Heritage Locations

Cardington Airship Works

The only in situ example of an airship hangar to have survived from the pre-1918 period.

Thomas Bouch

Period of construction:
1900 - 1949

Transport Trust plaque:

Transport Mode:


Cardington Airfield, Cardington, Beds MK42 0UZ

MK42 0UZ

Nearest Town:

Heritage Centre:

Cardington became central to the development of airships in Britain after Short Brothers were contracted to build airships for the Admiralty - see also Shorts Building, Shortstown. They constructed a 213 m (700 ft) long airship hangar (the No. 1 Shed) in 1915 - designed and built by A J Main and Co of Glasgow - to enable them to build two rigid airships, the R-31 and the R-32. The numbers working there in 1917 were so significant that Shorts built a housing estate opposite the site (Shortstown). The airships site was nationalised in 1919 as the Royal Airship Works.

In 1924 the Government envisaged the production of airships for imperial commerce as a mix of both public and private enterprise: the decision was consequently made to build two airships of 5,000,000 cubic foot capacity. This was a project which seized the popular imagination, R100, built under contract with Vickers (who had been formerly involved in airship construction in Britain), being popularly known as 'the capitalist ship' and R101, built by the Royal Airship Works, as 'the socialist ship'. After 1926 the works on this site resulted from the Government authorisation of the projects for the R100 and R101 airships, which were to be used for an Empire-wide travel service.

Between October 1924 and March 1926, the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Co of Darlington raised No. 1 Shed's roof by 10.7 m (35 ft) and increased its length to 247 m (812 ft) in preperation for the R101. A second shed was moved from Pulham, Norfolk and re-erected at Cardington in 1928. After the R101 disaster of October 1930, when the airship crashed on its maiden flight en route to India ( its 48 dead including Sir Sefton Branker, the then Secretary of State for Air) the British government - under considerable economic pressure - terminated its support for the airship programme. The R100 was broken up inside the No 1 Shed and sold for scrap in 1931. All work stopped in Britain on airships and Cardington then became a storage base.

With war imminent, Cardington began the assembly of barrage balloons in 1937, becoming the No. 1 RAF Balloon Training Unit. Cardington manufactured its own hydrogen, using the steam reforming process, and continued to produce all the gases used by the Royal Air Force until its closure in 2000. The two airship hangars ceased being part of the RAF Cardington site in the late 1940s and they were put to other uses. The fence was moved, so they were outside the main RAF Cardington site. For a number of years (until 2001) one of the hangars was used by the Building Research Establishment as a whole building test facility. Here, multi-storey steel, concrete and wooden buildings were constructed and then destructively tested within the huge space available. This hangar was repainted and looked after in comparison with the other hangar. Airship Industries assembled airships in the second hangar during the 1980s, but the business proved unviable.

No. 1 Hangar ia a Grade II* Listed Building and was placed on English Heritage's At Risk Register in 2007.


Bowyer, Chaz, History of the RAF, Dolphin, ASIN B000O52SBU (1984)

Chant, Christopher, History of the RAF: From 1939 to the Present, Caxton, ISBN -10 1840671092 (2000)

Coates, Tim, R101, The Airship Disaster, ISBN-10: 0117024074 (1999)

Chamberlain, Geoffrey, Airships: Cardington, Terence Dalton, ISBN-10: 0861380258 (1984)

Development Brief for Land at Raf Cardington, Shortstown, Bedford, North Beds Borough Council, ASIN: B001A4FYYW (1991)

Donne, Michael, Pioneers of the Skies: A History of Short Brothers, Nicholson and Bass, ASIN: B000ZRT0HC (1987)

Fire Technology, Vol 22, No 3,Springer Netherlands, ISSN ISSN 0015-2684

Higham, Robin, The British Rigid Airship, 1908-1931, London, G. T. Foulis & Co (1961)

Mowthorpe, Ces, Battlebags, Allan Sutton Publishing, (1995)

Ventry, Lord & Koesnik, Eugene M, Airship Saga, Poole and Dorset, Blandford Press, ISBN 0-7137-1001-2 (1982)

Opening Times:
Visible at all times

How To Find:
By road: Off A421, Bedford Southern Bypass or A600.

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