Most people with an interest in flying would agree that our aviation heritage is worth preserving. But as Tony Newton discovers, these things take time, hard work and money.
The aviation world is full of acronyms, but the acronym RAeC- the Royal Aero Club - must be one of the oldest. Originally set up by balloonists in 1901 and gaining it's ‘Royal’ prefix in 1912, the Royal Aero Club became aviation's governing body, playing a key role in many of the developments that are now seen as major elements in our aviation heritage. The role of the Royal Aero Club has changed over the years as air sports have expanded, but the club retains it's role as the national co-ordinating body for Air Sport in the UK within the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
A new acronym has joined the list with the establishment in 1998 of the RAeCT - the Royal Aero Club Trust - which was set up under the auspices of the Royal Aero Club with an interesting combination of forward-looking and retrospective roles. Looking forward, the Trust is tasked with promoting an interest in aviation to the next generation of aviators. It operates a bursary scheme which makes a modest contribution towards the ongoing training costs of successful award recipients in their chosen air sport, and also helps those young people who have come to aviation through the flight sim route to try out the real thing.
The original letter from the Air Ministry to the Club confirming the personnel selected to compete for the Schneider Trophy
Looking back with justified pride, the Trust also has the historically important job of preserving an amazingly detailed archive of material that dates from the earliest days of British aviation and encompasses many of the headiest events of our aviation history such as the Schneider Trophy without which, arguably, the Spitfire would never have happened.
Having an historically important archive is one thing: cataloguing and preserving it for posterity is quite another, as I discovered when I joined Trust chairman Fred Marsh at the archive's current home at the RAF Museum, Hendon.
The original album containing the first ever Great Britain aviator certificates. No.1 is Moore-Brabazon, no.2 is Charles Rolls
But what is actually in the document archive?
Says Peter Elliott, Senior Keeper, Department of Research & Information Services at the RAF Museum.
If the archive is that important, why is the nation not already conserving it?
Says Peter Elliott.
Fred Marsh with some of the Royal Aero Club’s silverware on display at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon
It's a familiar situation: a large job to do but no money to do it with. But as I've discovered in the few months I've known him, Fred Marsh is both a man of action and a man of ideas who has assembled around him on the Board of the Trust a number of 'can do' people who seem able to make an awful lot happen on a shoestring through goodwill, voluntary work and a highly effective network.
The result of this inspired idea was that for the past eighteen months, the Trust has been able to field two teams, each comprising four volunteer conservators who between them have the job of working through all 900 boxes of the archive doing the basic work necessary to catalogue and conserve the archive.
Team leader Andrew Dawrant (left) with volunteers Peter Blunt (centre) and Charles Crawley
On the day I visited the RAF museum, one of the volunteer teams was hard at work under the watchful eye of team leader Andrew Dawrant, a retired actuary with a keen interest in local and family history. But what do they actually do?
Sounds like a tedious job, so I was interested to know what reward the volunteers got from what seemed like a rather mundane task.
Working with Andrew on the day of my visit are two volunteers, and I was interested to know what motivated them.
Peter Blunt - who I discover used to run the model shop on Mill Hill Circus that my father used to take me to - worked previously on a book conservation project at the Admiralty Library. When that moved from Whitehall to Portsmouth, he was looking for a new and related challenge and now works two mornings a month on the Trust archive.
Charles Crawley comes to the work with a family connection to Hendon Aerodrome since it's earliest days: his uncle used to work in the Grahame-White manufacturing company at Hendon during the First World War. In a lovely historical twist, Charles went to work on a 'new' archive box one morning, and on opening it found it contain his own application, submitted through the London Gliding Club, for registration of his own A,B and C certificates in the early post-war years.
It's not the only coincidence to have happened. Famous air racing and test pilot Alex Henshaw was visiting the museum one day and it turned out that quite by chance the box the heritage volunteers were working on that very day contained his application to take part in one of the King's Cup air races.
There are other nice examples of history coming full circle. John Dunville was a famous balloonist of 100 years ago. His son, while at Eton, kept a scrapbook of his father's exploits, including press cuttings, letters and postcards. The scrapbook passed into the hands of the Royal Aero Club, which came across the album through it's recent cataloguing activity and has now been in contact with Dunville's family to reconnect them with their heirloom.
Unusually for NADFAS heritage volunteers, only two of the nine Trust volunteers are ladies. Sonja Fillingham is the widow of W P I Fillingham, the 1953 King's Cup winner, and the other is Pam Schooling, widow of Elstree instructor John Schooling.
But what is all this paper clip removal (worthy though it is) actually achieving, and is it really doing anything for the longevity of the documents?
Now, eighteen months into what was always envisaged as a two year volunteer project which looks like being completed on time, the Trust and the RAF Museum are working closely together on plans for the future.
Trust Chairman Fred Marsh with the RAF Museum’s Peter Elliott inspect one of the 900 or so boxes that make up the Royal Aero Club archive
To round off my day at the RAF Museum, Fred and Peter Elliott took me on a tour of the archive. Mostly, it's row upon row of boxes, neatly stacked on sliding shelves. We all look forward to the day when this material is digitised and available for searching, but that day is some way off and dependent on funding. But there are some real treasures that I was privileged to get my hands on.
These three beautiful initialled leather albums are Charles Rolls’ own very personal record of his aviation exploits and contain a wealth of photos, invitations, awards, licences and other memorabilia
Wrapped in archive quality paper and tied carefully with an archivists knot (of which I discover there are many different types) are three beautiful leather albums embossed with the name 'Charles Rolls', and documenting his aviation career from balloonist to pilot: licences, invitations, awards, photos, they are all here. This is the man who was taught to fly by the Wrights. This is the man who has the second RAeC Aviator Certificate ever granted in Britain (incidentally, the 20 albums of the earliest RAeC Aviator Certificates are all in the Club's collection). This is the man whose premature death in an air accident (structural failure) reportedly induced Henry Royce to start manufacturing aero engines after years of refusal. These albums have captions in Rolls’ own hand: he himself turned these pages. These are the treasures that we must stabilise, conserve and display. This is the goal to which the Royal Aero Club Trust has dedicated itself.
© Text and photos Tony Newton 2006
Article reproduced with kind permission of the author.
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