In memoriam : Longbridge Flight Shed 1937-2011

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Robert Leitch pays tribute to the iconic Longbridge Flight Shed, a building that proved central to ‘The Austin’s’ war effort, before having a leading role in the company’s subsequent history.

And in 2011, all this was put behind it, as the process of demolition was instigated.


Goodbye to a legend

Picture: John Baker
View from Cofton Hackett in 1946 (All pictures: John Baker)

The merciless pace of the regeneration process which is creating the ‘new Longbridge’ is about to claim another victim, in this case one with considerable historical and architectural significance.

Internal strip-out work has started on the Flight Shed, off Lowhill Lane on the north western edge of the East Works complex, with the aircraft lift already removed. An e-petition has been instigated to save the building from destruction and “give it listed building status with some sort of funding to allow it to be utilised as a visitor centre or something to benefit the local community”.

It seems doomed to be a futile gesture. The building has no statutory protection, and the developer, St. Modwen, has cited the requirement to pay business rates and its unsuitability for any alternative use, as their reasons for instigating the demolition process.

As conflict with Germany became ever more inevitable, the process of building the Flight Shed was equally precipitate, with construction complete in October 1937, having commenced towards the end of 1936. The main East Works, commenced at the same time, a pre-WWII ‘Shadow Factory’ expressly commissioned for aircraft production.

The Shadow Factories were, in the main, built to a “pattern book”, with adaptations only where required by purpose and site conditions. The specialised brief for the Flight Shed demanded ingenious and specialised solutions. To accommodate large complete aircraft, a 190 foot (58 metre) clear span was required, with a ‘straight-through’ length of 500 feet (152.5 metres) unobstructed by any internal columns. Rather than use conventional girders, the solution chosen was a honeycombed ‘lamella’ system constructed using lightweight pressed steel sections, to create an arched structure both elegant and exceptionally efficient in its use of materials. The Flight Shed is believed to be one of only three buildings remaining in the UK using this system of construction.

Further ingenuity was demonstrated in the lifting arrangements, which overcame the site’s topography by incorporating a platform lift to bring completed aircraft to the level of the Longbridge airfield. A ramp arrangement sufficed to bring the aircraft across Groveley Lane the from the Final Aircraft Assembly bays of the East Works to the Flight Shed for fitting out.

In peacetime, the Flight Shed first served as a packing station for CKD kits for export. Later, with a two storey extension on the Groveley Lane frontage, it was used for machining and assembling the Morris Marina (née Triumph Vitesse) gearbox.

Should we regret the Flight Shed’s passing? We should remember that first and foremost the Shadow Factories were pieces of plant, built in haste to serve a very urgent need, and not monuments, or architectural masterpieces. Their significance has been enhanced by the huge role they played in securing the future of the free world, but in urban locations where brown field sites are at a premium, history carries far less weight than the regeneration process, and the impetus to squeeze maximum value in terms of money and jobs from every square metre of building land.

Britain has a poor record in preserving important but redundant industrial buildings. Shameful examples include the Art Deco Firestone factory in Brentford, and the extraordinary Brynmawr Rubber Factory. Preservation of WW1, WW2 and Cold War sites has been scarcely better. Sites such as Orford Ness, the Blue Streak facility at Spadeadam, and some nuclear bunkers survive because of their remoteness. Those which survive close to major cities are doomed to be lost to posterity.

Such is the supposedly accountable and democratic planning process. Ultimately, money talks mighty loud, and will always get its way.

Link: Inside the Longbridge Flight Shed, November 2006

 

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

49 Comments

  1. Sadly a building that size will attract killer business rates, even at unoccupied empty status, so will sadly end up being bulldozed. This country really doesn’t seem to give 2 tosses about industry, and too many important sites have now been levelled and now host horrid monstrosities like out of town retail parks, and modern and often also empty office blocks. It is just way too big to become a museum too

  2. I think the biggest problem with it, is it’s location, it fills it’s own plot, with a hill on two sides and a road on the other two. Any conversion to other uses would be limited by the lack of any sort of parking. The site would be worth more converted into small industrial units. Also any kind of conversion would mean complying with current building regs, often these render it cheaper to do a new build.

    Sadly as is said in the article, there are at least two other buildings with the same roof construction, which mean’s it isn’t unique.

    The large hangar at Hatfield was preserved because it was something like the worlds largest aluminium building, so could be deemed historically important. Always seems odd to see an obvious aircraft hangar complete with control tower in the middle of a housing estate. Another example on the Hatfield site is the old DeHaviland office which is now a police station, always thought it a very pretty Art Deco building.

    So there are many attractive and or interesting buildings that do get preserved. Sadly though we can’t keep everything and while i’m sorry to see this building go i can well understand the reasons why.

    And empty buildings do attract rates, so again it makes it cheaper to simply demolish and build on the plot when you have a use for it.

  3. We have a control tower slap bang in the middle of the estate I live on, and a wind sock, plus part of the runway. The local pub is also named after a famous pilot with no legs too!

  4. Fantastic article Keith and fitting that this historical building should at thee very least receive mention before the bulldozers claim it.

    I remember visiting it for training courses after NAC reopened Longbridge for TF production. The Cecil Kimber College (now housed at the rear of the visitor centre) was created in the centre of the block on Groveley Lane. I remember entering the building and our group being guided off in search of the new training facility, past empty offices which seemed preserved as they had been left in April 2005 after the collapse of MGR, with the somewhat eery addition of the occassional broken windows, past big engineering engine testing chambers and then in the heart of the block, bright light, Chequer board flooring and a fantastic group of classroom and workshop facilities that were very fitting of their new name.

    RIP Flight Shed – however we all remember it and for the crucial part it played in helping Britain win the war!

  5. “I believe the Short Stirling was built there.”

    Bombers were built in the old East Works building, Rover’s Engine plant. The flight shed was where smaller aircraft were assembled before being lifted up to the airfield which was situated where the CAB’s now are. Bombers were too large to be fully assembled in the flight shed and fitted on the lift, so they were trailered down to what’s now Birmingham airport where the wings were bolted on before being flown off. That’s why the roundabouts near Longbridge have roads though the middle, so the long aircraft trucks would be towed through rather than around them.

    http://www.lincsaviation.co.uk/lancaster-taxy-rides/

    ‘Just Jane’ was built at Longbridge, probably makes her the most powerful and largest Austin ever built. They’re starting to put her back to air worthy condition.

    • As I mentioned in an earlier post, a 1945 aerial photo of Brum can be seen by activating the history feature in Google Earth. The Flight Shed and its adjacent airfield can be seen clearly as can the WWII runways at Elmdon airport. The old terminal survives today for general aviation, the east west runway is now a taxy way between old and new terminals and the north/south runway has been extended at least twice.

  6. Sad, but it will only fall into disrepair if it doesn’t go – look at Battersea Power Station, which has real architechtural interest. The best way to preserve it is in words and pictures, something which this site is magnificent at.

  7. I read somewhere recently that on the roof of some of the Rover building in Solihull you can still see the camouflaging on the roof? Also recently on my travels I came across by accident the R101 Airship hangers at Cardington Cambridge, those are really impressive considering their age. Its a shame the Longbridge flight Shed couldn’t be saved, the argument that it couldn’t be re-used is a weak one. Fort Dunlop just off the M6 B’ham has been successfully converted into a hotel and even has one of the biggest roof gardens in the UK, though a roof garden wouldn’t work on the curved Flight Shed roof!

    However there are plenty of examples of former RAF bases being as industrial estates, Fradley Park Lichfield for one. After all if it was designed to take an air raid attack then I am sure it could surive modern life. I also read a while back that Pine Wood Studios were interested in using parts of the Longbridge site for their activities. It sound to me like a faceless board of assets strippers with OCD who just want a nice clean sheet of paper to put another faceless industrial estate, that will remain just as empty as the historic building they are knocking down.

  8. Rolls-Royce main works in Derby demolished earlier this year, original tech block gone with RR head-stone archways, some original motor-works equipment still remaining, shell-holes in the girders from being strafed in 1943, and football pitches still painted on the roof. And one building in the shape of a chapel from the air!!

    Now a vast empty concrete square with the orignal ‘Marble Hall’ entrance hall still remaining but boarded up, but apparently ransacked for all the brass, mahogany etc.

  9. It’s almost as if modern Britain is embarrassed about it’s past. So a few tasteless apartments and office blocks full of yuppies are better than building cars and war planes? Of course it is…

  10. As much as I understand it’s historical importance, I can’t say I disagree strongly with it’s demolition. The people who worked thereduring the war effort did so for our FUTURE, and that is where we are all going to end up. We have to think of the people and area now and in the future.

  11. I visted this bulding many times in the late 1980’s… you can only appreciate the scale of it from inside. Sadly we have to acknowledge as time moves on the building is no longer suitable for modern purposes.

  12. @ Tom. Fair point. I understand not everything from the past can be saved. However, it still would be nice to have something left over, it’s the relentlessness of erasing of places like the flight shed that I don’t like; if we keep on going at this rate, we’ll have nothing left of the past.

  13. Am I right in thinking that there is vehicle access to the roof of the two storey extension? There appears to be a long ramp leading to it.

    Cracking building, shame that a use cannot be found for it. Great article, too.

  14. At the Nissan factory at Sunderland (former Sunderland airfield), there still exists an aircraft hanger which I believe is a listed building – designed by Barnes Wallis. The inaugrual ceremony for Nissan was held in this hanger in Nov 1984. I think ownership passed to Nissan when the car factory was getting built.

  15. “It sound to me like a faceless board of assets strippers with OCD who just want a nice clean sheet of paper to put another faceless industrial estate, that will remain just as empty as the historic building they are knocking down.”

    To be fair to St Modwen they’ve done an awful lot to support BMIHT in rescuing artifacts pretty much allowing BMIHT staff onsite to take away anything they fancy. Even removing signage for preservation when it would have been cheap just to smash it off rather than carefully remove it. At the end of the day they have to make a profit like anyone else, and why should they keep paying thousands of pounds per week in rates on a building that no one wants to move in to.

    “I read somewhere recently that on the roof of some of the Rover building in Solihull you can still see the camouflaging on the roof?”

    Quite probably, Longbridge East works was still painted in olive drab when it was demolished, and West works still had some camouflage visible.

    ” Also recently on my travels I came across by accident the R101 Airship hangers at Cardington Cambridge,”
    Well it’s difficult to miss them! Although last time i checked Cardington was in Bedfordshire. You must have been REALLY lost. 😉

  16. Re Dennis – Sorry I meant Bedfordshire, I strayed off the main ‘A421′(?) that runs near by and I was really impressed by the size of them. They could do with a good lick of paint though, I read a while back that the Zeppelin building is a indoor theme park. I am not suggesting that but I am sure something could be done to spruce them up a bit.

    If St Mowden has saved some signs for BMIHT then that’s a fine gesture but a truly great gesture would be to save this building.

  17. Simon,

    “Shed 2 has been leased to Warner Bros and was used recently to make the film Inception which won four oscars for visual effects, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. Most of the outdoor scenes in Gotham City were filmed inside the hangar itself and it is thought that the hangar holds the world record for the largest ‘building within a building’. However, this is not a recent phenomena – some of the scenes for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were filmed here way back in 1968.”

  18. Rob C – I had no idea, I was REALLY lost at the time, it looked run down to me as I went past, there were a load of rusty shipping containers out side and I assume some sort of air activity because there was a wind sock flying near by. Is it all still used or just parts of it? We are still talking about Cardington Rob not Longbridge?

  19. The real problem here is what the hell would you use the building for? It is sad to see it demolished but at least pictures such as those on 28dl will help to remind us what it looked like.

    It’s sad to see so much heritage knocked down but unless it has a use there is little chance of a building being kept especially if rates need to be paid. It is a stupid policy and one that has lead to a large number of historic buildings being demolished.

  20. “Simon,
    “Shed 2 has been leased to Warner Bros and was used recently to make the film Inception which won four oscars for visual effects, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. Most of the outdoor scenes in Gotham City were filmed inside the hangar itself and it is thought that the hangar holds the world record for the largest ‘building within a building’. However, this is not a recent phenomena – some of the scenes for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were filmed here way back in 1968.””

    Shed two was actually dismantled and relocated from Norfolk in the 30’s i think. Later it was used by the buildings research people, i assume they just built whole houses in there to test them for stuff. Shed 1, the R101 building is a bit worse for wear. These two put things in perspective though, just one of them is many times bigger than the flight shed. Shed one still has airships in it, thing is you see these Goodyear Blimps in the air and they look massive, yet in the hangar they look lost. The R101 totally filled this hangar, so just how vast must that have looked!

    “The real problem here is what the hell would you use the building for?”
    Exactly if there was space around it then it could be used as a sports centre or supermarket or something, but there’s just no space at all around it. It’s sad to see these things go, but at the end of the Day Great Britain became one giant war machine with airfields, forts and factories all over the place, which do you preserve? People said the East works was historic, but there were literally dozens of them built to the same standard design all over the country. Bentley Motors use one, well actually 2 next to each other, it made Merlin Engines, some of which would have been supplied to Longbridge.

  21. During WWII there were loads of military factories scattered across the country, an important part of our history, but we can’t keep all of them, unless we want to build on even more of the countryside.

    We can’t keep every old factory, or we’d end up like some sort of industrial them park, however painful it is to see them go. It’s like when a football club moves to a new ground, it’s sad to leave the old ground, but you can hardly keep it open as well, to preserve a few happy memories?

  22. @9 – I’ve recently been involved in the building of a new housing estate at Cardington – the hangars are used in the sales literature. They’re really impressive things – I think also that Captain Slow’s airship/caravan featured in Top Gear was made in one of them.

  23. More info/photos;

    http://www.birminghammail.net/news/top-stories/2011/12/06/historic-longbridge-flightshed-is-being-demolished-97319-29900271/

    Shame the council couldn’t waive rates or it be adapted into warehousing. No local car parking – ironic it was close to the largest multistorey car park in Europe(?) before that was knocked down. Again, reminds me of German BMW colleagues innocently asking why there was a pillbox at Solihull and some of the buildings were camouflage painted…

  24. Why not preserving the flight shed and using it a new way? Did you know that the whole Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg is under heritage protection by law? They even can’t change a window. Inside its all new, but from the outside it looks like 1950. You should tell that your local council as an example.

  25. “Did you know that the whole Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg is under heritage protection by law? They even can’t change a window. Inside its all new, but from the outside it looks like 1950.”

    So it’s a good example of British Industrial Heritage then?
    It was built by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Hirst

  26. “We’ve lost too many shadow factories in the last decade.
    How many remain now?”

    How many do we need to keep?

    Broughton still makes wings for Airbus, Crewe Builds Bentley’s.

  27. @ 27 “I’ve recently been involved in the building of a new housing estate at Cardington…..”

    In my view this development is an eyesore, taking away the character of the period houses and the hangers themselves. They also diverted the main road though the new estate which is in the form of a large curve for some reason instead of it’s previous straight path through Shortstown.

  28. What we should keep- is shadow factories etc with good sound frontages of architectural merit, admittedly one could say the Flight shed does not fall into this category, but many do.

    I am horrified with the eyesores that are being built in Lickey road where the elegant 1930’s offices once stood.
    I would have preferred the facade to remain and the buildings turned into apartments.

    Not many shadow factories survive as built, but we have demolished some that do -the best example was Standard’s Banner lane works at Coventry where Massey Ferguson tractors were built until 2002.
    A beautiful example of fine art-deco.

  29. “I am horrified with the eyesores that are being built in Lickey road where the elegant 1930′s offices once stood.
    I would have preferred the facade to remain and the buildings turned into apartments.”

    No that’s a fair comment, the admin wing at the front looked good, the utilitarian factory behind wasn’t anything special in terms of looks.

    Strangely 1930’s buildings seem to get demolished at a high rate. Yet they’re a pretty timeless design. Their simple designs are generally smart, hard wearing and easily modernised with cavity wall insulation and double glazing.

  30. Unfortunatly as it is that the flight shed has come to an end but it was proven that the building would now be almost impossible to run the services gas, electric and water etc were all supplied from the main site occupied now by MG motor this was all but severed in the re-working of the site and the amount of metal theft has also had an impact which led to the building falling into a current state that would require major works to allow re-use on a comercial basis. It is very unfortunate that a private owner would not take it on a refurb it but there is still the services issue that would have to be re-worked into the building. Such a shame so much heritage could have been held here but Gaydon now has the whole timeline of the factory and historians have worked with the developers and removed significant items and most of the worthwhile artifacts.

  31. @35 Not responsible for the design or master-planning – which was by Bellway homes – I was delivering the affordable homes part of the development – which is one of the few areas of UK economic growth during the recession. We have a process of consultation during the planning process – did you voice your opinions then?

  32. hi,i set up the e petition to save the flight shed,i also wrote to everyone who would/could help including English heritage who did not give a stuff yes there where problems using the flight shed but it could be made possible the developers dont give a toss about our history the flight shed was in the way of houses its sadly gone now along with its history and so many other parts of Longbridge we dont manufacture anything in the uk anymore,we happily buy Chinese,we are our own worst enemy

  33. I started work at The Austin in there – first in the Service Department and later in Export etc. The first Minis were being built as well as hordes of bright coloured Metropolitans that were stacked up in the multi story car park. It was a great company to work for and the atmosphere was really excellent. I am shattered that the work of Herbert Austin and William Morris can be destroyed by a group of greedy criminals the socalled Phoenix Four! They stole not only the companies capital but the thousands of workers future and then amazingly go unpunished by socalled British Justice! Wha a travesty of justice – these four should be in Dartmoor for the rest of their lives! And all their property confiscated by the Crown!

  34. @4 Cant say I disagree woth your sentiment about the Phoenix 4, but really all they did was put it out of its misery. The company and Longbridge had been on life support since the late 60s. There is a whole cast of villains – from Donald Stokes to Harold Musgrave to Derek Robinson who had a hand in the downfall of this part of the British Motor industry.

  35. This building should have been converted into a film studio. Yorkshire Screen have got the Church Fenton Hanger 1 in use as the Yorkshire film Studios. It is even bigger than the Flight Shed and is larger than all the TV sound stages that ever existed together.

    St. Modwen were told of its potential but insisted in demolishing it with the approval of Birmingham City Council, who should have known better.

    Millions of pounds worth of film and TV jobs go to others outside of the region due to poor planning for film and TV by the planners. This proves that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail and they have.

  36. They are putting houses on the land the flight shed once stood. I’m asking St Modwens to put a plaque up so we can remember what it did in the war effort. It’s got to be remembered .

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