Shortstown- an airship village


Dated Dec 1916 shown right is an early proposal of the 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 houses were designed by a Mr J T Cackett who was a senior partner in a team of architects based in Newcastle responsible for many public buildings and monuments there.

If anyone looks closely at these original houses they will be pleasantly surprised at the high standard of workmanship and attention to detail shown in the design and brickwork. Overall the village was intended to be developed on a larger scale into a 'Garden Village' but as the airship programme floundered the original plans were forgotten. However over 100 years later we can still appreciate the little hidden features which fortunately later developers have incorporated in their designs. Developers Bellway have used the same style of arches above the windows for the new Air Cadet building paying homage to a traditional village feature.

As seen on the Shorts constructors’ page on this website Oswald and Eustace Short had begun work on their airship factory and shed in 1915. Their plans included a village for their workers and these houses were situated opposite their office block. The houses were built on former farm land and formed a new village called Shortstown.

The attractive arched brickwork above these windows was typical for the period.
The circular shape of these windows has been replicated in more recent buildings.
One of the side windows from a property in The Crescent.

Notice the pattern in the brickwork of the arches above the upper windows in this house in Central Avenue. This pattern can be seen in many homes in the original streets of Shortstown. Taken from the same property is a picture of a circular window at the side of the house - the houses are now over 100 years old but the features still look good. The curved design of the layout of the houses in The Crescent is very attractive as are the arches at the front of each house. The side windows of these houses also have arched casings which look very elegant. Many of these features have been incorporated in the houses built around 2002 onwards. Some houses in Shorts Avenue for example have circular windows whilst others have arched brickwork over their upper windows. It is recorded that the Short brothers insisted on the best quality materials and layouts to be adopted for their workers houses in spite of the shortage of materials due to the war.


These images shown with the kind permission of the homeowners first appeared on the Shortstown Heritage website now closed.

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. It is rather fitting that in later years several of the streets in the village were named after some of their most famous aircraft and in 2015 three streets on the new development built on the old site were named after the three brothers.

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’.

Very little is known of the early years of Shortstown as anything associated with the war effort was heavily censored. (Indeed on some maps dated as late as 1960 Shortstown and the two sheds do not feature at all.) 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.

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 unfinished R38 airship which was sold to the US - however the ship crashed in the river Humber near Hull in 1921 with the loss of 44 lives and airship development was immediately stopped. Although airship construction had been suspended in 1921 men were still employed on the site in the Gas Plant and research still continued on balloons and kite balloons. There was also a skeleton staff 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 prior to this date and it is more than likely that people were brought to Shortstown to begin this work in the preceding year.

For Shortstown the years from 1924 - 1930 were particularly eventful. The decision of the government to begin building airships 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 there is very impressive - 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

Below is a list of names and occupations where known of some of the residents in Shortstown between (but not inclusive in some cases) 1925 and 1930.

Street


Central Avenue


Central Avenue


Central Avenue


Central Avenue


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


The Crescent


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


East Square


Eastcote


Eastcote


Eastcote


Eastcote


Eastcote


Eastcote


Eastcote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


Greycote


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North Drive


North End


North End


North End


North End


North End


North End


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


South Drive


The Highway


The Highway


The Highway


The Highway


The Highway


The Highway

Resident

Lelliott Donald

Disley Arthur

Key Thomas Auckland

Savory Victor

Wood William

Burgess Robert & Nellie

Johnson E Livingstone

Browdie Frederick

Collins T S Collins

Grabowsky Atherstone


Rope Frederick Michael

Charlton Walter Watson

Raisbeck George Ritson

Rogers Woodis Paschal

Little Zimri

Greenstreet Thomas E

Kershaw David

Scott George Rider

Wiseman A F

Bell Arthur Victor

Binks Joseph

Finch Charles William

Ritchie John

Stewart Edwin Charles

Warwick Frank Albert

Hobbs Thomas

Moncrieff Leslie A

Hastings Alfred Charles

Littlekit Frank

Oughton Leonard

Dennis William

Wildman William

Ball Robert

Broughton Cyril

Jowitt Joe

Rumsby Chrisopher H

Williams Fred Rudolph

Cook Alfred John Gale

Taylor Cecil Edgar

Cox Harold Roxby

Cracknell Edwin Eugene

Eldridge Albert

Hamley John James

Nairn John

Webb Frank Charles

Cumley Harry

Cutts George G

Deverell Ralph

Flatters Charles

Long George Ernest

Meagan John

Meager George Frances

Wilson Harry

Gent William Rose

Mason Christopher Hugh

Potter Walter Augustus

Rampton George Martin

Scott Sidney Ernest

Walkingshaw James

Bladon Ivor Richard

Sharples Alfred Clifford

Williams Stanley

Angus William Young

Hall Leonard

Watts Granville

Blake Richard

Kemp Frederick Charles

Short George William

Milward Herbert

Simmonds Donald

Stupple Edward James

Brewster Henry George

Ford Hector Eric

Hunt George William

Leech Henry James

Savidge Albert Henry

Bateman Harry

Gerrish Albert Edward

Hayes William Herbert

Martin Frederick Arthur

Payne Henry George

Mann Norman Gerald

McWade Frederick

Randle Edwin Frank

Speed Leslie Augustus

Uren James William

Williams Victor William

Occupation


Engineer R100 flight to Montreal.

Wireless Operator on R101 flight to India - Survivor.

Charge hand Engineer R101. Killed in R101 crash.

Engineer -Survivor R101 flight to India.

Flight Lt Flew airships in 1st World War.

Rigger R100.

Chief Navigator R100/101. Killed in R101 crash.

Engineer R9, R101, on R34 flight across Atlantic.

Stress Office R101.

First Officer R101. Killed in R101 crash.

Ass to DAD Technical R101. Killed in the R101 crash.

Deputy Accountant at RAW.

Chief Examiner RAW.

Shed manager/Vice president RAW Social.

Member of early airship crews and R33.

Rigger on R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger R100 - relief crew to Canada.

Rigger on R100 flight to Montreal.

On R100 flight to Montreal.

Survivor R101 flight to India.

Survivor R101 flight to India.

Principal Stores RAW.

RAW Sports & Social Club - hon secretary golf.

Founder member RAW Social Club.

RAW Sports & Social Club - secretary social club.

Ass Cox R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger on R100 flight to Montreal.

Engineer. Killed in R101 crash.

Engineer. Killed in R101 crash.

Ass Cox'n. Killed in R101 crash.

Chairman RAW Club - took part in R101 funeral.

Founder member RAW Social Club.

Engineer on R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger R100 flight to Montreal.

Engineer R100 trip to Montreal.

Rigger on R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger R100.

Survivor R101 flight to India.

Rigger. Killed in R101 crash.

Design Team R101 - later Lord Kings Norton.

RAW Sports & Social Club Hon Secretary Rugby.

Clerk to AID, on R100 flight to Montreal.

Clerk of RAW.

Draughtsman.

Train driver.

Engineer on R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger on R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger on R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger on R100 flight to Montreal.

Assistant Cox'n R100 flight to Montreal.

Chef R100 flight to Montreal.

Captain R100 flight to Montreal.

Rigger R100

Engineer R34 & R101. Killed in R101 crash.

Ass Cox'n. Killed in R101 crash.

R38 crash survivor. Killed in R101 crash.

Ass Cox'n. Killed in R101 crash.

Charge-hand engineer. Killed in R101 crash.

R101 crew member.

RAW Canteen Manager.

Civilian Storeman Air Ministry.

Design Office.

Chief Engineer on R100 flight to Montreal.

Engineer R100 - Relief crew to Canada.

Charge-Hand Engineer R100 flight to Montreal.

Engineer. Killed in R101 crash.

R101 crew member.

Charge-hand engineer. Killed in R101 crash.

R100 Engineer.

R100 crew member.

Engineer on R100 flight to Montreal.

Charge hand Electrician R101 - not on flight to India.

Rigger. Killed in R101 crash.

Chief Cox. Killed in R101 crash.

Foreman Engineer Survivor R101 flight to India.

Chief Steward R100. Killed in R101 crash.

Survivor R38.

Shed Manager RAW - responsible for construction.

Drawing Office RAW.

RAW Sports & Social Club a/cs and hon secretary,

RAW Sports & Social Club - hon secretary hockey.

Charge hand Engineer R100 flight to Montreal.

Chief Inspector RAW/ on R100 flight to Montreal.

Drawing Office RAW - Senior.

RAW Design Office.

Drawing Office Staff RAW.

RAW Sports & Social Club - hon secretary tennis.

Harold Roxbee Cox resident of Greycote, later became Lord Kings Norton.

As mentioned above the airship programme attracted many brilliant young minds - individuals who were breaking new ground in 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. Luckily 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. Years later Harold Roxbee Cox was to become Lord Kings Norton.


*With grateful thanks to Cranfield University who hold Lord Kings Norton letters and documents.


In these years there was a general euphoria in the press around the project and from 1928 onwards there were many VIP visits 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 in 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. 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. 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. 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 were relatively secure.

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!

In December 1929 there was great change in the village with the arrival of the R100 airship and crew from Howden. In all 23 R100 men came to live in Shortstown. Many were single and took up lodgings with other residents. There was also the growing national interest in the R101. In April 1930 there was great excitement when the Graf Zeppelin visited Cardington followed by the triumphant return of the R100 and crew from their flight to Montreal and back in August. However weighed against this was the underlying pressure for the R101 to succeed.

Sadly all was to change on the evening of Oct 4th when the R101 left Cardington for India only to crash a few hours later in Beauvais, France. Of the 54 men on board 48 perished. 18 lived in Shortstown and most left behind families living there. The six survivors also lived in Shortstown. When one considers that there were just over 150 houses in the village the impact of the crash was huge..

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."

The memorial in the playing fields to the 18 victims of the R101 crash who lived in Shortstown.



In the following months after the crash most of the R101 crew member's widows and children left the village and many of the R100 families returned home as all airship plans were abandoned. However airship construction was not the only industrial activity on the site as other parts were used for gas production and balloon research and these continued so numbers of residents did not decrease as much as one would suppose with the loss of the airships. The village gradually revived in the mid-thirties as once again the camp became useful to national interests. Thanks to the skills and expertise of the remaining workforce and the continued low key research into balloons on the site an RAF Balloon Unit took over the premises and in 1936 RAF Cardington was formed. By 1938 The Royal Airship Works was wound down.

Again analysing the electoral registers it appears that 47 of the families who lived in Shortstown between 1925 and 1930 still remained in the village until at least 1934 with approximately 17 still living there after WW2. Certainly some of the original R100 and R101 crew were still in Shortstown in the 1950's. The fact that the site could still provide work for these people is a testimony to the diverse nature of the units operating there.

Shortstown then continued to grow as a feeder for personnel serving on the station. In the early 1950’s new streets were added to accommodate married servicemen. After a gradual winding down of the camp RAF Cardington was closed in 2000. The site was derelict for a few years but now new homes have sprung up in its place and all the street names have airship or RAF connections.



Shown left: A memorial placed in Shortstown playing fields to the 18 residents who lost their lives in the R101 crash. The memorial also lists the six survivors who coincidentally all lived in the village. The memorial was sponsored by Eastcotts Parish Council in 2017 as part of Shortstown's centenary celebrations.