The surprising history of a smelly alley behind some bins near Battersea Park

It’s not the most obvious spot for a landmark in the history of flight! Hidden behind a load of bins next to a Battersea petrol station, along an alleyway whose smell reveals its other role as a surreptitious urinal, is a blue plaque revealing that the Short Brothers, the pioneers of flight, ‘worked here’. It’s nowhere near an airport, indeed it’s little more than a run of railway arches. So what on earth were they doing here?

It all started in 1897, when 21-year-old Eustace Short – the one on the right in the rather blurry photo – bought a second hand hot air balloon (which was filled with coal gas). Hot air balloons were a new and fashionable market at the time, and when Eustace and his younger brother Oswald (on the left in the photo, and then in his late teens) visited the 1900 world fair in Paris, they saw balloons made by Édouard Surcouf that who had perfected the art of making perfect spheres. Clearly inspired, they set up a balloon-making business, perfected their own designs, and started offering balloons for sale in 1902. The next year they landed their first contract, to make three military observation balloons for the Government of India. The superintendent of the government’s ‘School of Ballooning‘ (a training and test centre for Army experiments with balloons and airships) was very impressed with the quality of the balloons they had made – so much so that he introduced the brothers to Charles Rolls – another familiar name, because he was the co-founder of Rolls Royce. Charles asked the brothers to make a large racing balloon that he could use to compete in the prestigious Gordon Bennett international balloon race.

And this is where the link to the mildly malodorous Battersea alleyway comes in. The Short Brothers had made their very first balloons in an upstairs room above a business run by their older brother Horace in Hove. They didn’t stay there for long, because in 1903 Horace moved location to set up a new project developing steam turbines development with Charles Parsons (which went on to become a successful venture – but that’s a story for another day). Eustace and Oswald briefly relocated their business to some rented accommodation in Tottenham Court Road, before finding a more permanent home in two railway arches just off the Queens Circus, near Battersea Park station.

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Charles Rolls is pictured above in his racing balloon, called Britannia, which was the first one that the Short brothers made in their new Battersea factory. The buildings in the background are the long-lost Battersea gas works. As far as we can tell the balloon they built for Charles didn’t win the race, but it did provide excellent publicity for the Short Brothers and led to a whole bundle of orders, turning their balloon-making venture in to quite a thriving business.

The move to Battersea was a wise one: railway arches were cheap to lease, they had loads of available space suitable for industrial uses, and maybe above all, these particular arches were conveniently situated right next to the Battersea gas works. Unlike modern ‘hot air balloons’, these early balloons weren’t filled with hot air, but instead with the ‘town gas’ that powered the UK’s gas system for decades until we started to use North Sea gas. This ‘town gas’ was a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which was made from coal at the gasworks. It was rather toxic and dangerous, but the hydrogen content meant that it was lighter than air – perfect for filling balloons! And being right next to one of the biggest gasworks in London was very handy for someone designing, testing and selling these balloons.

The photo below, taken in 1906 and part of Getty Images’ Hulton archive, shows a balloon being made in the arches – with canvas and rope being assembled to make the tethering structure.

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This photo shows another part of the Battersea balloon factory, with the ‘cutting table’ where the fabric was shaped to be stitched in to a balloon shape. Again the railway arch is very visible.

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The below is a rare view of the balloons in context, with a pair in front of the railway arches – and one of the now-demolished Battersea gasholders visible to the right. These would have been quite a sight for the neighbours, and it’s maybe surprising how few photos of balloons being tested seem to have survived.

The Short brothers made about thirty balloons while they were in Battersea. Most of them were sold to members of the Royal Aero Club, and stemmed one way or another from that balloon they had sold to Charles Rolls.

Eustace and Oswald were themselves appointed to the Aero Club in 1907 – and the following year they were appointed as the club’s ‘aeronautical engineers’, reflecting a growing interest within the club in aeroplane flights. They were clearly pretty interested in the possibilities of aeroplanes – building their first glider aeroplane the same year. That said, while it was one thing to make a balloon or a glider, making a working aeroplane was a rather different kettle of fish, needing lots of mechanical expertise. The brothers were excellent balloon makers, but they knew they only had a limited knowledge of the more mechanical aspects – which is why they quickly brought their older brother Horace on board, the one who they had previously rented a workshop in Hove from (who had gone on to a steam turbine business where he had acquired a lot of useful mechanical skills).

With all three brothers now working in Battersea, the aircraft business grew quickly. The first two orders for aircraft arrived almost straight away – both from members of the Aero club. And sure enough, one of the first orders was from Charles Rolls, who had ordered the racing balloon from the brothers a few years beforehand! Horace started work on two aeroplane designs as soon as he arrived in Battersea, and the Short No.1 biplane – or at least the wooden frame, as it wasn’t quite finished yet – was shown off to the public in March 1909, at the first British Aero Show at Kensington Olympia. The picture below shows the Battersea-built aeroplane. Unfortunately the plane wasn’t especially well designed and never actually flew! The brothers had all sorts of headaches getting an engine that was light enough, while also being strong enough to fly without making the plane overbalance. On the fourth test flight the plane very nearly took off but stalled, and its undercarriage and propellers were damaged.

You might think this would be a disappointment to the buyer, Francis McClean – but despite having crashed his new plane before even managing to get is to take off he clearly found all this pioneering and sometimes messy activity in the very early days of flight rather exciting, and immediately ordered another plane! Conveniently the Short brothers had also obtained the British rights to build copies of the American Wright aeroplane design, and made him one of these – which he clearly also liked, as he went on to order several more.

The Short brothers’ aircraft business grew fast. They received a £1,200 order for six aeroplanes in March 1909 – the same month they exhibited their first aeroplane – which was the first contract for a batch of airplanes in the UK. This was the beginning of mass production, and the brothers realised they needed a large site with space for aeroplanes to take off – and a gasworks in Battersea wouldn’t work for that – so they developed a site in Sheppey, with a factory right next to an airfield. In October the same year, their second airplane, the Short biplane No.2, became the first plane to fly a mile – and in doing so won a £1,000 prize from the Daily Mail. Starting from a railway arch in Battersea, the brothers had made history as the UK’s first sellers of a working plane, and this was the start of the UK’s aircraft industry.

The Short brothers went on to become a world-famous name in aviation, building a wide range of aeroplanes and flying boats. Horace died in 1917, and Oswald took over responsibility for design – doing pioneering work in all-metal aircraft construction. The firm’s planes gave important service in both World Wars, and in the 1940s the company moved from Kent even larger premises in Belfast. Shorts became a major maker of commercial aircraft, eventually being acquired by the Canadian company Bombardier in 1989.

As the aeroplane line of the Short brothers’ business went from strength to strength, the focus gradually drifted away from the railway arches in Battersea. The brothers carried on making balloons and ‘lighter than air’ craft at the site for a surprisingly long time, even when it had become clear that the aeroplane business was the future, and only finally left Battersea in 1919. The arches behind the petrol station at Queens Circus are now home to a mix of small businesses – hidden away just out of sight of the crowds of people at the power station, the railway stations and Battersea Park. But for those who do venture down the alleyway, the blue plaque stands as testament to how this overlooked corner of Battersea gave birth to the UK’s aerospace industry.

If you find our occasional local history articles of interest, you may enjoy a long article on the complicated history of the Cedars Road estate, a similarly detailed look at the past of Culvert Place, a photo story about the Shaftesbury Estate drawing on its conservation designation, an article about the cluster of derelict buildings around the old Artesian Well bar on Clapham North street, a very detailed history of Rush Hill Road, and an article about the area around Falcon Lane that dives in to the area’s messy past and some scary 1970s road-building projects that very nearly got built! We’re grateful for the more detailed information provided on the Battersea balloon & aeroplane factory by English Heritage, as well as the particularly rich history that’s well worth a detour at Graces Guide.

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