Inside the de Havilland Aircraft Museum, the oldest aviation museum in Britain
PUBLISHED: 12:34 20 September 2020 | UPDATED: 19:05 21 September 2020
Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
A century ago this month, Geoffrey de Havilland founded the Herts aircraft company that would play a major role in aviation history. His legacy is marked by a new £2m exhibition space
Lancashire has its cotton mills, Staffordshire its breweries, Cornwall its tin mines and here in Hertfordshire we have aerospace.
I was reminded of that as I entered the newly upgraded de Havilland Aircraft Museum. That, and the fact that a satellite launched in February from Cape Canaveral to orbit the sun is just the latest space explorer built by Airbus in Stevenage. So it was ironic then that, like some rookie pilot who left his goggles behind, I completely overshot the country lane of a landing strip that takes you from the B556 near London Colney to the exquisite Tudor manor that is Salisbury Hall and home to the de Havilland collection.
‘You’re not the first to do that,’ curator Alistair Hodgson told me. ‘We’re a bit of a well-kept secret along this road. It’s part of the attraction.’
The former engineer who had himself stumbled upon the place in the days when, like lots of youngsters, he was captivated by Airfix models, agreed to show me around its latest asset, a giant hangar that was, until a few fateful months ago, set to be the centrepiece of celebrations to mark 100 years of this most iconic of aircraft companies.
The Sir Geoffrey de Havilland Hangar, funded by a National Lottery grant approaching £2m, has added a new dimension to this volunteer-run museum which opened in 1959, making it the oldest aviation museum in Britain. The hangar is bolted to one named after Walter Goldsmith, former owner and restorer of Salisbury Hall, which was opened by the Queen Mother in 1982.
For anyone with a germ of interest in aviation, this was money well spent. It not only includes a 100-seat mezzanine for functions, it is a space where enthusiasts can get up close to planes and watch and chat to the restorers at work.
It’s a place where the Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, lies stretched out into the distance and Second World War guided missiles line up along the walls. It’s also where the first drone, the DH 82B Queen Bee – controlled not from a handheld device but a telephone dial mounted on a metal box the size of a litter bin – sits yards away from the C.24 Autogiro, the cartoon-like half plane-half helicopter once built in secret in nearby Hatfield.
And it’s one where any of the 100 or so volunteers will instinctively chip in with anecdotes and the sort of technical detail too wordy to fit on any of the displays or video screens that guide visitors on their socially-distanced one-way tour.
‘It’s grown out of all recognition in the past 10 years,’ says Alistair. ‘But then again, things had to change quickly. When you’re a small museum in a growing world, eventually you are going to run out of runway.’
I asked him what makes the museum special. ‘There are lots of museums that display planes, but we try to be a more coherent collection. There are very few of those in the UK. When I visit a museum I like to leave feeling that someone has told me a story and that’s exactly what we try to do here.
‘I can’t improve on what [former BBC Director General] Lord Reith said when he spoke of needing to inform, educate and entertain. We need to do just that.’
Thanks to a well-executed marketing campaign the museum grew the sort of inclusive audience essential to sustain a visitor attraction.
‘We used to get ex-pilots or good old boys from Hawker Siddley. But if you want to survive you have to get mum, dad and two kids,’ Alistair explains.
That’s not to dismiss the retired airmen, many of whom bring with them their own stories. Such as the elderly chap who took one look at the nose of a Trident and announced: ‘I think I’ve flown that!’ And so he had. His wife confirmed it. She was a stewardess and they met on board.
In fact, as recently as a few weeks ago the museum was able to reunite – albeit online – two members of the last crew of a Sea Venom. The pilot was from Buxton in Derbyshire, the navigator was local. They hadn’t seen each other for 60 years. That webinar was part of the effort to keep the place alive during lockdown – that, and 50 short instructional films shot on events manager Stephanie Marshall’s mobile phone.
All a far cry from the 10-strong tour groups Alistair once led around the hangars; the cub scouts researching for their badges, teenagers doing GCSEs or the families that would fill the small field of a car park, big enough to take 60 at a time.
‘Having to lock-down was heartbreaking after all the work we’d done,’ Alistair says. ‘Business was booming then we lost it all in a couple of weeks. We were open for just 28 days before we had to lock up. It’s unlikely we’ll see us fully functioning again until November.’
Today, people are back but the numbers are smaller. And that’s a blessing because not all the stewards, many typically of retirement age, were happy to return so soon. Even so, the ones that were, are here, clad in PPE visors, and certainly not reluctant to engage.
One, who saw me admiring the autogiro stepped forward with a black and white video on his phone when he overheard me question its airworthiness. Another told me of his JR Hartley moment of finding Flying Minnows by a First World War fighter pilot writing as Roger Vee in the second hand book rack after searching fruitlessly for it for years. But it’s a museum after all; one where stories come as thick and fast as a volley from a front-mounted Lewis automatic.
‘They are what makes us what we are,’ said marketing manager Mike Nevin. ‘While the museum is about the products we display, it’s also about the stories they prompt from the people who come to see them.
‘Preserving this heritage is important as de Havilland was one of the biggest innovators of the 20th century in terms of aviation. And what we have here is not just one or two aircraft, but an entire lineage.’
And then there’s the location. Salisbury House has enough stories of its own to tell. Aside from its well-documented wartime legacy (aviation first came to Salisbury Hall in October 1939 when the de Havilland Mosquito design team moved from the company HQ in Hatfield as a security precaution against the government stopping work on the project), this once moated manor house, knocked down and rebuilt several times, was home to Nell Gwyn in the 17th century and Lady Randolph Churchill at the start of the 20th, even providing the isolation a young Winston Churchill needed to write his speeches.
The museum tells it all from the beginning, preceding the de Havilland Aircraft Company’s formation 100 years ago this month. One of the first images to greet visitors is of de Havilland’s wife, Louise, stitching together the fabric for one of the first aircraft wings on a classic Singer sewing machine.
Behind her is the propeller of the BE.2, which de Havilland designed and flew himself to a height of 10,560ft – a record at the time – on August 12, 1912. That was three years after his first attempt, one that, thanks to unstable design and pilot inexperience (he and fellow designer Frank Hearle had never seen an aircraft before), saw it crash, only to be salvaged and taken to a workshop in Fulham.
There a more successful aircraft was built and eventually sold to the RAF factory at Farnborough for £400. The sale secured jobs there for de Havilland and his friend and fellow pioneer, Hearle. It was there that de Havilland was able to design and test-fly many of his own aircraft, including that BE.2. When war broke out, the pair joined the Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco) at Hendon producing fighters, trainers and the DH.10 twin-engine bomber, all designed by de Havilland.
When the First World War ended, it was the aviation business that crashed and Airco was sold initially to BSA, with de Havilland forming his eponymous company at Stag Lane Aerodrome in Edgware on September 15, 1920, taking around 60 Airco staff with him.
Testing and then production was moved to a new aerodrome on former farmland in Hatfield in the 1930s. During this decade the company produced a highly successful series of light touring and training aircraft including the DH.82 Tiger Moth, which became the standard RAF elementary trainer during the Second World War.
The rest, as they say, is history. The company would continue at Hatfield Aerodrome, creating innovation after innovation with the Mosquito, Dove, Vampire, Chipmunk, Venom, Sea Vixen, Comet and others. And that history is all there down a lane you may well overshoot if you don’t use those goggles and trust your instruments. Well, satnav, anyway.
Salisbury Hall, London Colney, Hertfordshire AL2 1BU; dehavillandmuseum.co.uk