COUNTY NEWS: Beagle aircraft factory remembered in new exhibit

Liza McKinney at the Beagle Aircraft factory exhibition, held at the Marlipins Museum in Shoreham until October 31
Liza McKinney at the Beagle Aircraft factory exhibition, held at the Marlipins Museum in Shoreham until October 31

It was a revival of the golden age of aviation and a local industry that created more than 1,000 jobs in a West Sussex town.

And the soaring highs and final crash-landing of the Beagle aircraft factory in Shoreham are on display for all to see.

Visitor Steve Parry views the display

Visitor Steve Parry views the display

The exhibition, comprised of photographs and memories from former staff, is currently running at the Marlipins Museum in High Street, Shoreham and will be on display until October 31.

The idea for the exhibition came after a conversation between museum custodian Liza McKinney and her fellow volunteers who worked at the factory in Shoreham Airport.

She said: “I moved to Shoreham in 1975 and I had no idea that the airport had a factory that built Beagle aircraft.

“I thought to myself ‘hell’s teeth, here is a bit of Shoreham history and three-quarters of the population don’t have a clue about it.”

I found it quite romantic actually that here in Shoreham with quite a small population we actually built planes that flew and were bought around the world

Liza McKinney

Beagle, which stands for British Executive And General Aviation Limited, began in the early 20th century with the vision of F. G. Miles, whose father owned the Star Model Laundry in Portslade.

Having been bitten by the aviation bug in the 1900s, Miles designed and built a biplane in the back room of the laundry, but it never flew.

Undeterred, he learnt to fly with pioneer Cecil Pashley at Shoreham Airport before setting up a flying school with him.

Miles then started a plane manufacturing factory which collapsed in 1948 before setting up another called F. G. Miles Limited in Shoreham.

Derick Poulter views the display

Derick Poulter views the display

Beagle was officially formed in 1960 when the Pressed Steel Company created an aircraft design office and took over what was left of Britain’s aviation industry: F. G. Miles Limited and the Auster Aircraft Company in Rearsby, Leicestershire.

By 1962, the companies were merged at Shoreham as Beagle Aircraft Limited and by 1963 the company had won orders for 357 aircraft, with more than 60 per cent being exported.

The Beagle 206X aircraft, developed by Miles, was the foundation of the company’s reputation but it developed many other models – including an experimental autogyro that appeared in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.

Governments in Sweden, Zambia and Kenya placed orders and production rose to one aircraft per working day, with around 1,080 people on the company’s payroll.

A newspaper clipping of a story about the factory

A newspaper clipping of a story about the factory

Liza said: “The whole aircraft industry was going to become enormous and here was a small part of it.

“I found it quite romantic actually that here in Shoreham with quite a small population we actually built planes that flew and were bought around the world.

“It is a tremendous story in that so many people had jobs there and speak with enormous fondess of the company to this day, and with enormous sadness about when it closed.”

The company was dissolved in 1969 after being nationalised by the government for £1million in December 1966.

Through her research, which included reading the Hansard notes from the House of Commons and House of Lords, Liza believes the government was too hasty.

“The British government of the day decided we couldn’t compete with the Americans and closed it down with orders still on its books.

A diagram showing the structure of one of the aircraft models

A diagram showing the structure of one of the aircraft models

“To be honest it was a tragic ending really – so many people felt it shouldn’t have been closed down.”

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Employees of the factory have shared their memories for the exhibit

Employees of the factory have shared their memories for the exhibit