Pins and Needles…and Paperclips
Treasures from the Royal Aero Club Archives
Pins and Needles…and Paperclips
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.
History of the Royal Aero Club
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).
Looking back with justified pride, the Trust 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.
The letter shown is the original letter from the Air Ministry to the Club confirming the personnel selected to compete for the Schneider Trophy.
Having an historically important archive is one thing; cataloguing and preserving it for posterity is quite another, as I discovered when I joined previous Trust chairman Fred Marsh at the archive's current home at the RAF Museum, Hendon.
"When the Royal Aero Club vacated its Piccadilly premises in the early 60s and after subsequent merger and de-mergers with other Clubs, the entire archive went into tea chests which were loaded on to a three ton lorry and carted off to the RAF Museum. There, the tea chests were decanted into some 900 storage boxes where they've stayed for forty years because we haven't had the resources to catalogue the collection, let alone stabilise or preserve it for posterity. Apart from the documents, we also have a substantial number of paintings, albums and trophies of varying historical or artistic importance that are somewhat easier to catalogue and display."
But what is actually in the document archive?
"It's the history of aviation in the United Kingdom and includes some of the earliest writing on aviation going back to a newspaper report in 1784," said Peter Elliott, previously Senior Keeper, Department of Research & Information Services at the RAF Museum.
"It's a fundamental part of British aviation history. The Air Ministry records are preserved in the National Archives at Kew, but the Royal Aero Club was the prime mover in air racing, record attempts, licensing and lobbying, so without this material, you'd only get half the story. I wouldn’t want people to get the impression that this collection has remained hidden for all this time: we have a basic list of what's there and have responded to enquiries over the years, but when it’s finally properly catalogued it will become far more accessible."
If the archive is that important, why is the nation not already conserving it?
"Because the collection is owned by the Royal Aero Club, we can't use public money to restore it. Twentieth century paper is horrible stuff and despite being stored in a cool place, it will keep deteriorating if not actively conserved."
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.
"My wife is very much interested in the history of interior design and is an active member of NADFAS - the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. On picking up their magazine one day, it suddenly occurred to me that conserving documents wasn't very much different to conserving works of art, and that there might be people out there with an interest in heritage and time on their hands who could help us achieve something that was simply impossible to pay for," recalled Fred.
"We contacted the Chairman of the NADFAS Heritage volunteers in the Greater London area and wondered if the phone would ring."
Catalogue and Conserve
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.
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?
"One of the biggest threats to the survival of this material is actually the rust from corroding pins, staples and paperclips,"
"Our main job is to work methodically though each box, removing all the paperclips, pins and staples, placing documents in new archive quality card folders and writing a summary of the contents on the cover."
Sounds like a tedious job, so I was interested to know what reward the volunteers got from what seemed like a rather mundane task.
"It's the nearest you'll ever get to a time machine,"
"It is mundane taking out paperclips, but every so often one can stop to smell the roses. We're reading about events in progress 50, 75 or even 100 years ago where we know the outcome with the benefit of hindsight. What's really interesting is that the language is so different, and I often find myself surprised by the plain speaking and tone of some of the letters which in many ways is more direct that what we see nowadays. But apart from the obviously important stuff, one comes across material which no-one ever thought would be kept: things like laundry bills and booze bills. These are things which may seem mundane, but who knows what will be deemed to be of social or historical importance in 100 years time?"
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?
"About six months into the project, we decided that we really ought to check that we weren't wasting everyone's time by doing things that were well-intentioned but fruitless,"
"We brought in an adviser from the Parliamentary Archives to audit the quality of the work that had been done thus far and advise on changes to our working practices, and I'm glad to say we passed."
Plans for the Future
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.
"Just over two years ago we made an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, but were turned down as the application was seen as not having enough focus,"
"What our NADFAS volunteers and our own committee members have achieved with the archive since then is fantastic and we're now working with the museum on formulating a new grant application. We've also got links with the National Aerospace Library Project and are looking at joint funding for research projects."
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.
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.
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
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
Team leader Andrew Dawrant (left) with volunteers Peter Blunt (centre) and Charles Crawley
Fred Marsh with some of the Royal Aero Club’s silverware on display at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon
The original album containing the first ever Great Britain aviator certificates. No.1 is Moore-Brabazon, no.2 is Charles Rolls