Thursday, September 15, 2022

In 1930 the victims of the R101 airship disaster lay in state in Westminster Hall

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The Stuart Kings used to lie in state in Westminster Hall (those who weren't tried and sentenced to death there), but the modern revival of the idea began with Mr Gladstone in 1898.

Here's a list of those who have lain in state there in modern times:
  • 1898 - William Gladstone
  • 1910 - King Edward VII
  • 1930 - Victims of the R101 airship disaster
  • 1936 - King George V
  • 1952 - King George VI
  • 1953 - Queen Mary
  • 1965 - Sir Winston Churchill
  • 2002 - Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
The victims of the R101 airship disaster? The fact that they lay in state, a decision taken by George V on the advice of his ministers, may be a measure of the hopes the government had entertained for this means of transport as a way of keeping up the Empire.

The R101 was bound for India on its first long-distance flight when it crashed into a hill near Beauvais in northern France. Because it was filled with hydrogen, the craft caught fire and 46 of the 54 passengers and crew died at once - two died later in hospital, leaving only six survivors.

So ferocious was the fire that some of the victims were never identified and others were identified by their possessions. Which leads to gruesome questions about what can have been in the coffins that appeared in Westminster Hall.

Still, Wikipedia (based on contemporary reports in The Times) says:
On Friday 10 October a memorial service took place at St Paul's Cathedral while the bodies lay in state in Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster. Nearly 90,000 people queued to pay their respects: at one time the queue was half a mile long, and the hall was kept open until 00:35 to admit them all:
There was an official inquiry that suggested possible causes for the disaster and found that the voyage to India was undertaken for political reasons before the R101 had undergone enough trials.

But there is a more fundamental safety problems with long-distance airship travel. To carry heavy loads you need plenty of hydrogen, and if you have plenty of hydrogen then you can't fly very high. If you do, the lack of atmospheric pressure will allow the hydrogen to expand and bursts its bags.

Maybe that's why the return of the airship, which has been regularly predicted for as long as I can remember, has never taken place.

I will leave you with a remarkable fact about the R101 from the Great Disasters site:
The most important part of the airship - the bit that provides that lift - is, obviously, the gas itself, and the giant gasbags holding it. They were painstakingly made from "gold-beater skin" – a particular membrane taken from an ox’s intestine. 
It had taken something like a million oxen to make the R101’s gasbags, which were prepared on-site by a team of women who scraped, washed, stretched and glued them into their final form. 
The R101 design team had tested various other materials, but came to the conclusion that gold-beater skin, the tried and tested option, was the best then available.
A million oxen to make one airship? This conjures up a Dieselpunk world where the skies are filled with airships and whole continents are given over to raising the billions of oxen that demands.


Tom Barney said...

As I remember the Duke of Windsor lay in state in 1972, but was that in Westminster Hall?

Jonathan Calder said...

That was at St George's Chapel, Windsor. Victoria lay in state there too, but only for family and staff to pay their respects.

The Duke of Edinburgh did not want to lie in state.

Frank Little said...

Nevil Shute, who worked on the R100 which would almost certainly have been viable, was bitter about the government's over-reaction in cancelling all airship development. It coloured some of his later novels.

tonyhill said...

The hangers that housed the R100 and the R101 still exist at Cardington near Bedford. When I was 14 I cycled 30 miles to look at them without my parents knowing where I had gone. I believe they are used as film studios now.

tonyhill said...

There was a report in The Telegraph on the 15th June 2022 that a British company, Air Nostrum (backed amongst others by Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden), had won a $600 million contract to supply airships for use in Spain, so maybe the airship is about to return.

Jonathan Calder said...

I always look for the hangars at Cardington when I'm on the train to St Pancras, Tony. In one of his novels James Hawes calls them "the Bedfordshire pyramids".