When Airships Filled The London Skies

When Airships Filled The London Skies
Airships above an alternate London in the YA fantasy series His Dark Materials © BBC

Fans of the fantasy series His Dark Materials will be familiar with a London skyscape bespeckled with airships. But for the first wedge of the 20th century Londoners really did gaze up as these gaseous monsters drifted across their city — first as oddball spectacles, then terrifying harbingers of war, and finally, as an enviable form of opulent air travel.

The first airship to fly over London

The first airship above London. Image: public domain

If you were out on the streets of London on the afternoon of 19 September 1902, there's a slim chance you'd have been hit on the head with a rubber ball. Looking up, you would have seen one of the strangest sights of your lifetime.

The first airship in the country had just risen into the skies, piloted by Stanley Spencer (the aeronaut, not the artist). Lifting off from Spencer's base at Crystal Palace, it glided over Streatham, Clapham Common, across the Thames, over Chelsea and Earl’s Court and out to Harrow, completing an astounding 30-mile trip.

The 'Mellin Airship' was so called because of its curious sponsor, a Peckham baby food company. It was a Heath Robinson-esque thing with a bamboo frame and wooden propellor, and according to the New York Times, "created intense astonishment among the thousands of persons in the streets over whose heads the aeronaut passed."

Where do the rubber balls come into it? Spencer chucked these out as he went along, thus demonstrating what an airship armed with bombs could do.

Stanley Spencer with his wife, Rose and daughter, Gladys circa 1900. Rose also flew the airship sometimes. Image: public domain

Balloons themselves had been drifting across London for centuries — sometimes with French women and bulls dangling from them but Spencer's design was something new to these shores; it was a dirigible — meaning steerable. He'd taken his cue from Europeans like Ferdinand von Zeppelin who were busy pioneering airships on the continent.

Spencer's trip that day ended in a field in Eastcote, where he was met by a (presumably befuddled) farmer. On subsequent flights Spencer took his three-month-old daughter, Gladys, up with him — making her the first female to fly on an airship.

Zeppelins over London

A Zeppelin over London © David Fathers

In the coming years, Londoners would become familiar with the sight of airships. Playing catch-up with their German counterparts, the British Army and Navy experimented with a slew of dirigibles designed for warfare, including the 'City of Cardiff', which made its maiden flight from White City in 1910. A later version of this airship, the Willow 5, was often seen taking off from Hendon in 1914.

But no one would have dared predict the menace that airships were about to become.

The relief on Flight Sub Lieutenant RAJ Warneford's grave in Brompton Cemetery relives the moment he shot down a Zeppelin

When the first world war arrived, so too did the Zeppelin: a low-flying death machine which purred quietly above London's buildings before unleashing havoc with hand-tossed grenades.

Derring-do pilots like Leefe Robinson were tasked with gunning enemy airships down — and the grave of Flight Sub Lieutenant RAJ Warneford in Brompton Cemetery commemorated him being the first to take out a Zeppelin. Still, the airships ended up killing around 700 civilians in London alone. Spencer's rubber ball experiment had come to devastating life.

The country had endured some 50 attacks over the war, and would be happy never to see them again. Or so you'd have thought.

The airship reinvents itself in peacetime

The Graf Zeppelin over London. Image © National Archives

Because then, a decade or so after the end of the war, the airship was restyled as the last word in luxury air travel. Suddenly it was a way for Hollywood stars, the super rich — not to mention high-ranking Nazis — to get around in style, sometimes even across the Atlantic.

At first, the Brits were keen to give the Germans a run for their money. Already in 1919, The Sphere had published mock-ups of a potential London airship station. 10 years later, the ambitious R100 and R101 airships was being built at the Royal Airship Works in Cardington, Bedfordshire. The dream was to create a fleet of these to sail well-to-do passengers across the Empire. Instead, a nightmare unfolded, when, on 5 October 1930 — having flown over London landmarks including Alexandra Palace and Greenwich's Naval College — the R101 came down in France, killing 48 of the 54 passengers and crew.

The gargantuan R101 being manufactured at Cardington. It crashed soon after, crippling the British airship dream. Image © National Archives

The disaster effectively ended the British airship industry, yet in Germany things continued apace. The ill-fated Hindenburg was, of course, the most (in)famous passenger airship: a floating pleasure palace featuring swanky restaurants and — startlingly, given it was packed with hydrogen gas — a smoker's lounge.

In its short life space between 1936 and 1937, the Hindenburg never visited London. Other airships did, though, including the Graf Zeppelin, which flew a special flight to Cardington in 1930, taking it over St Paul's Cathedral and Wembley Stadium, where Huddersfield Town and Arsenal were battling it out in the FA Cup final.

In a way, this was something of a tease as to what could have been.

The Airlander over Cardington, where it was built

Following a number of tragedies during the 1930s — and with the outbreak of another war in 1939 — the airship fell out of favour. Yet they weren't gone for good. There was a resurgence in building in the 1970s and 80s. In 2003, Londonist even took a ride on a special Stella Artois service (well, the lager is known for its gassy qualities).

And now, Cardington is once more at the centre of the UK's airship industry. The Airlander 10  (you may also know it as the 'Flying Bum') has already flown a number of successful test flights, with the aim of flying passengers to the North Pole in 2023 (from Norway rather than Cardington). These are exciting times for disciples of the dirigible.

Just like in the 1930s, such flights will be for the uber-wealthy. But won't it be wonderful to see these ships soaring through the skies again. Perhaps Cardington will become a mecca for a new generation of airship anoraks. Maybe they can even sail one over Crystal Palace for old times' sake, and get it sponsored by Ella's Kitchen.

Last Updated 15 July 2021

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