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Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Airship in the Shed

Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute and the R100

In his autobiography Slide Rule, the author Nevil Shute (1899-1960), a man of his time with attitudes to go with it, remembers serving as an engineer building the R100 airship at Howden in the nineteen-twenties. Much of the workforce consisted of local lads and girls from the farms trained to carry out riveting and other tasks high up in the ribs and spines of the airship skeleton. Of them he writes:
The lads were what one would expect, straight from the plough, but the girls were an eye-opener. They were brutish and uncouth, filthy in appearance and in habits ... these girls straight off the farms were the lowest types that I have ever seen in England, and incredibly foul-mouthed ... we had to employ a welfare worker to look after them because promiscuous intercourse was going on merrily in every dark corner ... as the job approached completion ... we were able to get rid of the most jungly types.
Whoa there Nevil! Better check your privilege. You are talking about my grandmother and her friends and cousins. They never had chance to go to preparatory school to become Old Salopians and Balliol graduates. While you spent your evenings and weekends dancing, playing badminton, flying aeroplanes and writing novels, they would be toiling away tending crops and animals in their damp and dingy dwellings. And while we are at it, why is it all right for the lads to be straight-from-the-plough, salt-of-the-earth, vital rustic types while their sisters are jungly beyond vulgarity? Too rough for you were they? You weren’t so aloof in the army:
The language of the men was no novelty to me, of course, and I could out-swear most of them, but their attitude to women was shocking to me in my immature state.
Quite! What class of degree was it you got?

R100 Airship under construction
The R100 in its construction shed at Howden, and later from below as my dad must have seen it.

One personal legacy of the R100 was a thin semi-cylindrical piece of silver metal, possibly aluminium, around an inch and a half long (4cm), flat on one side, curved like an airship with a round nose and tail fins on the other. My maternal grandma gave me it as a toy and it became an imaginary submarine. I think she said it was cast as part of an airship brooch but at the end of production there was insufficient metal to complete it.

My dad also had a childhood memory of the R100 when in 1929 he was taken by his dad to the construction shed at Howden. They drove there in my grandad’s Model T van across the newly opened Boothferry Bridge, the rivers swollen by floodwater. When they entered the shed and looked up my dad had no idea what they were supposed to be looking at. At 700 feet long (220m) and 130 feet in diameter (40m), the airship was as big as a street with houses and front gardens on both sides. It was so huge he was unable to see it. He thought it was the roof.

The phrase “the elephant in the room” is often used to refer to something so obvious and difficult that no one wants to talk about it. Perhaps we should use “the airship in the shed” to mean something so enormous that some people cannot see it at all, like snobbery and misogyny.

The photograph of Nevil Shute is in the public domain. The photographs of the airship under construction are from a set of postcards believed to be now out of copyright, as is the following article from 16th December, 1929.

R100 Airship


  1. Do you remember those submarines that came in breakfast cereal packets and you put baking powder in them to make them submerge and surface. They never worked of course.
    Will be in Yorkshire for a week some time soon with young grandchildren, staying near Leyburn. Any recommendations?

    1. I do remember those and could never get them to work either. They were soft plastic in different colours, a bit too high for their size, and had a big plug underneath where you put the baking powder.
      Not an expert on that part of Yorkshire - we all tend to bypass nearby places and go further away. Will look forward to your report.

  2. Those airships are fascinating, covering such a short period in time. And yes, quite right re the way the men and women are described!

    1. Hope you mean my description and not Nevil Shute's. The local wit seems to have been lost on him. I've heard retorts like "get back on t'land whe-re y'belong" in response to a farmer's banter - coarse but brilliant.


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