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Shortstown Heritage

Shortstown 1917-1924

Shortstown is a relatively new village and only came into existence in 1917 - unlike other villages Shortstown was built for a purpose - to accommodate workers to build new airships which were being developed for the 1914-1918 war. In the first years of the war Britain was already using airships to guard the coastline and had seen sporadic German Zeppelin air raids which had incurred civilian loss of life. In 1915 in response to these attacks the government engaged the Short brothers to construct more ships. The brothers went away to search for suitable sites finally choosing flat land next to Cardington village.

Although there were three Short brothers it was primarily Oswald and Eustace Short who were responsible for building our village and constructing the first shed and factory site. Also shown of course is the Shorts Office Block built in 1917 which over the years has had several different titles depending on the purpose it was used for at the time but nevertheless is still referred to as the Shorts building by locals. With the construction of the new Bellway housing development we can now see the building from the same angle as this photograph driving up from Tinkers Hill.

Hugh Oswald LW

Oswald Short

Eustace Short

Eustace Short

Shorts Building 1917SM

The Shorts Admin Building in 1917

(Original image Beds & Luton Archive Services Beds Times & Citizen Collection BP Box 491. Photography courtesy of John Day)

Opposite is an early proposal dated Dec 1916 of a possible layout for the first homes to be built in Shortstown - these plans were obviously updated very quickly as work began on the houses along The Highway in 1917 which are not all shown here. The plan does not include any houses in the street we know as South Drive and up to at least 1950 no houses with odd numbers between 25-39 were ever built there, although houses 26-44 certainly existed in these years on one side of the road. (Only odd numbers 41 & 43 were actually built).
 
Although it is not too clear on this image there is a reference to 'bungalows erected' just below the compass (top right hand corner) - this tells us that the two wooden bungalows known as 1 & 2 The Highway (long since gone) were already in place as early as 1916. The houses were designed by a Mr J T Cackett who was a senior partner in a team of architects based in Newcastle who had designed many public buildings and monuments there. The arched style of the houses in The Crescent and East Square were very fashionable at the time and it is good to see once more a full view of The Crescent now that the hedges have been trimmed back.

ST Workmens Houses plan

A tenancy agreement for Shorts employees dated March 1920 tell us rents were inclusive of rates and water rates with electric lighting billed separately. Tenants were not allowed to keep any animals without permission from the estate clerk and washing could only be dried at the back of each property away from public view before 6pm and until 2pm on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays. The estate clerk was also responsible for arranging refuse to be collected 'periodically' .
 
Although it transpired that their involvement with the site was relatively fleeting the Shorts legacy lives on today with the original workers dwellings still standing very much unchanged in appearance since the days they were built. Shorts built the R31, R32 and R38 airships (see following page) and left Shortstown
when the government unexpectedly severed their contract in 1920. However they were already heavily involved in building aircraft and moved their airship team back to their base at Rochester. It is rather fitting that in later years several of the streets in our village were named after some of their most famous aircraft.

Very little is known of the early years of Shortstown. It must be remembered that the airship programme was for combat reasons and all war efforts were heavily censored. We at least know when the first houses were built as 1917 is displayed on all of the houses in The Highway and the date of 1917 in Roman numerals can be clearly seen at the top of the Shorts Admin Block.
 
This report from The Bedford Record April 1919 describes a concert and dance organised for the Shorts Athletic Club. It is one of the few records I have been able to find that lists names of some of the employees connected to Shorts and refers to 'a most successful season.' (Source Beds & Luton Archive Services)
 
In fact the early years of the village were very traumatic - the first residents would have arrived here with a true sense of purpose and patriotic duty as the First World War was then in its fourth year. Apart from the local Bedford workforce there would have been members from the Royal Navy which oversaw airships at that time and accommodation for these personnel was provided on site in the form of huts. The locals would have already been aware of the German Zeppelin raids as a Zeppelin bomb had landed a few miles away at Cow Bridge in Elstow in October 1917 although thankfully no one was hurt. When the end of the war came Airship construction was suspended.

In 1920 the works site was taken over from Shorts and nationalised and renamed The Royal Airship Works. Now in the hands of the Admiralty work continued on the R38 airship which was sold to the US - however the ship crashed in the river Humber near Hull in1921 with the loss of 44 lives whilst it's American crew were being trained and airship development was immediately stopped.

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