News : Longbridge Flight Shed – Update

Words: Robert Leitch Photography: Richard Porter

Longbridge Flight Shed - 16 December 2011

The latest pictures to emerge of the Flight Shed demolition show that everything of worth has gone. The overclad external walls remain, but the extraordinarily elegant and efficient pressed steel ‘lamella’ roof, its crowning glory, has gone completely. Since the previous article was posted some further valuable information – including something of a mystery – has come to light.

The Barnes Wallis connection

An article in the Birmingham Mail of 6 December suggests that the renowned aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis was responsible for the design of the shed.

If this is the case, its historical significance is heightened. However I have checked the relevant sections of Jack Morpurgo’s comprehensive and authoritative 1972 biography of Wallis, and no mention is made of Longbridge. The shadow factory development on the site was supervised by the Admiralty, whereas Barnes Wallis was at the time working for Vickers. What is not in doubt is that the ‘lamella’ principle is a close relative of the geodetic spaceframe system Wallis devised for the Wellesley, Wellington, Warwick, and Windsor bombers.

Morpurgo’s book makes considerable reference to the climate of opinion in the 1930s against re-armament, both in Britain and the USA. This was the era of the Peace Pledge Union, and the ‘King and Country” debate, yet even when the untrustworthiness and territorial ambitions of the regime in Germany became manifestly apparent, support for re-armament was electoral poison, and it was widely believed that wars were the product of profiteering arms manufacturers and international bankers, rather than political ambitions and economic and racial tensions.

The result was that the process of re-armament – and constructing the necessary infrastructure – had to take place within a compressed timeframe, yet was achieved with flair and heroic ingenuity. The Barnes Wallis connection has eluded my researches – does anyone out there have further information?

Post war use

Through distinguished AROnline contributor Ian Elliott, further information has become available about the use of the Flight Shed in the Austin/BMC/BL/Rover/MGR eras:

‘The Flight Shed had a variety of roles over the post-war period. I believe that its first use after the aero kit was removed was as a Product Engineering workshop. By the time I started at Longbridge in 1965, it was a BMC Service Centre, dealing with all kinds of BMC vehicles. I had an Apprentice ‘Move’ in there for about six weeks. The standout memory was of a brand-new Ice Blue Healey 3000 that had come back from a dealer for paintwork – someone at the dealership had tried to remove the transit wax (remember that, or are you too young?) using cellulose thinners… you can imagine the mess we had to clear off before respraying it!

After the Marina gearbox era, it reverted to Product Development activities – there were engine test beds, emission roller test facilities, torsion rig test etc.  and general workshop facilities. My last visit in there was about 2002 to see the folk, like chassis guru Andy Kitson, who had developed the MG TF.”

If we tolerate this…

Ian concludes with the highly apposite comment, ‘I hope St Modwen get a good price for all the scrap steel in that roof…”

My ambivalence about the whole business becomes ever stronger. It’s unlikely anybody who designed or built the Flight Shed envisaged it still standing 74 years later. As a nation we are very good at preserving our castles, churches and remaining stately homes. The cradles of the Industrial Revolution, such as Coalbrookdale and New Lanark, are likewise revered monuments of global significant. Yet there seems to be a headlong rush to airbrush out Britain’s 20th century industrial heritage in the highest Stalinist tradition.

The advances in construction after 150 years of industrialisation are partly to blame. Designers realised that industrial buildings were subservient to a constantly advancing process, and not monuments to it. They were therefore engineered to last as long as they were required, rather than to exist in perpetuity.

The visual realisations of the ‘New Longbridge’ show a clean, modernist vision so internationally anodyne and anonymous that it could be built in Stuttgart, Sydney or Shenzen. It’s a great pity – and indeed a missed opportunity – that a few relics of the site’s resonant past could not be retained to imbue the development with some historical depth and intrigue.

In the words of the unashamed modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: ‘A city without old buildings is like a man without a memory”.

Birmingham Mail article:
Historic Longbridge flightshed is being demolished
by Catherine Lillington, Birmingham Mail
Dec 6 2011

BULLDOZERS have begun to flatten an historic Birmingham flight shed where hundreds of Second World War fighter and bomber planes were built.

Designed by bouncing bomb inventor Sir Barnes Wallis, the Longbridge hangar featured the biggest unsupported roof in Europe at the time it was built in the 1930s. Among the planes made inside was the Hawker Hurricane, which played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain.

Also built at Longbridge was the Fairey Battle light bomber, which King George VI visited six months before war broke out in 1939.

But developer St Modwen said the building was unsafe and its main concern was completing the £70 million new town centre which includes a £5 million youth centre and 113 new homes in Lickey Road.

Mike Murray, senior development surveyor, confirmed the demolition had begun. He said: ‘The building was empty when we took control of it from MG Motor UK earlier this year and was also both unsafe and in a poor state of repair having only been partially used over the last five years.”

Mr Wallis’ daughter, Mary Stopes-Roe, who lives in Moseley, said her father would have recognised its lasting significance in the war effort. The 84-year-old, whose dad died in 1979 aged 93, said: ‘The flight shed is extremely important, it was a vastly important feature in the war and the history of the 20th century.

‘We seem to be rapidly losing all contact with our history. We should all be proud of what we managed to do.”

Birmingham Mail columnist and historian Prof Carl Chinn said he despaired at developers’ decisions to tear down city landmarks. He said: ‘I feel very depressed and disillusioned that we’re continually losing buildings of historical importance that could be given a life in the modern world.

‘It has to have a purpose and surely we could find a purpose for a building such as that? There is nothing on site to emphasise the importance of Longbridge. We are talking about one of the major places of innovation in the car industry. Places where the Austin 7 was developed, which democratised car ownership in the 1920s and 30s and where the Mini was designed – that icon of the 20th century. Longbridge played an important role in the lives of many people in Britain not only with cars but in making aeroplanes which were vital to our survival in the Second World War.”

Roger Barker, who used to work in the building, was among those fighting for its protection by applying to English Heritage to grant it listed status. ‘It beggars disbelief the bulldozers are even allowed anywhere near the thing. I don’t understand this country,” he said.



Keith Adams


  1. It’s not only Birmingham that seems to be intent on bulldozing history, Coventry is just as bad, as I expect are other cities around the UK. It’s not just car factories that have been razed to the ground, and just taking Birmingham on it’s own look at the landmark buildings that have been lost over the years

    Lucas Factory
    HP building
    Great King St (Lucas)

    etc etc etc. I believe they try to call it progress, and there is little any one can do to stop developers ripping down these places. It would be nice if these grand old buildings could be converted for other uses, however it seems far easier to flatten them and build yet another identical non descript housing estate with as many properties built onto as small an area as possible.

  2. I’m not saying lets save everything of industrial or historical importance, because that would be plain silly and impractical. But can we save SOME of it?
    And the Barnes Wallace connection? Surely that’s worthy of being saved?

    Did anybody watch the series on BBC that ran a few years ago called Restoration? I think it needs to be ran again. Something needs to be done before its too late.

  3. Thing is if we’re not actually making much then we don’t need factories every where. If we had something to actually make in these things then we could save them.

  4. Industrial vandalism is occurring on a vast scale as “developers” and “planners” work in collusion to take the path of least resistance and greatest profit. Not to mention (I suspect) the passing of a certain number of brown envelopes.

    I have recently watched certain WW2 buildings on one of the old Royal Ordnance Factories being bulldozed for a housing estate. the building was of historical significance and was a darn sight better looking than the housing estate with which it will be replaced.

    The Flight Shed is surely worthy of preservation and the interior could easily be adapted for further use.

  5. I am an expat living in the US for many years, but with strong Birmingham and BMC……………… connections.
    When I moved to the US I used to laugh at their laments that they had know heritage or historical buildings. My repy was “Well of course not you keep knocking them down to build McDonalds” How things have changed. Now it is totally reversed during my visits I alsway visit all the old heritage sites, I just can not believe what is being bull dozed. How things have changed, now it is the USA restoring old important buildings whilst we commit industrial vandalism. At least at Longbridge we could have retained some semblance of its heritage.We might laugh a little at the heritage railways we have but at least they did something.

  6. “The Flight Shed is surely worthy of preservation and the interior could easily be adapted for further use.”

    Not now it isn’t.

  7. in the early 1990s, a lot of British car factories such as Massey, Standard Triumph and numerous others were demolished for redevelopment. Many fine buildings just gone…………. 🙁

  8. Time to record what’s left before it is too late – thanks for the pictures Keith/Richard.

    There’s still a fair number of Rover/BL/motor industry related buildings standing in Birmingham but the numbers are dropping steadily. I always think the Triplex works at Kings Norton would be a great place for a photoshoot with some 70s motors!

  9. Re Rob – I hear Rolls Royce(Aero) is using a lot of the old Lucas buildings in Hall Green and Shirely. Its not all bad at least they found a use for the old Fort Dunlop building, even if its just a Travelodge.

  10. Interesting if RR are using old Lucas buildings in Brum as they’ve just finished demolishing their own original 1906 factory in derby. To make way for a brand new… nothing whatsoever.

  11. Quick everybody buy these: New Balance running shoes (made in England); Dualit toasters (made in England); Henry vacuum cleaners (made in England). Lets keep these factories busy.

  12. there are plans for the hall green (shaftmoor lane) lucas site to be redevoloped as the aero factory may be moving to a new purpose built site in the midlands

  13. “Henry vacuum cleaners (made in England)”

    Henry’s are awesome, they hold way more than a dyson (made in far east) and as far as all that “no loss of suction” crap goes, you only lose suction when the bag has about 10kg of filth in it. I used my Henry to hoover up brick rubble and all the muck in the garage it just went on and on, i though i’d never fill the bag!

    Of course Dyson come with their long warranty, whereas a Henry only has a year or so, but in the 5 years of a Dyson warranty it’ll break god knows how many times, whereas my Henry is 15 years old plus. I rescued it from the skip at work, because it needed a new plug! All it’s ever needed was a new plug and a hose!

    I do my best to buy British made items. Sadly though (unlike the Henry) you often find they’re not well made. Around the 60’s/70’s we started a trend of making acceptable products cheaper rather than trying to make good products better. It not unusual to find relatively in-expensive items made in Japan, simply because they seem to be happy to make a modest profit on something made well.

    When the first Diahatsu Compagno Berlina arrived in Britain it was cheaper and more highly specified than it’s UK competitors. So rather than just make our cars more highly specified for the same price, they tried to make them cheaper! Why buy a shoddy unreliable BL, when you could buy a Toyota with more goodies for not much more.

    I’ve just bought a Pashley Bicycle, hand built in Stratford upon Avon, sadly many of the components (gearbox, Brakes) are made in the far east. The Sturmey Archer hubs are a case in point, the British firm went bust because the reputation of their products was lack-lustre. The whole operation was shifted to Taiwan, and now their products are a real thing of beauty.

  14. @16 the problem is not only ‘make it cheap’ but ‘maximise profits’ too. Germany gets by for not having too many share holders in say Tier 2 parts companies (and most industries not just auto) and even in some Tier 1’s. Called ‘mittlestadt’ I think. They make excellent parts a modest profits, most of which gets reinvested back into the company and the local community for training and to provide opportunities for upskilling for employees. Most employees stay with the company a long time and progress through the ranks. Their solid tortoise attitude to their manufacturing economy has beaten the hell out of everybody’s crumbling hare economy and their slow but solid industrial might (and the fact that they are currently now the richest country in Europe) has proven it.

  15. Old factories aren’t efficient though, so even if the businesses were still alive, many would need to relocate – Lucas left GKS for a new factory site in the Midlands, Aston Martin now make cars in a modern factory at Gaydon, etc

    Nissan wouldn’t be half as successful in the UK if they had bought Longbridge or Ryton instead of building a new, purpose built factory.

    Thus what do we do with these old factories, which take up masses of land and lying empty, employ no workers?

  16. “Old factories aren’t efficient though, so even if the businesses were still alive, many would need to relocate – Lucas left GKS for a new factory site in the Midlands, Aston Martin now make cars in a modern factory at Gaydon, etc”

    Well it is of course true, the fact that we have so many old factories is probably one of the reasons we don’t have anything to fill them. Whereas other countries have carried out on-going modernisation programs, our factories had been left to soldier on. So rather than have bits knocked down and remodelled when they were just another industrial building, they’ve stayed so long they’ve become landmarks!

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