Forgotten history of airships celebrated at Bedford Gallery

By Richard Moss | 18 October 2010
a photo of a huge airship inside a hangar
The R101 in its hangar at Cardington© Airships Heritage Trust
R100 and the R101: Airships at Cardington, Bedford Museum, Bedford, until December 19 2010

When the airship R101 crashed just a few miles into its first long distance overseas flight it effectively ended the commercial production of British rigid airships.

The disaster, which occurred on October 5 1930 in a field in France, killed 47 of the 55 crew on impact, with another man dying three days later from his injuries.  

For the people of Bedford it marked the gradual demise of what had been Britain's centre of airship production at the Royal Airship Works in nearby Cardington. After lengthy discussion in Parliament it was decided to dismantle R101's sister ship, the R100 in Shed No 2 at Cardington. The station almost closed before the need for barrage balloons revived its fortunes during World War Two.
A black and white photograph of two hangars with open doors revealing two great airships within them
The R100 and R101 in their hangars © Airships Heritage Trust
Today Cardington's massive airship hangars, which housed the great R100 and R101, are still visible as potent reminders of a memorable part of Bedford’s industrial and aviation history.  

This extraordinary heritage is commemorated in this exhibition, organised with the support of the Airship Heritage Trust, charting how a small village two miles from the town became the country's major airship centre.

Starting with the building of the huge airship sheds at Cardington and the village of Shortstown, the exhibition then explores the government's grand plans for long-distance airship travel across the British Empire – the R101 was on its way to India when it crashed.  

a photo of the R101 airship attached to a mooring tower
The R101 at its mooring at Cardington© Airships Heritage Trust
Film, photographs and objects bring to life the construction of the R100 and R101, together with the stories of the staff and crew and the stor of R101's final fateful flight in October 1930.

Personal belongings, unique documents and objects including a passenger bunk bed from the R100 will show what life was like onboard these giants of the sky, designed to be "floating hotels".

a photograph of a lounge bar area inside an airship
The R101 lounge © Airships Heritage Trust
The R101 boasted two decks with luxury cabins, a dining room accommodating 60 people, a smoking room and a spacious lounge which took up 5,500 square feet of the upper deck.   

As well as celebrating an iconic airstrip and its connections to the airship industry, the display also recounts a time when Britain's need to reach its Empire led to bold and futuristic airship engineering which was eventually foreclosed by one of the most dramatic disasters in the history of flight.

There will be an airship theme to Gallery's Friday Family Drop-in during October half-term Holiday on Friday October 29. Sessions run 11am-1pm and 2pm-4pm. Suitable for all ages.

A special evening lecture takes place on Thursday October 21 at 7pm. Bedford’s Own – the R101 Airship Disaster will be given by Giles Camplin and Peter Davidson.

Find out more about the history of airships at the Airship Heritage Trust Website
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