In 2011, the Longbridge Flight Shed was demolished to make way for new housing development. Robert Leitch paid an emotional and insightful tribute to the iconic building that proved central to ‘The Austin’s’ war effort, before having a leading role in the company’s subsequent history.
Goodbye to a legend
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, was 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.
Sadly, the supposedly accountable and democratic planning process is such that, ultimately, money talks mighty loud, and will always get its way.