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Shortstown Heritage

Shortstown 1924-1930

For Shortstown the years from 1924 - 1930 were particularly eventful. The decision of the government to begin building airships once again brought very gifted individuals to the area and if we look at the Electoral Registers we can see that by Spring 1925 all the houses on the estate were occupied. The range of skills and occupations of the people living in our streets is breathtaking - we see senior Admin Staff, Site Personnel, seasoned Airship Crewman - Engineers, Coxswains, Riggers, and members of the Airship Design team all living alongside each other.
 
Following on from the R38 crash in 1921 and subsequent suspension of the Airship programme the Airship R33 which had been based at both Howden & Pulham was flown to Cardington to be mothballed in shed 1. At this time men were still employed on the camp on the Gas plants and also a skeleton staff was required to maintain the site. In his book Airships Cardington Geoffrey Chamberlain records that in April 1925 the R33 emerged from the shed following an extensive refit which implies work had been done on the ship and it is more than likely that people were brought to Shortstown to begin this work in the preceding year. The ship was then flown on to Pulham.

R33 AwardsSM

This article from The Flight Magazine in May 1925 lists the awards given to the crew members on board the Airship R33 which during heavy gales and only a skeleton crew on board was blown from its mast in Pulham. Badly damaged the ship drifted out to sea towards Holland and due entirely to the skills of the crew it was successfully steered back to Pulham to a hero's welcome. Eleven of the crew were or were to become residents of Shortstown including George Hunt and it is something our village should be proud of.

As mentioned above the Airship programme attracted many brilliant young minds - individuals who were breaking new ground with their research and development. The Design team had some especially talented people one being a young man called Harold Roxbee Cox pictured left. Harold had studied Aircraft design at the Austin Motor Company in Longbridge and after attending Airship design lectures given by Colonel Richmond in London who was heading up the team at Cardington he joined in 1924 at just 22 years of age. Fortunately for us he often wrote home to his mother describing his work experiences and sometimes included sketches which have survived today. In one undated letter he refers to Shortstown and his hope of finding accommodation on the 'Works Estate.' He obviously succeeded as his name is found on the Electoral registers as residing in Greycote in 1925/6.

Lord Kings Norton1

(Image shown with the consent of Cranfield University)

Apart from crew and design staff, hundreds of other workers were part of the whole airship programme and one imagines employment at the 'Aerodrome' was quite sought after. Around these years there was a general euphoria in the press around the project and during 1928-30 there were many VIP visits made to the site to see the progress made including the then Prince of Wales and various MP's. In the local press there were several reports of traffic jams around the area created by sight seers clamouring to see the great ships. There is a lovely piece of Pathe Newsreel briefly showing traffic on the road on The Highway in 1929 when visitors thronged to see the ship moored. Certainly a glimpse of an airship was a major attraction for the thousands of people who would drive to Bedford to see them.
 
But just as the airships were evolving over these years so was the village as a real community. Although some individuals appear to come and go the village registers show that a core number of people remained. They lived in stylish up to date modern houses with electricity and a workplace close by. There was an astonishing array of clubs, teams, and societies available to join and at the heart of these was of course the Royal Airship Works Sports and Social Club - the range of the sporting facilities in these years is very impressive including golf and tennis. The club also operated a small library and a hairdresser also attended each week. (See the separate section on the RAW club). The clubs records reflect a very active community for these years and business was certainly brisk as membership grew. When one considers that there was unemployment and unrest in other areas of the country these people would have felt relatively secure in their lives.
 
For children at this time life must have been very exciting. All RAW Social club members' children could attend the annual Xmas party, there was also an annual sports day and trip. Children were taken round the sheds by their fathers to look at the great airships and there are reports of the school in Cotton End granting half day holidays whenever an airship was due to be walked out of the sheds as the teachers knew half of the children wouldn't turn up for school anyway!

Roxbee team 1925

This sketch was included in a letter sent to his mother in Jan 1925 and refers to a heated discussion between himself, Colonel Richmond, John Baker (see more of him in 'People Passing Through' section) and T S D Collins (who lived in The Crescent) - all part of the Design Team. Harold was bitterly disappointed not to be included on the R101 flight to India but went on to have an illustrious career in scientific research and received a knighthood in 1953 and became Lord Kings Norton in 1965. (All the archived records for Lord Kings Norton are held at Cranfield University and these particular images are produced here with their consent)

Shortstown 1930

One can't help but wonder what residents were thinking as they began the year in 1930. They will have seen the arrival of the R100 and crew and would be aware of the growing national interest in the R101. There are numerous reports in the local press of traffic jams around Bedford all the way up to the site where day trippers queued to view the airships and we read of a constant stream of VIP visitors arriving to view and inspect the ships. In April of that year they no doubt would have been greatly excited to welcome the Graf Zeppelin to Cardington and then would have witnessed the triumphant return of the R100 crew who had flown to Montreal and back and who were now based in the village. Against this background was the underlying pressure for the R101 to succeed.
 
On another level life was carrying on as normal for the families some of whom would have been in the village for up to 13 years by this time and would have viewed Shortstown as their home. Statistics derived from the electoral registers show that there were over 70 families in Shortstown who had lived in the village for at least 5 years by 1930 and these people would certainly have known each other very well. The RAW Club continued its usual events and we know that the now traditional annual children's sports day went ahead that year in July.
 

 
As is well documented amid much fanfare the R101 left for India on the eve of Oct 4th and the next few hours were to change the whole course of the resident's lives.

R101 news reporttSM
Village descriptionSM

The Daily Express report above include the words "The blinds of almost every cottage are drawn today. Into almost every home the tragedy has crept in in some form or another. In some it is the loss of a father, in others it is a brother or some close relative or deeply loved friend."

Of the 54 men on board 48 perished, 16 lived in Shortstown and most left behind families that lived here. The six survivors also lived in Shortstown. When one considers that there were just over 150 houses in the village one can begin to understand the effect that the crash had on the community. Below are the names of those residents who lost their lives (out of respect for these families and the current occupiers addresses will not be shown).
 
George William Hunt - Chief Coxswain
William Rose Gent - First Engineer
George William Short - Charge hand Engineer
Sidney Earnest Scott - Charge hand Engineer
Thomas Arthur Aukland Key - Charge hand Engineer
Henry Albert Savidge - Chief Steward
Flight Sergeant Walter Potter - Assistant Coxswain
Leonard Frederick Oughton - Assistant Coxswain
Christopher Hugh Mason - Assistant Coxswain
Hector Eric Ford - Rigger
Martin George Rampton - Rigger
Cecil Edgar Taylor - Rigger
Richard Blake - Engineer
Alfred Charles Hastings - Engineer
Maurice Frank Littlekit - Engineer
Lieutenant Commander N G Atherstone AFC - first Officer
 
A further two men who died had lived in Shortstown in years prior to 1930 but were not residents at the time of the crash:

Squadron Leader Earnest L Johnston OBE, AFC - Navigator
Squadron Leader Frederick Michael Rope - Assistant to Assistant Director
 
The six survivors are named below:
Arthur Bell - Engineer*
Joe Binks - Engineer*
Alfred Cook - Engineer*
A Disley - Electrician
Henry Leech - Foreman Engineer
Victor Savory - Engineer
 
*These three people chose to remain in Shortstown for many years after the tragedy and Bells Court and Binks Close are named after the first two listed.

If you have any stories to tell or you know someone who worked on the airships at this time please get in touch and share your memories. Equally if you have any photographs or documents about Shortstown that can be displayed on this site please step forward! E-mail jyh@shortstownheritage.co.uk

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