Short Brothers at Cardington

In the first years of the war Britain had seen sporadic German zeppelin air raids which had incurred loss of civilian life. In the UK small non rigid airships were already being used to patrol the coastline but these were limited in range and lift. Due to the impact of the German raids government policy shifted to building bigger rigid airships that could carry weapons and travel further distances. Contracts were already in place with other companies and in 1915 Short brothers were also engaged. The brothers went away to search for suitable sites finally choosing flat land next to Cardington village near Bedford to build their factory.

Although there were three Short brothers it was primarily Oswald and Eustace Short who were responsible for the construction of the first shed and factory site which included an office block for their design staff. This block became known as The Shorts Building and is still called this today. Shorts also built houses for their employees to form a new village called Shortstown still thriving today.

It is interesting to note that originally airships came under the umbrella of the Royal Navy so in the early years many of the crew stationed on site would have been in naval uniform. (Hence it is no surprise that some of the crew would be employed as “riggers and coxswains.”) Maps and headed paper for the Shorts era refer to the site as “Naval Air Works, Cardington " or “Cardington Naval Aircraft Works Bedford" as can be seen above.


Oswald Short
Stephen Payne. Chief Admiralty Airship Draughtsman.
Eustace Short.
Shorts Shed No 1 built in 1917.
Plans dated 1915 for the Shorts naval air works.
The Shorts building built in 1917 - offices for Shorts airship design and admin staff. In later years long after Shorts had left the area the building was known as Station HQ when the site became RAF Cardington. Now turned into offices and apartments it has reverted to its original name.

The first Shorts workers arrived in Bedford in 1916 led by Claude Lipscomb and overseen by Stephen Payne. In “Airships Cardington” Geoffrey Chamberlain has photographs of the design team and states that initially Claude and his staff had an office in Bedford. Sadly there is little else recorded of the Shorts era at Cardington mainly due to a news blackout of anything military and further compounded by Shorts leaving the area in 1920. There are also no electoral registers available for Shortstown until 1925 so it is difficult to monitor resident’s movements.

Shown above a copy of "The Gasbag" a Shorts work magazine for their staff. There are copies of the first six issues in the museum and archives at Bedford. It is assumed that the magazine stopped when the brothers left Bedford as no later copies have been found.

Above: Found in the National Archives this RAW memo is a request for a salary rise for Mr Hird a former Shorts employee at the site now employed by the RAW. The memo gives justification for a £25 per annum pay rise. It states that Mr Hird the Fabric Manager now has increased responsibilities having taken on repair work on the R34 airship and the L71 (this refers to a captured German airship). In the case of L71 this required testing of the fabric used before repairs could take place. His salary was £355 at Shorts.

Shorts R31 Airship
Shorts R32 Airship
Shorts/RAW R38 Airship
Taken from the RAW memo mentioned above here is another request for a salary rise for a former Shorts employee. This is for Gas Engineer Mr Brentnall. Interesting for us it would appear that the site now also supplies gas for Howden and the R80 airship all extra duties for Mr Brentnall. The request is for an additional £50 to make his salary up to £430.

By co-incidence a few years ago I was given a photo album which included a photo of a shop in Bedford called Brentnall & Cleland and a group photo of ladies at Shortstown in 1922 (shown right). I have to assume that Mr Brentnall the gas engineer was somehow connected to both photographs. If anyone can comment please make contact. Many thanks - Jane

Does anyone recognise any of these ladies at Shortstown in 1922?

This fantastic photograph* shows women workers in the Fabric Department in 1919. These ladies would have helped build the covers on the R31 & R32 airships. Some are wearing triangular badges - these were "On War Service" badges and were issued by the Minister of Munitions to females taking part in the war effort. They were issued after two months of service and may explain why not everyone is sporting one. (With reference to the narrative please note that the R101 was not built by Shorts - Jane,)

*Source: Bedford Central Library Courtesy of Stuart Antrobus. Thank you so much.

Found in the national archives in a file dated 1920 above is a list of Shorts staff to be kept on by the new RAW administration when the Shorts contract to build airships was cancelled in 1920. Note Mr Claude Lipscombe (chief designer) is named - he and a few colleagues continued their work on the R38 for the RAW.

A report from The Bedford Record describing the Inter-departmental cricket final of Shorts employees in 1918.

The newspaper article shown left is taken from The Bedford Record in 1918 and is one of the few documents we have which show some of the names of employees who worked for Shorts at the time.


This is quite a rare report given that a news blackout was prevalent at the time. From this article we learn that there was an internal cricket league for Shorts employees with no less than 13 teams taking part. This is an impressive number of sporty people from one company! The report is of the final between the Electric and Fabric Department and 'Shed Section D' - it's a great pity that it does not list the other team names which would have given an insight into the operations at the factory. Some surnames are familiar and do crop up in later Shortstown electoral registers from 1925 onwards such as J Holland, W King, C M Pugh but could be different individuals. Others may have originally come from Rochester where Shorts were based. As for “man of the match' Captain P Burke can anyone tell us who he was and what his connection to Cardington? Please make contact if you can help. Many thanks.














Footnote: In 1920 the works site was taken over from Shorts and nationalised and renamed The Royal Airship Works. Work continued on the R38 airship which was sold to the US. Sadly the ship crashed in the river Humber near Hull on 24 August 1921 with the loss of 44 lives. (See the R38 pages in this website for more information.)