Airship Building at Barrow

From an article by Mr T Clark, Information Officer to Messrs Vickers-Armstrongs, in the Lakeland IA Newsletters 6 & 7, 1970

Early Aircraft Building in the Lake District
An aircraft industry of sorts can be said to have been introduced to the Lake District as a result of two events:
1. A Captain R.H.S. Bacon, RN, Director of Royal Ordnance, submitted in 1908 proposals for establishing a Royal Naval Air Service, and
2. In 1909 the Committee of Imperial Defence recommended to the Cabinet that £35,000 should be included in the 1910 Naval Estimates for building an airship of the rigid type.

These events, in their turn, hand been prompted by the success of Lt-General Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in building the LZ1, the first airship, in 1900, and the building in 1905 by a Colonel Capper, then Superintendent of the Army Balloon Factory, of a non-rigid airship, the Nulli Secundus, which flew successfully in October 1907.

The Admiralty had been looking at Zeppelin’s achievements, and had not failed to note the flight of the British aircraft. Admiral Sir John Fisher, then First Sea Lord, was not averse to innovation, but Bacon’s idea of a Naval Air Service was linked to some other proposals – that the War Office should be asked to make the advice of the Superintendent of their Balloon Factory available to the Admiralty, and that Vickers Sons & Maxim should be consulted about the design of a rigid aircraft for naval use. Fisher, having backed submarines, which Vickers had begun to build in 1900, backed Bacon’s ideas.

Three weeks after Bacon submitted his ideas, Vickers had been asked to submit a price for the building of a rigid airship of the Zeppelin type, to the design of the Director of Naval Construction. This was interesting because no-one on that gentleman’s staff had any qualifications to design an airship, and no-one with Vickers at Barrow had the qualifications either! The only thing in Vickers’ favour was that they were a firm who were not afraid of innovation.

First Naval Air Service?
Captain Bacon, who was to have been Superintendent of Construction, resigned due to some trouble with the Admiralty, and a Captain Murray Sueter accepted the post on condition that he should have no hand in the design. Sueter’s name was later well-known in Barrow for he found himself the commander of a force of sailors and Royal Marines who were probably the first ever members of the Royal Air Service. They were there to help handle the new airship and learn all about it, and they formed part of the crew of HMS Hermione, sent to Barrow in connection with the trials of Naval Airship No.1.

There should have been an auspicious career for this craft. Vickers Sons & Maxim, having accepted the design contract, got their Marine Manager – a Mr C.G.Roberton – to design the main girder work and submit some estimated weights. Only when the designs were in did the Admiralty decide what they wanted. They asked for a big airship – 512 ft in length and 48 ft in diameter with a gas capacity of 640,000 cu ft. She was to have a speed of 40 knots over 24 hours, was to be able to ascend to 1500 ft, and was to have powerful – therefore heavy – wireless apparatus so that if she were to come down in the sea she might not be a total loss. (This was why the Admiralty wanted airships rather than aircraft at that time). The new airship was to be as big and solid as possible. Her streamlined gondolas were to be built of Honduras mahogany, and – as an afterthought – the Admiralty said they wanted her to be able to operate in the Arctic!

Vickers began by building an aircraft hangar and workshops with associated drawing and administrative offices at Cavendish Dock, Barrow, some time about 1909. The site was that strip of land that divided the Cavendish and Ramsden Docks.

Massive shed
The original airship shed was a massive structure, half elliptical in shape and 60ft high. Its length was about 600ft, and the intention was that behind its great sliding doors the new Naval Airship No.1 should take form and then be launched into Cavendish Dock. The new craft was not to be an exact copy of the Zeppelins, but had her design influenced by the American Professor Albert Zahm. His airship hull design was 12-sided with the bow and stern of different shape and proportion from the Zeppelin. All this made life for Vickers’ Mr Roberton no easier. He was an excellent and most practical engineer, but he had not the mathematical training to carry out the mass theoretical work involved in entering this new field.

The Admiralty’s requirements were patently unrealistic, and they triggered off further experiments equally unrealistic. It is recorded that considerable thought was given to the best means of clearing snow from the top of the ship. After experiments that involved ratings scrambling about inside using steam hoses, they decided the best way was to use bushes.

It was decided that the framework should be of Duralumin, an aluminium alloy patented by a German in 1905. Vickers bought the patent rights in 1910.They found the metal not easy to work with, and the Mayfly (as she became known) progressed very slowly. The designers modified and re-modified; the Admiralty continually changed their requirements, and more and more weight was added until Roberton became really anxious, so anxious in fact that he decided to lighten the ship by removing some of the structure, including the main keel member! One of his assistants, a Mr H.B.Pratt – a mathematician equal to the task – calculated that in this condition the ship would break up. His calculations were not accepted.

After two years in her hangar Mayfly at last emerged in 1911. For four days she was moored at her buoy in Cavendish Dock, Barrow, the largest airship anyone had then seen. But she never flew. Beaten by a 40-knot wind, she survived the battering but it was found that her lifting power – something that requires great experience to calculate – was not enough. The ship was put back in her hangar and modified, and – in September 1911 – there began the difficult operation of drawing this ‘cork’ from the ‘bottle’. With men and locomotives the airship was being launched again when a gust of wind caught her. She broke her back, and part of her crumpled in a sorry wreck. She was never re-built. A later Court of Inquiry, presided over by Admiral Sturdee, looked at the wreckage and the decided that the whole business was “the work of a lunatic”. It was not an unprejudiced judgement, but the whole affair was a disaster for the Navy, for the nation, and for Vickers.

A final attempt
Later, airships came into being again. In 1913 the Admiralty came back to thinking about the use of these craft, and asked Barrow to make proposals for an experimental rigid craft and, at the same time, for three non-rigid airships. Again they were starting from scratch, but Sir Trevor Dawson suddenly recalled that H.B.Pratt had had experience. Pratt was then working at a boatyard on the Isle of Wight. He came back to Barrow as Chief of the Airship Department, but then went to London to avoid friction. He had been working with another young engineer, Barnes Wallis, on the Isle of Wight. Long distance running had brought them together, but the two were interested in mathematics. Wallis thought Pratt’s proposals were interesting and – a few months later – was invited by Pratt to become his assistant in airship design. Much does Vickers and the world of aviation owe to this chance.

Design for a rigid airship of 800,000 cubic feet capacity was begun. Strength was wanted above all. The design was approved by the end of 1913, and work was begun at Cavendish Dock early in 1914. The problems were being solved when work was stopped. The Admiralty wanted the shed and dock as a Royal Naval Air Station. Pratt and Wallis enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles and went off to war. After the German Zeppelins had proved their efficiency the Admiralty decided for the third time that they wanted airships. The ship under construction was known as the R9. It was begun again, and Barrow given orders for a whole range of craft. Pratt and Wallis could not be got out of the Forces, so they were given commissions in the Royal Naval Air Service, and Wallis came to Barrow – in uniform – to finish construction of the R9. About this time a submarine officer named Charles Craven had come to Barrow too. It was he who kept the peace between the airship builders and the shipbuilders.

The R9 flew, leaving Barrow in April 1917. She was used for training, and was followed by other craft, though the hangar at Cavendish Dock had been given a ‘sister’ on Walney Island. This even bigger structure stood for many years, and when airship building was transferred to Brough, near Hull, and then to Cardington, near Bedford, the giant hangar was left empty. There were proposals that it be a film studio, but they never materialised. It was finally demolished as scrap in the late 1920s.

(Page created 22/06/11. Photo added 07/11/22)