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Pulham’s golden age as an airship base

The tool shed inside airship shed No 1 at Pulham airship station.

The tool shed inside airship shed No 1 at Pulham airship station.

It’s difficult to image today that a small rural south Norfolk village played such a pivotal role in the glamorous age of airship travel - but Pulham St Mary’s golden past was in the spotlight again recently with the news that one of its huge airship hangars was up for sale.

In 1928, a fleet of lorries transported the dismantled Hangar No 2 from the Royal Navy Air Station at Pulham to its new home at Cardington in Bedfordshire.

The iconic and historic building - 223,300 sq feet, 170 feet high and covering 19.49 acres - has in recent years been used as the UK’s Fire Research Station and as a studio for film and television productions such as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. It was on the market with a £3,350,000 price tag and is currently under offer.

Airships continue to fascinate many. In the 1920s, it seemed they were the future of air travel, yet less than two decades later, following a series of devastating accidents with lives lost, they had all but disappeared from our skies.

It was in 1912 when land to the south of Pulham St Mary was acquired in great secrecy on behalf of the Admiralty by local agents Gaze & Sons. The 216 acres of land was cleared of hedges, trees and ditches to prepare for the creation of Pulham Air Station (or No. 2 Coastal Airship Station) as a base from which airships could patrol the North Sea during the First World War looking for enemy ships and submarines. The site’s open nature with relatively low wind levels and proximity to the North Sea, enabling patrols to be made easily but out of reach of enemy guns, made it an ideal location.

The early ships were non-rigid ‘blimps’ which became known as ‘Pulham Pigs’ because of their yellowish-buff envelope - a nickname which stuck and later included all airships at the station.

Their patrol area extended between a line from Margate to Dunkirk in the south and from Mablethorpe to Holland in the North, with the smaller SS types patrolling closer inshore.

The original shed at Pulham was a wooden structure suitable for the smaller non-rigid early Coastal and Submarine Scout airships, but by 1917 new rigid airships were being introduced. Much larger than their predecessors, up to 643 feet long and 79 feet in diameter, new sheds were required to house them.

By late 1917, two giant sheds had been erected, each 800 foot long, by 180 feet wide and 130 feet high, where two rigid airships could be accommodated side by side, or a number of smaller ones slotted in. Giant sliding doors at each end were opened and closed by a steam traction engine and a tank, while along the side of the second shed there were workshops where munitions were prepared and repairs undertaken.

By the end of the war, 3,000 servicemen and women were stationed onsite, along with a further 2,000 civilians who came to work daily.

The huge sheds were landmarks visible from miles away and the station also boasted another smaller shed, its own hydrogen plant and a mooring mast.

Yet despite the size and importance of RNAS Pulham, today there is little evidence remaining above ground.

After the First World War, RNAS Pulham continued with experimental work, and in 1919 it became the focus of the world’s press when the R34 airship completed the first ever two-way flown crossing of the Atlantic by landing at Pulham.

However, by 1928 it had been decided to concentrate the fledgling civilian airship industry at Cardington. One of the two giant sheds from Pulham was dismantled and transported to its new Bedfordshire home.

Pulham later became an RAF base, acting as the East of England’s munitions store and aircraft breakage and salvage unit during the Second World War and up until 1952, and it was also instrumental in setting up air traffic control in the UK with a Marconi radio beacon at Pulham communicating with one at Croydon.

The station finally closed in 1958, and the land was sold at auction in 1962.

Sheila Moss King, of The Pennoyer Centre, where photographs and memorabilia of the ‘Pulham Pigs’ era are on display, said the centre has plans for an airship festival next year. “We’re really fortunate to receive regular donations of memorabilia from far and wide, as we’re known as the home of airships in East Anglia, and we will be staging another Airship Festival in 2014.”

 

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