British Airways Heritage Collection: A Labour of Love

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Somewhere in British Airways head office in London lies the history and the rich heritage of the airline documented with painstaking “labour of love”. With over 400 uniforms from the 1930s to the present day to a large collection of aircraft models, a historically important library of thousands of photographs most probably serving as the most complete set of aviation posters in the UK. Omolola Itayemi writes on the records and artifacts of British Airways’ predecessor companies BOAC, BEA, BSAA and the pre-war Imperial Airways Limited as well as British Airways Ltd

Despite the cold, chilly weather that Monday morning, I set out to tour one of the world’s most prolific airline museums, few hours after I landed in Heathrow, London and enjoyed the warmth and comfort of BA’s Galleries Lounge. Maintained by volunteers, the museum occupies a fairly prominent location on the ground floor next to the building’s famous “indoor street.” I was not surprised when I learnt that a lot of the visitors are the local staff wanting to have a look around.

Like many transport oriented museums, it is actually the archive that is of most interest to most of its users, and there are two floors of documents in the basement. What the casual visitor gets to see is a decent-size room laid out with a timeline of the various companies that merged over the years to form British Airways as we know it today.

One of the volunteers, Keith offers tours around the museum, which is essentially up to an hour of the history of the company. Something he knows a bit about having worked for the airline all his life.

The early days of flying is an odd combination of the heights of luxury being provided inside uncomfortably shaky tin cans flying comparatively slowly just a couple of thousand feet in the air. With limited fuel, most flights would be short hops during the day, with passengers staying in hotels overnight.

Despite the discomforts, the ability to turn a 6-week cruise into a 10 day flight meant the aircraft gained a lot of custom from HM Government for ferrying its postage and diplomats around – and celebrities.

Naturally, WW2 got in the way of civilian transport, but it was a boom time for the development of the aircraft in terms of technology and most famously leading to the jet engine.

Another civilian group flew deliveries of ball-bearings from factories in neutral Sweden. After being constantly attacked by German fighters, they ended up being given Mosquito jets planes – the only civilian use of fighter jets — for their speed, and thus the only ones to be painted in civilian colours.

A memorial case is given over to aircrews who have been awarded medals of honour, including Jane Harrison, the only woman to have been awarded the George Cross during peacetime.

As the war ended, civilian aircraft were able to take advantage of the wartime developments and ever larger models were developed. Sadly, Britain’s de Havilland Comet was just too early a development and a couple of crashes set back British airline manufacturing.

At the time, flying was still an expensive luxury, which in turn also contributed its glamorous image – particularly helped by being the era when celebrities dressed glamorously instead of in jeans and t-shirts.

The airline staff of the time also dressed appropriately, and one of the museum’s more popular archives is the stewardess’s uniforms. I suspect, that for many of us, flying regularly is something done in the heady years of early adulthood, and when settled down, the familiar uniforms of that period evoke memories of childless times.

Your favourite “BA Uniform” is potentially as much an indicator of your age as which Dr. Who you grew up with.

A bit of space is given over to Concorde, but not as much as you would expect for the flagship of the airline – most of the post-80s display is about mass transport as airlines dropped the luxury image and became flying buses delivering people from A to B in an increasingly cheap and tawdry manner.

While the increasing availability of air travel is undeniably a great thing, I do slightly miss the exclusive glamour of the past. Talking of glamour, it was a BOAC flight that conveyed the Queen from Kenya to the UK 60 years ago. A display case has the flight log from the plane noting when it switched from normal plane to Royal Flight.

Thanks to Keith for giving me an extensive tour– it certainly added a lot of background to the airline’s heritage. I was there for about 2 hours in total, and a dedicated fan could probably spend even longer there.

They also have some examples of aircraft seating next to the museum, so if you want to have a chance to sit in 1st class for the probably only time in your life, then here is an opportunity.

The collection comprises an extensive document archive recording the formation, development and operations of these companies and British Airways as well as memorabilia and artefacts. Copies of these photographs and posters are also available to purchase.

My tour ended with an autographed copy of a book from the curator of the museum, lucky me!