This scale model represents the 732 ft (223.1 m) British airship R101 and mooring mast built in England at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington, north of London, in Bedfordshire, in 1928-29. It was developed for the Imperial Air Scheme to provide a passenger and mail service between Britain and her colonies including Canada, Egypt, India, Australia and New Zealand. The project had been instigated in 1924 under the Secretary of State for Air, Lord Thomson, and was to improve communication with the Empire. It involved the construction of two airships: R100, to be designed and built by a specially established Vickers subsidiary, the Airship Guarantee Company, and R101 at Cardington.
Between 1927 and 1929 C.B. Oliver, an engineer with the Shell Oil Company, was in Australia speaking to various groups about the wonderful opportunities provided by airships in the development of commercial aviation. He had been an air navigator in England on board the 1919 British airship R33 when she broke away from her mooring mast at RAF Pulham, Norfolk, in a gale in 1925. He claimed that airship passengers could travel around the world in 20 days in craft that were safer than aeroplanes. The flight by airship from Britain to Australia could be undertaken in only 10 days as opposed to 28 days by steam ship. The airships would be as comfortable as seagoing ships with a lounge, dining saloon, promenade, smoke room, state cabins and bathrooms for 100 to 120 passengers and crew of 45 but without the disadvantages of sea-sickness. The Australian press were very excited at the prospect of such a service as the use of heavier-than-air aircraft over long distances to Australia was then still impractical.
A hangar and mooring mast were located at Cardington, while further masts were erected at St Hubert, Canada and Ismailia in Egypt. As well as this a hangar, mast and hydrogen plant to refuel the airships were constructed in present day Pakistan, at Karachi (then British India). In 1930 Karachi was the initial terminus for the colonial route with further masts to be located at Perth, Melbourne and Wellington on the planned extension of the route to Australia and New Zealand in the early 1930s. In 1928 Group Captain P. Fellowes had made a survey of mast sites in the Commonwealth with Australia to pay the cost of their construction.
None of the Australian infrastructure was actually begun, as tragically R101 crashed in France during her maiden overseas voyage on 5 October 1930, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. Among the passengers was Lord Thomson who had initiated the Scheme. The crash ended the airship programme and was one of the worst airship disasters of the 1930s. Air routes between Britain and Australia were instead pioneered by Imperial Airways and QANTAS, starting in 1934, initially using flying boats but after World War II, land-based aircraft.
The model was donated to the Museum in late 1930 only a few weeks before the loss of the full-size airship. It is not known who made the model but it was donated by the Shell Oil Company of Australasia Ltd (Shell were supplying the full-size R101 with fuel). The model had been used by Shell at various displays and royal shows around Australia to demonstrate the use of petroleum for modern transport applications and may have been commissioned by them to illustrate and promote the potential of airship travel to the Australian public and government.
Margaret Simpson, Curator