All aboard the Bournemouth
Pete London tells the tale of Lord Ventry and Bournemouth’s unique airship
Published in July ’16
One cloudless Edwardian afternoon, a young lad who was supposed to be fielding on a Purbeck cricket field stared up at the sky as an airship passed slowly overhead. Motors whirred beneath its giant gas-bag, passengers peered down at the rolling landscape. For Arthur Eveleigh-de Moleyns, later the seventh Lord Ventry, that day marked the beginning of a passion for airships and balloons which endured throughout his long life. Born in Ireland in 1898, Lord Ventry was educated at Langton Matravers and later Wellington College, Berkshire. Having spied his first blimp while still at prep school, he made several railway excursions to Britain’s military airship base at Farnborough, Hampshire. There he managed to talk his way past the sentries to admire the huge craft within.
Lord Ventry never lost his schoolboy enthusiasm. During World War 1 he fought with the Irish Guards but was wounded; while recovering at Branksome Gate Hospital near Poole, he visited Upton’s naval airship station as often as he could. Later he joined the Royal Air Force, commanding No.902 (County of London) Balloon Squadron. Becoming a certified balloonist, Lord Ventry flew frequently, although as he was nearly seventeen stone, the craft had to be reasonably substantial. Lord Ventry flew balloons at home and abroad, studied airship development assiduously, and helped the Air Ministry test its new blimps.
During World War 2, propelled onward by his absorption, Lord Ventry joined the Balloon Command and Intelligence organisation, organising tethered barrage balloons used to protect targets from German bombers. Post-war, he continued to campaign for the use of airships in submarine-spotting and naval convoy protection, long after most people had lost interest in the idea. But in 1950 he hired a hangar at Hurn Airport and, with a small group of supporters, set out to design and construct an airship of his own. Part of his wartime work had been assessing various types of observation and barrage balloons, and he believed that such a craft could be adapted to become a motorised airship.
Among his colleagues in the venture was retired RAF officer Squadron Leader Thomas York-Moore, who had commanded airship units and flown such craft back in World War 1. Other helpers included engineer Eric Eveleigh-Smith, pilot Alec Leith and one-time airship coxswain Fred Twinn. Plans were drawn up at Lord Ventry’s Poole home, Lindsay Hall. The little band founded the Airship Club of Great Britain, which they established at Wharncliffe Road, Boscombe. Their premises were formally opened early in 1951 by the Mayor of Bournemouth, Councillor Sydney Thompson. Numerous airship notables lent their support, including former Farnborough superintendent and engineer Major-General Sir John Capper, who had held the first British airship pilot’s licence ever issued. Past head of the Zeppelin company, Dr Hugo Eckener, also joined the club, together with several old airship hands.
Encouragement came from the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Air League of Great Britain. Bournemouth Corporation brought more tangible support, in the form of a substantial grant toward the airship made from the town’s Festival of Britain funding. Lord Ventry also contributed, while the government’s Ministry of Supply lent equipment and tools.
The team built their airship using a gas-bag converted from an old barrage balloon left over from the war. Acquired from the Air Ministry, it set them back £25. The finished airship’s length was just over a hundred feet. Hydrogen was used to inflate her gas-bag and provide lift; although helium was a far safer, non-inflammable gas, none was available. To power the craft through the skies a seventy horse-power Salmson engine from the 1930s was found, and with this it was hoped to achieve a flat-out speed of 35 mph. Suspended beneath the gas-bag by steel cables, the gondola in which pilot and passengers would travel was built from aircraft-gauge steel tube, with a covering of light alloy sheet and clear perspex. The engine was positioned at the rear, a small fuel tank sat on the roof, and four intrepid flyers could be carried.
Lord Ventry’s airship was the first built in Britain since 1929. Although the craft was constructed at Hurn Airport, her hangar there was not available long-term. Drawing on his experience, though, Lord Ventry assured a curious reporter from Flight Magazine that his airship could be safely picketed outside, ideally among trees to protect her from the wind. The plan for Bournemouth, as the craft had been christened, was that she be kept inflated and out-of-doors during all spells of operational activity – and for the flying Lord, this would be as often as possible.
There was some confusion over who was actually allowed to pilot Bournemouth. The Ministry of Civil Aviation was clear on the qualifications for a full airship pilot’s licence, but unsure of the form a provisional licence should take. By 1950 trained airship flyers were very few; as things stood, just a handful of people would be permitted to take charge of Bournemouth, excluding most of the enthusiasts who had helped build her. Meanwhile the government’s Air Registration Board was pondering the safety requirements she should meet, and how to issue a Certificate of Airworthiness for an airship.
By mid-1951 the craft was complete, her engine tested in the Hurn workshop, the name and Bournemouth’s coat of arms painted on her gasbag. For flight trials, though, somewhere quieter than Hurn’s airspace was needed. Bournemouth was transported to an old hangar built especially for airships on an RAF base at Cardington in Bedfordshire. It was intended to bring her back to Bournemouth once tests were complete and various sites were considered as potential homes, among them King’s Park, where iron mooring stakes were set into the ground.
Red tape resolved, the airship received her Ministry registration, G-AMJH, which was painted on her fin. Two more helpers joined: engineers Arthur Bell and Joe Binks, both of whom had survived the 1930 R101 airship disaster. On 21 May, Empire Day, Bournemouth was inflated and it was hoped that the inaugural flight would be in time for Festival of Britain celebrations the following month. But the Salmson engine overheated and it was 19 July before a first flight was made.
Sadly, Lord Ventry was unable to ascend that day. With three crewmen he climbed aboard, but the machine refused to rise from the ground – he was simply too heavy. He removed duffle-coat and jacket and emptied his pockets but there was no improvement. Very reluctantly the Lord vacated his gondola, replaced by a slimmer man. He joined a small group of her builders who watched as Bournemouth made a decorous circuit of Cardington’s perimeter and returned safely.
A great curiosity, the first flight was shown in newsreels around the world and featured in many newspapers of the day. But Bournemouth’s sally had exposed tail-heaviness, together with steering problems. Following modifications, a second flight on 28 July was commanded by Thomas York-Moore. But again the engine grew too hot and to make matters worse, the steering-wheel mechanism failed. Bournemouth came down unexpectedly in a field near her hangar, but fortunately nobody was hurt. Adjusted once again, on 17 August she flew with Lord Ventry for the first time, presumably with fewer people aboard. After a 35-minute tour around the local area she returned to Cardington, although one crewman was hurt during her landing, which involved crashing onto the roof of the station’s gymnasium.
Following that episode Bournemouth was deflated and likewise, perhaps, her creator. But repairs and yet more alterations were made and a Certificate of Airworthiness finally obtained. An ex-Bournemouth Royal Blue motor coach arrived, its job to provide a base for a mast to which the airship could moor; this was probably a first in British aviation.
Winter weather interrupted the adventures but from spring 1952 several more flights took place. However, dogged by incidents, the project had a final setback: an autumn accident on the ground caused permanent damage to Bournemouth’s gas-bag, which had to be scrapped. By then the Airship Club’s funds were low, and reluctantly it was decided to wind up the scheme.
Lord Ventry retained his love of airships until the end of his years. He died in 1987 aged 88, leaving a wonderful collection of airship-related written material assembled over nearly a lifetime, much of which is carefully preserved by the Royal Aeronautical Society. Among the papers is a booklet he wrote in 1953 entitled The Small Airship, describing his own craft.
But of Bournemouth herself, sadly it seems nothing remains.