ARGL in its various forms has been in existence for 41 years. I will examine the context surrounding its formation, what we have archived over the years, a few of the projects that we have been involved in and the most recent news.
Our history goes something like this:
Airfield Research Group Limited (ARGL) owes its very existence to the publication of a Report of the Defence Lands Committee 1971-1973 (also called the Nugent Report) an extract titled Too Many Airfields was published in the September 1973 issue of Aviation News.
Following this a letter appeared which was printed in a subsequent issue of the magazine wanting to know whether there were any like-minded people willing to form an airfield interest group.
For the next three years we operated on a pen-pal basis mainly swopping photos, corresponding by letter and telephone about the locations of control towers, hangars and access to sites etc. In 1977 the first meeting took place at the RAF Museum Hendon. It was agreed that we would be known as the Airfield Research Group (ARG), we would be organised around a management committee and membership, also that we would produce a quarterly newsletter. One of the reasons for the delay in setting up the first meeting was the petrol crisis, the after effects of the Yom Kippur War so at the time petrol was expensive and in short supply. A subsequent petrol shortage in 1979, impacted even further on airfield visits and meetings.
In the mid-to-late 1970s there was very little known about airfields and even less about their buildings and infrastructure. We knew the names and locations of them, mainly thanks to Phil Butler’s British Isles Airfield Guide, first published by the Merseyside Aviation Society in the early 1960s and listing about 1,050 airfields. At this time very few Ordnance Survey maps had airfield layouts shown, the space occupied by the airfield was either left blank or shown pre-airfield.
RAFM Hendon had first opened in 1973 but it was not until 1976 that airfield plans became available to the general public, but even this was not the complete collection as it did not include active airfields – these being locked away.
Another key work available to us was Disused Airfields as a Planning Resource by Ron Blake, published in 1978. He was the first person to characterise buildings by type and he made a study of the geography and geology of airfields – the subject of his PhD. He was also the first to suggest airfields would be locations of wind farms (both Phil and Ron are still members of the ARGL).
Other major books at this time included White Rose Base 1972 (Brian Rapier), Bomber County (TN Hancock) 1978, an excellent book funded by Lincolnshire Library Service and the first After the Battle ‘Then and Now books’. The year 1979 saw the publication of the first Action Stations series of books. All of these were very good for airfield histories but had very little information on airfield architecture.
The ‘new’ Public Record Office building at Kew (since 2002, renamed as The National Archives), opened in 1977 but it was a while before many of the Air Historical Branch (AHB) records were made available, partly due to the Thirty Year Rule which prior to 1967 had been The Fifty Year Rule (the thirty year rule being finally abolished in 2005).
By 1983, the old newsletter had become Airfield Review (AR) and three years later the magazine took on a more professional form mainly due to the typewriter being replaced with an IBM PC as well as the employment of professional printers. The year 1986 was very significant to us because a narrative called Works, originally published by AHB in 1955 was released having been classified under the thirty year rule. This release of information about buildings, construction, layout and the design of airfields both in the AHB book and within the many thousands of records at Kew which had also been released between the late 1970s and the early 1980s had a dramatic effect on the quality of articles appearing in AR and our knowledge of airfield history and architecture.
1990 - 2005
The first modern style Airfield Review was published in December 1992 (issue 61). At the time of writing (June 2015) we have reached number 147.
In the early 1990s members catalogued roughly 2,000 RAFM 35 mm aperture cards of airfield buildings and ARG acquired a photocopy of most of these.
December 1992 was also the time that the ARG archive was first discussed, mainly due to us being donated a very nice collection of pre-Second World War civil airport photos from the Aeroplane magazine as well as the RAFM plans. At this time off course up until four years ago, the archives were stored in member’s houses.
The voluntary work at the RAFM meant that two members could write and publish a book called Control Tower; this was noticed by English Heritage (EH) (now Historic England) who in 1994 invited ARG members Julian Temple and myself to produce New Guidelines for Listing Military and Civil Airfield Buildings in England.
This led to the EH Thematic Aviation work between 1999 and 2000 resulting in around 150 listings plus scheduling designations of airfield defence structures as part of the Monuments Protection Programme (MPP). Between 1995 and 2001, ARG was also involved with the Defence of Britain project, producing a report on the defence of airfields for MPP, which ultimately led to the book Airfield Defences which we published in 2010.
A book on military airfield architecture written by me was published by Haynes in 1996 which was based on the 1994 research carried out for English Heritage, although at the time and outside of ARG there was still very little interest in airfield architecture and history so accordingly the book was quickly remaindered. A follow on from this work was compiling reports that led to three conservation areas, firstly at Bicester (2002) then Yatesbury (2005), followed by Old Sarum (2007) but a recent appraisal of Panshanger failed and the airfield then closed (part of the historical research for this has been recently published in AR 147). We have also actively been involved with Historic Scotland giving free advice for 15 listings in Scotland and the Orkney Islands but we have had little or no success in Wales.
Back in 2005, our long-standing Chairman Barry Abraham died and leading up to this the group had gone through a rather slow period mainly because it had not successfully embraced the internet.
2008 to 2013
In April 2008 the online forum ‘Airfield Information Exchange’ (AiX) was formed by three non-members. After a period of six months the three founders of AiX joined ARG and the forum became the public forums of ARG, It was this that propelled us into the 21st century.
Even before AiX had been online, we had organised a large number of airfield site visits which were and still are enjoyed by members and non-members alike – one of the very first was in fact to Alconbury in 1999. In more recent times, we also have a regular presence at major air shows (the ARGL Roadshow) with a stall promoting the group.
In a number of discussions between the founder members of AiX, it was felt that the private archive collections of some of the older ARG members (with collections dating back to the early 1970s), had great historical significance. A major concern was that this material could be lost as member’s age and pass away. The general feeling was that something must be put in place as soon as possible to guarantee the survival of archives for future generations, also to bring the various collections together. We required a secure and safe environment for donated archives in order that the collections could be preserved and used as an educational and research facility. This idea led to the not for profit company AiX – ARG Archive Limited which was formed to manage the archives.
At this time (2008), the archives were still stored at various addresses all over the UK and a start was made to find a home, at first the operations room at West Raynham was considered, followed by the guardroom at Upwood but both of these were found to be unsuitable.
It was through the work that the group had been carrying out on building recording that we were offered rooms by Urban and Civic at Alconbury Weald, which we gladly accepted. This led to us having a room in building 76, then another plus a cupboard which we utilized until 2014 when the whole building was required by another tenant. We were however, offered a large room and office in building 56 and this is now our home for which we are exceedingly grateful to Urban and Civic.
It was during a building survey for a report on the former RAF Uxbridge, that we were offered a vast amount of racking (involving around a ton or more of steelwork) kindly donated by St Modwen (the developer) and this had to be dismantled, transported and partially re-erected in building 76.
Another major piece of work conducted by members is the desk-based study Nine Thousand Miles of Concrete, compiled by three members in 2013 for EH. This is a review of Second World War temporary airfields in England (it is currently being updated).
Perhaps one of the most interesting and thought provoking studies done by our members so far is the one titled 20th Century Air-Raid Precaution Railway Control Centres, for EH. This has led to the discovery that the world’s first home defence warning system against enemy airships and aircraft had originated with a joint GPO and Railway Executive Committee system, based on the telephone networks of these two organisations which became operational on 25 May 1916. The Great Eastern Railway developed the system even further by marking the progress of hostile aircraft on a plotting board from information received from station masters. After WWI, this technology was more or less forgotten and had to be re-invented in the mid-1920s under the Air Defence of Great Britain Scheme.
Other archaeological or building studies that the group has been involved with include a Level 4 survey of a barrack block at Tangmere by two members, a Level 2 survey of the remains of Howden airship station (three members), a Level 4 survey of the underground RAF Fighter Command bunker at Bentley Priory (two members) and very recently a management plan and survey of Atcham airfield for the National Trust.
The surveys that we have carried out on military sites have been very rewarding, eight members for example, were involved in the one at Coltishall for Norfolk County Council during the hot summer of 2013 where we discovered a metal tracked runway below the grass surface, we found and plotted two WWII airfield lighting runway layouts which were also hidden below the surface as well as unearthing two Pickett Hamilton forts.
With reference to the previously mentioned levels 1 to 4, the surveys and building recording exercises are conducted to criteria as published by English Heritage in the document Recording Historic Buildings, 2006. At least one of our members is an associate of the Chartered Institute of Archaeologists and both of these help to maintain quality and control.
We also have a Facebook page in the form of ‘Team Alconbury’ which promotes ARG’s online association with Alconbury and has been very useful in helping us source material as well as with donations from veterans of both physical and paper archives from the United States.
2014 to Date
Airfield Research Group Limited became a charity on 7 July 2014 and from this point there followed a transition period when the rather cumbersome arrangement that we had previously as well as the new company were running side by side. The original two were then dissolved and all assets acquired by the new company which was approved by the directors at a board conference call on 5 October 2014.
The new charity status coincided with the move of the archive from Building 76 to Bldg.56 which took many months of hard work by ARGL volunteers invited via the forum to make up working parties. This task was finally completed by the end of September. All the archives had to be boxed up transported and un-packed, sorted and placed on shelves that had required assembling.
While all of this sorting, dismantling and assembling was going on, ARGL had received large numbers of archives from various sources, in particular from the now defunct Fire Service Museum at Weedon consisting of a large collection of air-raid precautions and civil defence booklets.
At this point, demolition had by now commenced on the old technical site at Alconbury and this set in motion a rescue plan for removing rows of steel consoles that we wished to preserve and re-use in the reading room. In conjunction with the demolition contractor, working parties were again assembled at weekends to recover as much as we could before demolition had caught up with Bldg.49. This was also a period of final recording of the technical site and the recovery of other artefacts by the demolition contractor that has since been donated to ARGL.
It is hoped that all of the Alconbury related material that we have will be displayed within a dedicated interpretation centre or museum at Alconbury Weald in conjunction with Urban and Civic.
As far as the paper archive goes, we believe that what we have is nationally important; it is a significant educational resource on 20th century military sites, architecture and the UK building industry. With this in mind we have been assisting two Cambridge University students who have been compiling PhD thesis on prefabricated housing and hutted buildings.
It is interesting to note that with all of our archives ranging from original and digital airfield drawings to building company catalogues and pamphlets; it would in theory at least, and assuming that all of the companies were still trading, be possible to plan and build an airfield representing any period from the First World War to the Cold War and include virtually all fixtures and fittings.
Paul Francis (founder member)