Words: Robert Leitch Photography: Richard Porter
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.