three long low-loaders a large mobile crane and a fair amount of blood swat and tears by our Curator and Secretary. Meetings were then held to determine the size and location of the AHT display and it soon became obvious that there were problems. AHT had a limit of 300,000 to build a hangerand establish a display.
Discussion on a Museum 2000/1
The Shuttleworth Trust could only offer a site behind the existing aircraft hangers which limited the size of the building to 150x50ft. The most suitable site had been earmarked for an additional hanger for their own aircraft collection. Therewas no scope for expansion. Plans for the building were drawn up but difficulties appeared in the terms of the lease which the ST offered to us; particular there was a difference of opinion over the source, level or indeed the need of finance to meet the museum's running costs and they proposed severe limitations on access to the museum, even by AHT staff. When AHT suggested that we that we would be prepared to start construction in July 2000, the ST asked for a delay until October to avoid any possible interference with their summer flying programme. The was thought by the AHT builder to put the construction process under too much risk due to probably adverse weather conditions and so the proposed construction was deferred until spring 2001. During this time we mounted a large pictorial display on the R101, supported by models and video, for the Mid Beds Millennium Festival in August 2000 held in Old Warden Park, which was seen by many thousands. Many of the pictures from this event are contained in the R101 book on sale in our gift shop
Matters were rather at an impasse when the Advanced Technology Group, which had always expressed an interest in the museum being co-located with the airship production in No.1. Shed at Cardington, offered space in the shed which they hoped to buy. A possible location for the museum was agreed by our architect in the bays to the North of the Shed and ATG offered to contribute to the cost of construction. Unfortunalty the plans again had to be put on hold as ATG are still wrapped up in very lengthy discussions over the future of the Shed and also the construction facility in general.
The World Changed - Feet Air Arm Museum (FAAM), 80th Anniversary and Bedford Museum 2002 to 2010
We are still hoping that our discussions with ATG will continue and that we will be able to move back to Cardington in the near future as has always been our primary aims. However in 2006 we were offered a helping hand by the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton (FAAM) becoming interested in housing a major part of our collection. As the collection had been stored since the closure of the access and leaving the Shuttleworth Trust site, it had to be protected. The collection was moved to FAAM under expert supervision and is currently being stored, cleaned and catalogued to the FAAM's highest musuem standards. This work is being carried out by AHT members alongside FAAM curatorial staff. The FAAM are currently looking for a lottery application for enabling them to put the AHT materials which are in store, on display to the members of the public who visit the Fleet Air Arm Museum
In 2009 we were approached by the Bedford Museum, wanting to host a display of R101 and airship related materials. As this coincided with the 80th Anniversary year of the loss of the R101, it also ment that the Trust could promote and provide materials, and put a display for the anniversary. The display ran for 3 months from the 5th October to 30th December 2010. The Musuem provided us with 2 galleries of space for display of materials and artifacts, along with audio visual items. Talks and filmshows were given weekly during the event along with education events for young children. The R101 event drew the largest audiance for a temporary display at the museum in it's history. We are currenlty also working with the museum on the permanent display materials for the extension plans for the Bedford Museum.
The Shorts Building, Bedford Museum Display and Talks programme 2012 - 1918
Wilst the finishing touches are being made to the Bedford Museum and extension, the plans are being finalised for our permanant exhibition space and display iteams. The AHT will be contributing to the audio visual equipment and assisting the curatorial staff with the display of the unique materials. The AHT also have put display materials in the communal area of the ground floor of the Shorts Building at Shortstown, showing the development and building of the R101. The Chairman of the Trust, Paul Ross, also worked to have the Shorts Building registered as a National Transport Heritage site and added to their list of historically important transport heritage buildings. The red plaque was displayed on November 2012.
2020 and the pandemic, a new home and onwards

Our talks programme continues to be very popular with many organisations requesting talks and slide shows, with over 20 talks given to schools, societies and organisation in the last 5 years.

2019 saw the AHT undertake extensive clean up, repairs and rennovation to the R101 memorial tomb at Cardington Church cememtary.

2020 was planned to see a joint Conference working with the Airship Association, to provide materials and historical papers during the conference, along with a display to delegates of airship history. The display will also be open to the public during the event. We are also working closely with Bedford Creative Arts, and the Higgins Museum in Bedford to display materials and host events for the 90th Anniversary of the R100's crossing of the Atlantic commemorate the R101's accidental crash in France, 1930. However this was curtailed by the COVID 19 pandemic which impacted the world.
2021 Saw the opening of the Airship Dreams, Escaping Gravity art installation and community curatorial display at the Higgins Museum in Bedford. The AHT worked closely with the Lydia Saul, Keeper of Social History to help put on a display to the general public.
2022 Saw the opening of the new AHT office located in Nottinghamshire. The choice of location was due to cost, and also for accessability for local AHT volunteers to run the office. The purpose is to assemble all of the documents and archive materials which had been held voluntarily by members of the AHT. The office combined a research area, along with cataloguing of all the recently aquired materials given by members. Along with digitising these items to make then availble to the general public.