York looks to have missed out on a new attraction in Piccadilly that would have celebrated a unique 1930s aircraft factory and an extraordinary ‘age of adventure’. STEPHEN LEWIS reports on the ‘missed opportunity’ of Reynard’s garage.
THE early 1930s were a time of huge excitement.
The horrors of the First World War had come and gone, followed by the excess of the Roaring Twenties and, as that decade drew towards its end, the crash of the great depression.
The depression had seen industry grind to a halt and unemployment rocket.
As the 1930s dawned, however, a new spirit of adventure blossomed. Technology and engineering came into its own. New areas of the globe were explored, and new speed and distance records were smashed in the air, on land and at sea.
In 1930, a young woman from Hull by the name of Amy Johnson became the first woman pilot, or ‘aviatrix’, to fly solo from England to Australia, in a Gypsy Moth biplane she named ‘Jason’.
That same year the R100, a 700-foot long airship built by Barnes Wallis at Howden, made a successful return voyage across the Atlantic, flying to Canada and back.
Privately designed and built by a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong, it was part of a two-ship competition to develop a commercial airship service for use on long-distance British Empire routes.
The airship programme came to a juddering halt when a second airship, the R101 – this one designed and built by the Air Ministry at Cardington in Bedfordshire – crashed in France on its maiden voyage, killing 48 people.
The R100 was scrapped. A young aeronautical engineer by the name of Nevil Shute Norway, who had been Barnes Wallis’s deputy on the project, found himself casting around for something else to do. And in 1931 he teamed up with aircraft designer AH Tiltman to found a new aircraft company in York.
The prospects for Airspeed looked good. Norway himself – who later went on to international fame as the novelist Nevil Shute – was a brilliant aeronautical engineer.
During the Second World War he was to work on secret weapons projects for the War Office. Many of his ideas were ingenious, says Ian Reed, director of the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington.
Norway designed and made “amphibious tanks, amphibious Bren Gun carriers, the world’s first cruise missile, where he fitted detachable fins and tails to a standard submarine torpedo and launched them from aircraft, and the famous ‘panjandrum’, a rocket-powered Catherine wheel for beach clearance,” Mr Reed said.
Norway combined his inventiveness with Tiltman’s aircraft design experience.
Also on board as a partner in the new company was Sir Alan Cobham, a former First World War Royal Flying Corps pilot who held many early flying records, and whose Cobham’s Flying Circus took flying displays to small towns across the country.
“But he was a businessman as well as a showman,” said Mr Reed.
The new company’s chairman and financial backer was Ralph Beckett, aka Lord Grimthorpe of Easthorpe Hall near Castle Howard: a banker, racehorse breeder and racing car and aeroplane enthusiast. And one of the early subscribers was none other than Amy Johnson herself – then at the height of her fame after her solo flight to Australia.
Airspeed Ltd took over a disused tram shed in Piccadilly, and began building aeroplanes. It first produced gliders, and then the Airspeed Ferry, a three-engined, ten passenger biplane.
Archive photographs show staff at work on various aircraft in the large shed now known as Reynard’s Garage on Piccadilly. “From what we can gather, they (the workforce) all used to go to the Red Lion for a pint,” Mr Reed said.
The aircraft were made at Piccadilly, then dismantled and taken by road to Sherburn in Elmet where they were reassembled and test flown.
Airspeed was to go on to make successful aircraft such as the Airspeed Courier – the first to include retractable undercarriage – the Airspeed Envoy, which was used for the King’s Flight, and the Airspeed Oxford, which became the RAF’s standard multi-engines trainer. Airspeed also built the Horsa military gliders used in the D Day landings.
By this time, however, its connection with York was long over.
In 1933, it had wanted to expand. York Corporation couldn’t supply the support it needed – and in March 1933, Airspeed Ltd moved to Portsmouth instead.
The company’s connection to York may have been short-lived – but it makes for a fascinating chapter in York’s ‘modern’ history.
Sadly, plans to commemorate that history with a new Airspeed ‘attraction’ in the very building that once housed the aircraft factory itself seem dead in the water.
The attraction would have focussed not only on the aircraft factory itself, and the colourful characters who founded it – including Nevil Shute, Amy Johnson and the barnstorming show pilot Alan Cobham – but would also have looked at the spirit of adventure and new design that characterised the early 1930s.
“It was a very exciting period,” says Mr Reed. “There had been such drastic change. “We had gone from a world that was horse-drawn and candle-lit to one of speed, design and technology.”
The Airspeed attraction would have tried to capture that spirit of adventure. There would have been sections on the design and engineering of the day, on the exploits of the new aviators, and even on the fashion of the 1930s. All this, plus information about the aircraft factory itself – and a reproduction of the Gypsy Moth in which Amy Johnson flew to Australia.
It is not to be. When the city council announced it was going to sell Reynard’s garage – an admitted eyesore – nine bids were submitted for it.
One was a bid from York-based Northminster Ltd. It included housing, but also proposed retaining much of the original factory building to create an Airspeed 1930s Experience.
The bid, however, was not one of the four which were shortlisted, and which are still under consideration.
That is a real missed opportunity, says Peter Brown of the York Civic Trust.
“It is such a shame,” he said. “It was an opportunity to explore the rich heritage we have, not just from the early period but also from the 20th century. We deeply regret that this opportunity has been squandered.”
Yes, he says, it may still be possible to commemorate the Airspeed factory with a plaque. “But that’s not good enough.”
Sadly, it may have to be.