The end of ideology (in rigid airship nomenclature)

R.100, St Hubert airfield, Montreal, 1930

If you've ever read anything about the last great British rigid airships, built between 1924 and 1930 as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, you will almost certainly have come across a statement to the effect that R.100 was known as the 'capitalist' airship and R.101 as the 'socialist' airship. This was because the former was designed and built by Vickers and the latter by the Labour government (at least, it was conceived and flown under Labour; most of the construction was actually done under the Tories).

To take a random example, Alex Spencer writes that:

The government ship became the R.101 and was known as the 'Socialist' ship.

The Vickers Company designed the second airship, designated the R.100 and referred to as the 'Capitalist' ship, primarily for commercial applications.((Alex M. Spencer, British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand between the World Wars (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2020), 109-110.))

(I'm bolding the relevant phrases throughout this post.) More authoritatively, Douglas Robinson, in what is still probably the standard history of rigid airships, says:

Inevitably the first craft, R 100 [sic], came to be called 'the capitalist ship,' while the R 101 was labeled 'the socialist ship.'((Douglas H. Robinson, Giants in the Sky: A History of the Rigid Airship (Henley-on-Thames: G. T. Foulis & Co., 1973), 297.))

You can even find the story right here on Airminded.

It's a neat little anecdote and, even better, a revealing one, which tells us something about the clash of ideologies in an era that was thick with them. And it's a nice cautionary tale, isn't it? The 'socialist' airship literally crashed and burned on its first long-distance flight, while the 'capitalist' one made a very successful flight to Canada (above) and then retired quietly to the country to be broken up for scrap. Or, if you want a more left-friendly interpretation, you might argue, as a columnist in the Observer did in 1980, that the whole sorry affair proves the need for a third way:

private enterprise on its own couldn't do it (can't risk the money). The State on its own couldn't do it (doesn't know how). They could only do it together.((Observer, 5 October 1980, 33.))

Is it actually true, though? Were the R.100 and R.101 widely thought of in this way? Spoiler alert: no, they were not. I've scoured the British mainstream press, as far as it has been digitised, and I cannot find a single example of these airships being referred to as the 'capitalist ship' and the 'socialist ship'. Nor in Hansard either, nor in any contemporary books, that I can find. If these terms were so common, or even inevitable as Robinson has it, it seems odd that they did not find their way into print -- especially since it's such great copy.

I must admit to being a bit cagey here, however. Originally I misremembered these terms and started searching on 'capitalist/socialist airship', not 'ship', as both Spencer and Robinson have it in the quotes above. And that's because, in my experience, it was not at all common for airships to be referred to as ships.((Whereas it was reasonably common to refer to aeroplanes as ships in the interwar period, I think particularly in the United States. [Update: Shute, for one, did in fact refer to airships as 'ships' in his memoirs, and quite frequently. So I'm wrong here.])) But, while it's true, as I say above, that 'capitalist/socialist ship' in relation to airships apparently doesn't appear in the contemporary British press, 'capitalist/socialist airship' does -- but only once (or rather, a couple of times, but deriving from the same source.) This is from the North Mail and Newcastle Chronicle in 1924:

Work has already begun in preparation for the two airships which have been dubbed the Socialist airship and the Capitalist airship, respectively, because one being built by the [Air] Ministry, under the decision of the Labour Government, and the other by private enterprise.((North Mail and Newcastle Chronicle, 18 November 1924, 1. The same text appears in Lancashire Evening Post (Preston), 18 November 1924, 8.))

Clearly, then, the capitalist/socialist airship thing isn't a modern invention: somebody did say it, or write it, at the time. Nevertheless, there are no other examples of this in the British Newspaper Archive, Gale NewsVault, ukpressonline, the Daily Mail Historical Archive, etc, at least not until well after the Second World War. It was used, but it just did not catch on.((In his memoirs, Nevil Shute, who of course helped design R.100, did describe the competition in ideological terms -- but without using the terms in question: 'in effect, they said "The Air Ministry at Cardington shall build an airship of a certain size, load-carrying capacity, and speed, and Vickers Ltd shall build another one to the same contract specification. By this ingenious device we shall find out which is the better principle, capitalism or State enterprise." I joined the capitalist team.' Nevil Shute, Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer (London: Vintage Books, 2009), 57. Thanks to Dirtysnowball for the reminder.))

Well, I'm being slightly cagey again, because there I did find that there is at least one other place in the interwar period where you can find socialist and capitalist airships, and that's in the editorial pages of the Aeroplane.((And before you ask, no, nothing in Flight, as far as I can tell.)) For example, in November 1924:

It is therefore the more to be hoped that when we actually begin building our two new ships (The [sic] Capitalist and the Socialist, as they must be called, to distinguish the Burney-Vickers ship from the Government-built effort at Cardington) we shall somehow arrange for Zeppelin co-operation, so that we may make use of this vast store of knowledge.((Aeroplane, 12 November 1924, 452.))

Or, from December 1926:

And those who are already actively engaged on airship work in the construction of the Capitalist ship; which is being built by Vickers Ltd. or the Socialist ship, which is being built by the Government at Cardington, can be assured of a Happy New Year.((Ibid., 22 December 1926, 830.))

There are one or two other uses from the Aeroplane, which are similar enough that I won't quote them. That's still not a lot, but these will, of course, have been written by British interwar aviation's favourite right-wing uncle (except that British interwar aviation was full of right-wing uncles), C. G. Grey, who was never known to overlook an opportunity for bashing the left. And after he was ejected from the Aeroplane's editorial chair for being excessively right-wing, or rather, excessively pro-Nazi, he wrote A History of the Air Ministry, in which he says that:

The R.101 as a Government ship was commonly known as the Socialist ship, and the R.100 was known as the Capitalist ship.((C. G. Grey, A History of the Air Ministry (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1940), 211.))

It seems likely that Grey's book, which -- as the only one on its topic -- is still quite widely cited, is the source of the later capitalist/socialist airship story.1) He may well have read or heard it somewhere, and liked it enough that he kept using it when everyone else had forgotten it, but because he was still using it he assumed that everyone else was too. He seems like that kind of guy.

It's probable, though, that there was an intermediate stage in the form of Robin Higham's The British Rigid Airship, which was published in 1962, which is the standard work (again, still) on the topic.((Robin Higham, The British Rigid Airship 1908-1931 (London: G. T. Foulis & Co, 1961).)) Unfortunately I don't have access to a copy, but he definitely at least referred to R.101 as the 'Socialist' airship, because this was criticised by a reviewer in the Aeronautical Journal:

if the author had known the people at Cardington, and indeed lived in England at the time, he would not have so gratuitously called His Majesty's Airship R101 the 'Socialist' ship.((A. G. Pugsley, 'The British Rigid Airship, 1908–1931', Aeronautical Journal 66, no. 617 (1962): 333.))

As it happens, the reviewer, A. G. Pugsley, had been a technical officer at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington between 1926 and 1931. Obviously he objected to the term 'socialist ship', though as he seems to take objection to the implied political slur it's not clear whether it's something he had ever heard bandied around at the time. In any case, it looks like the names, and more importantly the historical anecdote, stuck.

To sum up: until and unless more or more significant contemporary examples are forthcoming, it's time to retire the story about the R.100 and R.101 being called socialist/capitalist ships/airships, because on current evidence it looks like he was the only one saying this.

P.S. I'm just going to leave this here:

To Gaylord Wilshire the financial and technical aid which the British government gave to the Cunard Line in the building of the S. S. Lusitania made that vessel a 'Socialist ship.' (Wilshire's Magazine, XI [Oct., 1907], 15.)((Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement 1897-1912 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 221.))

Image source: r/Airships.

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  1. Note that Grey always uses the unusual term 'ship' instead of 'airship', and that does seem to be something he often did when talking about other airships. He may also have been drawing on a fairly common metaphor of a 'socialist ship' or 'capitalist ship': for example, in reference to the 1931 Labour split, 'the torpedo which Mr Snowden had launched straight in the open had blown the Socialist ship clean out of the water' (Edinburgh Evening News, 19 October 1931, 5. []

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