This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the official founding of the RAF Museum in November 1968.
Back in 1962 the Air Force Board formed a committee under the chairmanship of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Dermot Boyle to advise on historical and museum matters. From what that committee determined in its recommendations would lead on to the establishment of what we know today as the Royal Air Force Museum.
A separate Board of Trustees was formed in order to plan and ultimately look after the Museum’s interests, with Sir Dermot Boyle as chairman and Dr. John Tanner, from the RAF Staff College, Cranwell, was appointed to be Director of the Museum.
The RAF Museum London is located on what had until 1968 probably been best known as the former Hendon Aerodrome or RAF Hendon. Now known as the RAF London Museum (the second Museum site at RAF Cosford – now known as The RAF Museum Midlands – was opened in May 1979) and situated in Colindale which is around seven miles north west of London Charring Cross. It is fitting to remind first that Hendon’s connections with aviation date back all the way to 1909 when a local company, Everett & Edgcombe Ltd, built a shed in a field at the end of Colindale Avenue in order to build an aeroplane. The following year and with other organisations using by now using what had also become an airfield, Louis Bleriot who was the first person to fly an aeroplane across the English Channel, founded a school on the site. It would later become an RAF airfield and one that served London well over many years.
(Note: Taken from the RAF Museum website itself, I have reprinted full information in relation to the history of the Hendon Aerodrome site towards the end of this commentary in italics).
Hendon closed as an operational RAF Station in 1987 although some RAF personnel remained on the site until 1988. Indeed, but for the actions of the Royal Air Force after the First World War, Hendon could well have been developed into an aerodrome for international flights.
That was not to be but during the 1930’s it became famous as a place of pioneering experiments, air shows and the famous Cobham Flying Circus, the first airmail flight took off from Hendon along with the first parachute descent from a powered aircraft, and the first night flights and Hendon was the first airfield to provide aerial defence for a city. Despite the success, Hendon Aerodrome’s future became increasingly uncertain before the start of WW2 as it was felt that it would become an easy target for enemy bombing raids.
After the war the base was seen as being increasingly unsuitable mainly because its runways were considered as being too short and, by now, the close proximity of suburban houses.
However, the RAF continued to argue the military importance of the Hendon complex well into the 1950s, apparently on the basis that future developments in aviation technology might render the base as being once again suitable. Nevertheless, Hendon Borough Council and the London County Council were able to argue that houses were needed more than the aerodrome and the last flying unit, the Metropolitan Communications Squadron, left Hendon in 1957.
Late in 1968, it was an RAF Blackburn Beverley freighter, flown in to be an exhibit at the new RAF Museum, that would be the last official aircraft to land in Hendon. The RAF base finally closed altogether in 1987 and the large area of the former aerodrome site is now the Grahame Park Housing Estate together with Hendon Police College. The RAF Museum is situated on the remaining part of the former aerodrome site and while East Camp buildings remained until 1993 when most of the older unfit for purpose buildings were demolished, it is pleasing that the former Graham-White factory building along with the former Officers Mess and a few other important older RAF buildings have been preserved and maintained.
It is then of little surprise that the Hendon site with its long history of aviation links was chosen as the most suitable to become the future RAF Museum as it had a long aviation history. The Museum opened on 15 November 1972 with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II performing the official opening ceremony and by which time the hangars at Hendon housed 36 aircraft.
Over the years that followed 130 aircraft had been acquired for the Museum. Aircraft not on display were held in what were called reserve collections at a number of RAF stations around the country including RAF Cosford but other than on Battle of Britain ‘Open Days’ at various RAF stations, these stored aircraft were seldom available to be seen by the public.
Thirty years later, in 1998, the former Cosford Aerospace Museum which had had been operated by the MOD at RAF Cosford since 1972 formally became part of the RAF Museum.
Today, the RAF London and Midland Museum sites are enjoyed by unprecedented levels of visitors. Record visitor levels and the success achieved in developing and expanding the two museum sites is all down to the very hard work and effort put in by CEO Maggie Appleton and her team, to the Trustees and the many supporters and volunteers who provide unrivalled levels of support and also to all those who are still serving or have served in the Royal Air Force and whose brilliant stories the Museum ensures that it tells.
No museum or organisation of this kind can stand still and the RAF Museum is certainly no exception. In the years leading up to the RAF Centenary commemorations in 2018, the London Museum site had enjoyed major new infrastructure investment and development including major new exhibition facilities, repurposing of buildings, landscaping and improvements to its learning facilities.
Four years on from the RAF Centenary, the RAF Museum is preparing for the next stage of major development at the Midland Museum site along with having launches a strategy that will take the museum into a new generation of RAF history.
I will at this point remind what the RAF Museum is and what it sets out to do. Suffice to say that the RAF Museum should be regarded as the National Museum of the Royal Air Force. From the beginning, the Museum purpose has always been to share the stories of the Royal Air Force, past, present and future, using the stories of its people and using the Museum’s collections to engage, inspire and encourage learning. It continues to do that job brilliantly.
Both London and Midland sites the RAF Museum offer free entry to visitors. As the custodian of the RAF story, the Museum trustees, people – staff and volunteers – are its key partners and they share a vision and ambition which is designed to inspire all those that wish to better understand the brilliance and crucial important of what the Royal Air Force is, what it has achieved and how, the people who shaped it through its so-far 104 year history and importantly, to constantly remind of the place that the RAF has in all of our lives.
The RAF Museum has recently embarked on a new ambitious programme of transformation under the title: Strategy 2030.
Strategy 2030 priorities:
These include the launch of a twenty-five-year Development Programme for the Midland site at RAF Cosford and which is now branded as the RAF Museum Midlands. This programme of engagement activities and capital investment will continue our focus on immersive RAF storytelling and support our ambition to encourage reflection and debate across our spaces and programmes – as well as welcome all visitors for a great day out.
The strategy envisaged and agreed will undoubtedly transform the RAF Midlands Museum and it will also impact through a series of phased projects engaging audiences, who may not necessarily easily identify themselves with the RAF story, through enabling them to find common interests and histories that may possibly link them.
Strategy 2030 sets out to continue to develop and nurture meaningful partnerships whilst also looking for more support and external investment in order to cover the funding required to meet the planned objectives.
The RAF Museum recognises the importance of museums and culture to the economic prosperity and social wellbeing of our communities.
The ultimate intention is that by 2030 the Royal Air Force Museum will be recognised as a world class National Museum, respected for commitment to focusing on its audiences and using the collections and spaces available and using these in creative ways that fully engage the audience and visitors with the RAF story.
The RAF Museum will remain financially sustainable and retain the firm foundations that will enable an agile and ambitious future to be achieved.
The RAF Museum Midlands Development Programme Will Be the first part of Strategy 2030 and includes a proposed £26m transformation of the Cosford site and which will be spread over the next five years:
The RAF Museum Midlands Development Programme will enable the museum to step into the chosen our new identity as the RAF Museum Midlands serving local, regional and national communities onsite, offsite and online.
A multi-strand engagement programme will connect with diverse communities offsite and online, supported by and through a welcoming onsite transformation of the museums extensive collection and that will further facilitate story sharing, galleries and landscape.
Through the Programme the RAF Museum Midlands will become an extremely valuable resource for communities spread across the Midlands
The Museum will work with partners to involve people in their local and RAF heritage, improving their wellbeing and developing their skills
The Museum will work with audiences to share RAF stories that are relevant to their lives and lived experiences in the hope of inspiring them to fulfil their own potential
The collections, exhibits and information will be better understood, cared for and more widely shared
The 2030 Strategy envisages a move towards a target of being a Carbon Net Zero organisation by 2030
The Museum will be more resilient and able to support the wider communities in which it operates.
A large part of the 2030 Strategy Plan includes the opening a new ‘COLLECTIONS HUB’ – one that it is hoped will enable increased levels of conservation to be undertaken, research and share the stored collections with visitors for the first time. This will hopefully provide a further springboard to communities and the fostering of more local pride and belonging.
The ‘Collections Hub’ together with the shared collections is intended to engage people in intergenerational opportunities to develop new skills and ideas, tackling isolation, and provide the inspiration for a wide range of creative activities, encouraging social and emotional learning in a safe environment.
An innovative NATIONALLY RELEVANT EXHIBITION will focus on the critical role of the Royal Air Force over the past 40 years, inviting visitors to discover its mission today and to imagine how the service will need to adapt in the future. The exhibition will embrace digital technology and be at the forefront of best practice in museum interpretation. Artefacts ranging from aircraft through to films will be selected through co-curation and research to support storytelling and reflect on our diverse local communities.
A new LEARNING CENTRE will provide bespoke facilities dedicated to the development and delivery of lifelong learning programmes. New learning spaces will enable exploration, discovery and debate and will ignite visitors’ curiosity, both in STEM subjects, as well as art, history and design. They will provide safe spaces for social and emotional learning using creative experiences to explore challenging issues.
Improvements to OUTDOOR SPACES will include areas for learning, discovery and contemplation set in a woodland landscape and new public realm. Investment in the outdoor realm adjacent to the Collections Hub and new exhibition will incorporate seating, walking trails, with pockets of greenery creating much-needed outdoor facilities, with the option to host learning activities outdoors. The intention is that the Museum will co-design these areas with groups that may not have access to green spaces, offering volunteering opportunities to help maintain them in the future. This area will explore and present stories of the RAF’s own environmental innovation within these new landscapes.
AS you would expect, following the huge investment ad change that has delivered such wonderful improvements and additions at the RAF London Museum, the RAF Museum 2030 Strategy plan has been designed to deliver a huge programme of development and change at the RAF Museum Midlands. Importantly, much emphasis has been placed on SUSTAINABILITY & BIODIVERSITY being a priority in order that the RAF Museum will be able to reach its set Carbon Net Zero target of 2030.
As can now be seen at the RAF Museum London to the huge benefit of visitors, planned greening of the site landscape at the Cosford site will provide new opportunities for carbon capture, increasing biodiversity and spaces where visitors and staff can also improve their physical and mental health.
Interestingly, the whole life carbon impacts of the 2030 Midland Strategy programme will be monitored using the ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition’ produced by the World Green Building Council and UK Green Building Council. This framework will measure the impacts from the construction process, through to improvements to existing buildings and site infrastructure.
So, there you have it – the RAF Museum at 50 and looking forward to further huge success and change through the next fifty years. I had first visited the RAF Museum when it was just ten years old in 1978 and because I had been asked to take a client of mine who, because of service injury many years before, was unable to drive himself and who knew the then curator of the RAF Museum because they had served together. Less said the better about the drive from Kidderminster to London but my reward was to be allowed to sit in both RAF Sunderland and the Heinkel He111H-20 Bomber. Today I remain as an Ambassador of the Museum and I am proud of my continued attachment to this brilliant Museum.
As I have already mentioned, this is a Museum that offers so much to visitors and one that over the past ten years has seen massive investment designed to ensure that the full RAF story, past, present and whatever emerges in the future, can and will be told. The Trustees of the Museum along with CEO Maggie Appleton and all of the staff who work so hard to ensure visitors get so much from the RAF Museums London and Midlands sites are to be commended for what they do and have done and achieved and importantly, what they are planning to do over the next five years to ensure that the RAF Museum achieves all of its aims.
CHW (London – 17th November 2022)
(What Follows is some additional history relating to Hendon Aerodrome / RAF Hendon site taken from the RAF Museum website)
The Grahame-White Aviation Company began assembling Burgess Baby aircraft in 1910. In 1911 the company produced the New Baby and was also soon building Morane-Saulnier monoplanes under licence. When John D North joined the company in 1913, he began designing aircraft for the company, many of which were used by the Grahame-White flying school and pilots at the many aviation meetings.
The factory grew rapidly during World War One. Orders were received from the Admiralty and the War Office for aircraft. Some of the houses in the area were built to accommodate the workforce for the factories; Aeroville was built by the Grahame-White company to house some of its employees.
An Aircraft Acceptance Park was established to take delivery of aircraft from the many factories in the area, including the Grahame-White works, Handley Page and Airco. In addition, many pilots were trained at Hendon for both the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps. Three pilots who trained at Hendon, Mannock, Ball and Warneford, were later awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery in the air.
There had been some public flying during World War One. In 1919, however, a full season of display flying was held. Many famous pilots attended including the French ace Nungesser. In June 1919 the Victory Aerial Derby was held, rekindling memories of the pre-war air races.
Military activity declined drastically in peacetime. The Royal Air Force, who now controlled the airfield, flew officials to Paris for the Versailles Peace Conference. Although there was little military activity the Government refused to return the airfield to Grahame-White.
In 1922, the Government took possession of Hendon without warning and closed the factory which had survived by making cars. In 1925 compensation was agreed and ownership of Hendon passed to the RAF. At the time the only users of the airfield were the London Flying Club and the Skywriting Corporation.
In 1920 the RAF Pageant was held at Hendon. It was the first of many held here during the twenties and thirties. For most people it was their only chance to see the skills of RAF pilots. People could compare modern aircraft with those of World War I and see the latest developments in the “New Types” Park. Hundreds of thousands of people visited the displays. In 1938 and 1939 the displays were titled the Empire Air Day, one of several held across the United Kingdom.
No.600 and No.601 Squadrons of the Auxiliary Air Force were formed at Hendon in 1927. In 1930 No.604 Squadron was formed. After 1930 the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York kept their aircraft at Hendon: this was the forerunner of the modern Queen’s Flight.
In 1933 No.24 Squadron, which transported VIPs, moved to Hendon from Northolt. World War II brought changes at Hendon, with only No.24 Squadron remaining of the pre-war units.
During the Battle of Britain, a number of fighter squadrons used the airfield for short periods. The proximity to various headquarters and good access to road and rail links led to the RAF and United States Army Air Forces concentrating transport units at RAF Hendon. Runways were built to allow heavier aircraft to use the airfield and large numbers of huts were built to accommodate the increasing numbers of personnel. Accommodation was a constant problem.
At different times Aeroville, the Hendon Hall Hotel and houses in Sunningfields Road and Cedars Close were among those requisitioned. RAF Hendon was attacked from August 1940 onwards Although it suffered less damage than many RAF stations during the war, one of the three WW1 hangars was destroyed by fire. Several of the attacks also caused damage in housing in the local area. By contrast, Geraldo and his Orchestra broadcast Workers Playtime from RAF Hendon on 25th May 1944. By then, Hendon had become well known to Royalty, Politicians and Military Commanders who were used to flying to or from the airfield.
The V1 flying bombs brought tragedy to Hendon. Four members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force were killed by a flying bomb which hit Colindale Hospital on 1 July 1944. The WAAF quarters were also affected. Just over a month later, on 3 August, another flying bomb destroyed a brick-built barrack block, killing all inside. RAF personnel had to be assisted by soldiers from the Army School of Physical training billeted at the Police College. The damage was still being cleared at the end of the Second World War.
Hendon had held one of the last of the pre-war flying displays but on the 15th of September 1945 it would hold one of the first post-war air displays. On that occasion over 20 aircraft took part in the flying display and it was watched by tens of thousands of spectators. There were displays too in many of the buildings showing wartime developments including radar. (CHW – It was the success of this that eventually led to the creation of the Farnborough Air Show in 1948, initially an annual and later, from 1968, a two-yearly event).
The end of World War II led to a reduction of units. When No.24 Squadron left in 1946 Hendon was without any flying units. Later that year No.601 and No.604 Squadrons returned. The Metropolitan Communications Squadron of the RAF moved to Hendon for the transportation of VIPs and the US Navy stationed a transport squadron here. The airfield was considered unsuitable for jets so in 1949 No.601 and No.604 Squadrons had to move to North Weald. The US Navy left in 1956 and the last RAF flying unit, the Metropolitan Communications Squadron, departed for RAF Northolt on 4 November 1957.
There was still some flying at Hendon by a gliding school which provided training for air cadets and some hangars were used for the storage of the Nash Collection of aircraft. This collection now forms part of the RAF Museum Collection.
1968 saw the 50th Anniversary of the formation of the RAF, and a small display was held to celebrate the occasion. Later that year the last aircraft to use Hendon’s runways, a Blackburn Beverley, arrived and was put on display although this aircraft was sadly later scrapped. Most of the airfield site was then sold for housing but even so, Hendon remained a busy RAF station, accommodating the Supply Control Centre and the Joint Services Air Trooping Centre. RAF Hendon finally closed in 1987 although some RAF personnel remained on the site until 1988. The rest is history – the RAF Museum finally opening on the 15th November 1972 with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II performing the official opening ceremony and by which time the museum hangars at Hendon housed 36 aircraft.
Over the years that followed, some 130 aircraft had been acquired for the Museum. Aircraft not on display were held in what were called reserve collections at a number of RAF stations around the country including RAF Cosford. Other than on Battle of Britain Open Days at various RAF stations, these stored aircraft were seldom available to be seen by the public.
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785