Despite Barrow in Furness being more associated with Ships and Submarines nowadays, at the turn of the last century its engineering skill could have taken an entirely different path as it became one of the major centres for aviation, and in particular the airship.


On this page we explore what might have been....

The main types of airship are non-rigid, semi-rigid and rigid:

  •  Non-rigid airships are often called 'blimps' and rely on internal pressure to maintain their shape.
  •  Semi-rigid airships maintain the envelope shape by internal pressure, but have some form of supporting structure, such as a fixed keel, attached to it. 
  •  Rigid airships have an outer structural framework that maintains the shape and carries all structural loads, while the lifting gas is contained in one or more internal gasbags or cells.

Balloons, Airships or Aeroplanes
In the early years of the 20th Century, the most recognised location for balloons and airships was the Army Balloon Factory at Farnborough Common (latterly known as the Royal Aircraft Establishment). Established in 1904, after moving out of nearby Aldershot to house the Army School of Balloon Flying, the Balloon Factory created various designs of man-lifting and aerial platforms to support the military forces. After many crashes and failed designs, in 1907 they produced the first successful British Airship, the  Nulli Secundus.
1907 - Nulli Secundus
Nulli Secundus 1907
However, with Samuel Cody making his first controlled flight in an 'heavier than air' machine, further development ceased with more attention being placed on fixed wing aeroplanes. 

In modern times, Barrow in Furness is now more synonymous with shipbuilding and submarines. The rich history and innovations of these yards have made them famous around the world.

However, at the turn of the 20th century if political and industrial decisions had taken a different turn, we might have seen the Cumbrian coastal town better known for a completely different reason – aviation and aircraft manufacturing.

Why Barrow?
Although definitive records can be a little sketchy, an aircraft industry of sorts can be said to have been introduced to Barrow as a result of two events:
  •  1908 -  Captain R.H.S. Bacon R.N., Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes, submitting proposals to establish a Royal Naval Air Service, with airships being built at Barrow by Vickers Limited who were already renowned for their proven innovative capabilities.
  •  1909 - The Committee of Imperial Defence recommendation to HM Government that £35,000 should be allocated the 1909-10 Naval Estimates for building an airship of the rigid type.
Both of these events were prompted by the successful designs of Lieutenant General Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin and the building the Zeppelin LZ 1, the first airship in 1900. The strategic advantages of airships were quickly recognised by the British Government who contracted Colonel John Capper, then Superintendent of the Army Balloon Factory, with the building of a non-rigid airship in 1905.  Assisted by Samuel Cody, the first man to fly in the United Kingdom, Nulli Secundus flew successfully at Farnborough in September 1907 and is recorded as the first British Army Dirigible No 1.
The Admiralty meanwhile, had been looking at Zeppelin’s achievements with an envious eye and had noted the flight of the first all-British craft. In 1908, the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher, who was not averse to innovation as part of the Committee of Imperial Defence, set up a sub-committee to examine 'Aerial Navigation'.
Captain Reginald H.S. Bacon - R.N.
Captain Reginald H.S. Bacon - R.N.
One of his fellow Committee members was Captain R.H.S. Bacon R.N, Director of Ordnance and Torpedoes and it was he who proposed to the group that Vickers Sons and Maxim should design and construct a large rigid airship, along the lines of the successful German Zeppelins.
Vickers tender was accepted on 7th May 1909, with £35,000 being included within the Naval budgets for 1909/10 for a 66ft airship to be designed and built at Barrow. It should be noted however, that nobody at the time within the Vickers company had any qualifications in airships nor any experience in aircraft design and manufacture.
However, it was also reported in the budget notes that the one thing in favour of Vickers was that they were a firm that was not afraid of innovation. The airship was to be named His Majesty's Airship 1 (HMA-1) Mayfly.

First Naval Air Service
The project hit several immediate hurdles as Captain Bacon (who was to have been appointed as Superintendent of Construction) resigned having been involved in 'some trouble' at the Admiralty which also saw him leave the navy entirely.
The post was then offered instead to Captain (later Rear-Admiral Sir) F. Murray Sueter who accepted on the understanding that he would have no hand in the design aspect of the project. Sueter became well known in Barrow as he later found himself appointed Commander of a contingent of sailors and Royal Marines who were thought to be the first ever members of the Naval Air Service. The force had been formed to help handle the new airship alongside the Vickers workforce, albeit the latter being more experienced in vessels that floated on water rather than in the air. There was much to learn, especially about aerodynamics, lifting capabilities and general behaviour characteristics. The team were eventually attached as part of the crew of H.M.S. Hermione, who’s Admiralty Orders were shown as being directed towards Barrow ‘in connection with the trials of Naval Airship No. 1’.
Vickers Sons and Maxim, having accepted the design contract, engaged C.G. Roberton (their current Marine Manager) to head the design of the main girder work and to submit estimated weights for approval before construction began. To be honest, the Admiralty themselves had no idea of their requirements or specification whilst despite their extensive engineering expertise, Vickers were little help and freely admitted that they knew very little about airships either.
Nevertheless, when Roberton finally submitted his designs, the Admiralty took immediate action and decided on what they wanted – A big Airship!
The dimensions were extraordinary at 512 feet in length, 48 feet in diameter and with a gas capacity of 640,000 cubic feet. She was to have a speed rating of 40 knots sustained over 24 hours and able to ascend to 1,500 feet. She was fitted with very powerful wireless radio so that 'if she were to come down at sea a rescue mission could be launched quickly' so she might not be a total loss. Her streamlined gondolas were to be built of solid Honduras mahogany and as a final thought, the Admiralty added that they wanted her to be able to operate in the Arctic!
During 1909, construction began on the Barrow Constructional Shed, a large airship hangar, workshops and a set of Drawing and Administration offices alongside the Cavendish Dock.  The chosen site was the strip of land that divided Cavendish Dock and Ramsden Dock, a location that was later occupied by another Vickers establishment, known as the Admiralty Development and Experimental Base (ADEB).

A Massive Shed for a Massive Project
Airship Hangar at Cavendish Dock
Airship Hangar at Cavendish Dock
The original Airship Shed at Barrow was a massive structure, half-elliptical in shape and about 60 feet in height. It was over 600 feet in length and the intention was that behind its great sliding doors the new Naval Airship would be constructed, before being launched directly into the Cavendish Dock.
This first airship was however, not designed to be an exact copy of the Zeppelins although her shape had been influenced by the American engineer Professor Albert Zahm, whose hull layout was 12-sided with the bow and stern of different shape and proportion. This non-symmetrical shape made life very difficult for Vickers and although Chief Designer C.G Roberton was an excellent and practical engineer, he did not have the mathematical training to carry out the mass of theoretical work involved in entering this new field of aviation.
HMA1 'Mayfly' under construction at Cavendish Dock
HMA1 'Mayfly' under construction at Cavendish Dock
Additionally, and despite the company being experienced practitioners in heavy engineering, the Vickers staff were not much help either as they were unfamiliar with lighter than air machines and it certainly went against their way of working in which weight was rarely a leading consideration.
With the Admiralty’s requirements patently unrealistic, it triggered experiments that were equally unrealistic and bordered on the hopeful rather than on sound principles. For example it is recorded that a considerable amount of time and thought was given to the best means of clearing snow from the top of the airship, presumably having in mind the requirement to operate in the Arctic. After numerous failed experiments involving ratings climbing about the envelope and using experimental de-icing chemicals and high-tech steam hoses, it was eventually concluded that the best way to clear snow would be to brush it off!
It was decided early on that the framework would be created of Duralumin, a new aluminium alloy patented by a German in 1905, and for which Vickers had bought the patent rights in 1910. Duralumin was not easy to work with and the Naval Airship No. 1 (by now christened the 'Mayfly') progressed very slowly as sections failed to stand up to strength testing and quality inspections.  It must also be said that as head of the project, Captain Sueter was quickly becoming fearful for his job as he continued to get letters from the Controller at the Admiralty reminding him covertly that the ‘high authorities did not believe in airships’.
The design was modified and re-modified as the Admiralty continually changed their requirements with more and more weight being added through the constant addition of more equipment and furnishings.  Things became fraught with Roberton becoming so anxious that he decided to lighten the airship by removing some of the superstructure, including the main keel member!
After implementing this major design modification, one of Roberton’s assistants (Mr. H.B. Pratt and a mathematician equal to the task) calculated that in this condition the airship would break up.  His calculations were rejected.

Disaster Strikes
After two years in her hangar, Mayfly finally emerged in 1911, and was moored in the Cavendish Dock, the largest airship anyone had ever seen. Despite flight test plans being laid, she was never released for a maiden tether free flight, beaten by 40-knot winds. The enormous airship survived the battering but as the weather calmed it was discovered that her lifting power, something that had required great experience to calculate, was insufficient even under minimal load. The airship was returned to her hangar and further modified.
In mid-September 1911, another excursion from the hangar was undertaken using all the available manpower for guidance, with locomotives providing movement. All seemed fine until a sudden gust of wind caught her, rendering the huge machine uncontrollable. Within just a few seconds she broke her back and part of the main structure crumpled into the dock. With the airship all but destroyed and the prospect of thousands of pounds to repair, the whole project was abandoned.
HMA1 'Mayfly' wreckage in the Cavendish Dock
HMA1 'Mayfly' wreckage in the Cavendish Dock
A Court of Inquiry, presided over by Admiral Sturdee, looked at the wreckage and decided that the whole business was 'the work of a lunatic'. This was not an unprejudiced judgement because the whole affair was indeed a disaster for all parties concerned and bears testament to when vanity and ambition override engineering excellence and knowledge.
Vickers had spent over £50,000 on building their new aircraft hangars so its management quickly highlighted that they would need further orders to retain the capacity and labour force. It was clear that the company had their own ideas in the area of airships and that they had always held doubts about the integrity of the Mayfly.  Their proposals were based upon building non-rigid airships, less then half the length of the Mayfly. They also demanded that if large machines were to be built, they would need to be powered by three engines, each of at least 180 horsepower.
However, the Admiralty would have none of it and it side-stepped the project failure by entirely refusing to accept the validity of airships. As the debate raged, Vickers lost their Chief Engineer H.B. Pratt who joined J Samuel White, a shipbuilding company on the Isle of Wight and following his departure airship building at Barrow ceased.
Members of the embryonic Royal Naval Air Service at Barrow had modified an early Avro 504 to accept floats and which they used to fly on and off their isolated location on Cavendish Dock. This was probably the only recorded use of fixed wing aircraft in Barrow during the early era of airship construction. 
By now aircraft companies and personalities such as Sopwith, A.V. Roe, and Geoffrey de Havilland were emerging with their 'heavier than air' machines. Vickers themselves had very early experiences in aeroplanes with Hiram Maxim's steam-powered aircraft. It must be emphasised at this point however that rather than becoming the first man to fly (in a powered machine), the machine was a disappointing failure.
With senior management turning their thoughts to making aircraft and selling them to the Admiralty they secured an exclusive licence to manufacture the French Robert Esnault Pelterie (REP) monoplane. Having recognised the potential importance of air transport, they began formal aircraft production at their artillery factory (formerly owned by Nordenfelt) at Erith, Kent and in 1911, created a small workshop and flying school at Brooklands.

Start - Stop - Start

By 1913, and following the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) to control 'lighter than air machines', the Admiralty returned to thinking about the use of airships for marine patrols. It contacted Barrow once again, asking Vickers to submit formal proposals for an experimental rigid airship, along with the supply of 3 non-rigid airships. 
By this time Vickers had already bought out the interests of Maxim and Nordenfelt and was known simply as Vickers Limited. With echoes of its earlier failure still haunting Barrow, it started from scratch with Managing Director Sir Trevor Dawson determined to convince H.B. Pratt to return as Chief of the Airship Department. Pratt was cautious however, insisting that he be based in London as he believed there was a huge animosity still existing in Barrow towards all things aeronautical.
Airships Barnes Wallis
Barnes Wallis
Additionally, during his time at J Samuel White he had befriended a young engineering draughtsman who he enlisted as his assistant, a certain Barnes Wallis.
A love of long distance and marathon running had bought the two together and they shared a common interest in mathematics. Wallis thought Pratt’s proposals around airships were ‘interesting’ within weeks the plans for a rigid airship of 800,000 cubic feet capacity had begun. Their design was quickly approved and in March 1914 aviation work began once more at Cavendish Dock, this time on Her Majesty's Airship HMA 9.
Things started at a rapid pace and just the last few problems were being resolved, work was rudely interrupted by the outbreak of World War 1. The Admiralty immediately requisitioned the huge shed and dock for use as a Royal Naval Air Service Station whilst both Pratt and Wallis were enlisted into the Artist’s Rifles Territorial Regiment and went off to war. 
After the German Zeppelins had proven their efficiency as weapons of war with their devastating raids over the unprotected North Sea ports, the Admiralty decided for a third time that they too needed airships and they turned once more to Vickers and Barrow in Furness.
Several key dockyard personnel, especially involved in shipbuilding activities at Barrow, raised concerns at the prospect of seeing the company return to building airships, highlighting that the previous intrusion had wasted considerable resources and capital which would be better spent on warships. This was widely ignored by the senior management at Vickers as they emphasised to the entire workforce that the 'Admiralty was after all, their principal customer and their needs met whatever they may be!'. 
About this time a submarine officer named Charles Craven was appointed as Special Director of the Naval Construction Works and it was he who became chief peacemaker between the airship and shipbuilders at the Barrow Yards. This proved to be extremely wise as no sooner had work resumed on HMA.9 (later renamed R.9) in July 1915, Vickers were given huge orders for a whole range of rigid and non-rigid airships. Pratt and Wallis, who were still serving within the armed forces, were given special commissions within the Royal Naval Air Service, returning to Barrow in uniform, to finish construction of R9. 
R9 Under Construction
The R.9 conducted her maiden flight on 27th November 1916, before eventually leaving Barrow during early April 1917. She was used for aircrew training and was soon followed by other craft.
With a renewed faith in airships, the hangar at Cavendish Dock was given a ‘sister’ airship building on Walney Island. The structure was bigger and stood for many years, building HMA.23, HMA 26 and the development HMA23X Class airships designated R.27 and R.29. The Walney Building gave internal capacity of 450 feet in length with a width of almost 150 feet and a height of 98 feet. Handling rails were embedded into the 6-inch concrete floor which extended externally for a further 450 feet into a nearby field. Another innovation was the installation of 8 extinguisher jets, linked to a special reservoir to deal with any potential fire. A 'Gasbag Factory' was built alongside offering valuable work to over 100 employees.
A further airship facility at Flookburgh was also planned by Vickers and although construction had started in July 1917, steel shortages halted work when the government diverted the raw materials to shipbuilding. Vickers had invested nearly £800,000 into the site which was eventually declared as unsuitable due to 'damp ground'. The site remained incomplete despite the construction of the employee housing which still remains today.
Barnes Wallis meanwhile had streamlined the design of the R.80 which launched on 19th July 1920 at Walney Island. It featured 3 x 2 pounder guns, rifled guns on the top surfaces and the provision for bomb racks if required. HB Pratt had proposed a 'Commercial Airship' variant during the R.80 construction programme
Airship R.80
Airship R.80
Today, the original airship hangar at Barrow has long gone, having been demolished between the wars although during World War 2 the location was utilised as H.M.S. Clio, Headquarters of Rear-Admiral Douglas Balfour Le Mottee, the Senior Naval Officer at Barrow during the conflict.
During 1916, and due to the proximity to the shipyard, production of Her Majesty's Airships was transferred to Howden, in the East Riding of Yorkshire and the remaining giant hangar at Walney was left empty. At one time there were proposals for it become a film studio although this never materialised. It was finally demolished for scrap during the late 1920s and the West Shore Housing Estate grew up around its original location. It is said that the cost of removing the foundations was too great and that the developers simply covered them in turf. An RAF Station was also created in 1941, from where it operated a number of fixed wing aircraft.

R100 and R101 - The beginning of the end for military airships

When the Air Ministry eventually formulated the Imperial Airship scheme in 1924, it called for two airships capable of crossing the Atlantic. In 1925, orders were placed competitively with Vickers Limited and the Ministry's own Royal Airship Company based at Cardington. 

The division of the order was a deliberate act to obtain the best design from both companies. Although built to the same specification and hence broadly similar with a length of over 700ft and a capacity of 5,000,000 cubic feet, Wallis’s R.100 and the Government R.101 were very different in the detail of their construction.

Airship R100 interior construction
R100 interior construction
The R.100 was to be built from Duralumin (a light aluminium alloy) whilst most of R.101 structure was stainless steel. Another key design variation was that the R.101 gasbags were held in place by a novel 'parachute-type' harness, whilst Barnes Wallis had developed an ingenious geodetic wire-mesh structure for R.100, giving it a greater gasbag volume.
Vickers decided to form a separate company (the Airship Guarantee Company) at Howden where they began work on R.100 (registered as a commercial aircraft G-FAAV). Design work really started in 1927, headed by Barnes Wallis who was notably assisted by a young Nevil Shute-Norway, who went on to form the Airspeed Aircraft Company before attaining worldwide acclaim as an author.
She made her maiden flight on 16th December 1929, passing over the City of York before heading south to her new operating base at the Royal Airship Company at Cardington, near Bedford. In 1930, she successfully completed the transatlantic crossing to tour Canada, where she was viewed by over 100,000 excited spectators.
Work on R.101 had been started in 1926 by the Royal Airship Company and she was completed in October 1929. When R.101 (again registered as a commercial aircraft G-FAAW) was ready, most of the crew of R.100 transferred across to the latest airship. Tragically and after almost a year of domestic flight trials, the giant airship suffered a catastrophic dive before disintegrating in flames near Beauvais, France on 5th October 1930. 48 of the 54 people on board were killed.
This tragedy sounded the death knell for any development of commercial and military airship building and with little faith in the concept, the R.100 was immediately taken out of service and sold for scrap in 1931.

Vickers did not pursue the building of heavier than air machines at either Barrow or Howden, the latter of which closed in 1933.
Barrow had no more aviation work until the Second World War when the shipyard's Joiners’ Shop began making the airframes for Wellington Bombers that were subsequently assembled at Chester. 
In a further cross-over with airships, these frames featured Barnes Wallis’ famous 'geodetic structures' as first used in the R.101. Barrow also manufactured hydraulic undercarriages for the Wellington as well as three major 90-ton fabrications for the tyre testing on Concorde.
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