Smokin’ on the R101

From the safety-conscious perspective of the present day,  it seems really quite surprising that an airship – dependent for its very function on an enormous mass of flammable gas – should have a smoking cabin.   Of course, during the 1920s and 30s, when airships seemed for a while the future of international travel, it would have been unthinkable not to allow smoking onboard.  Smoking was a majority activity and the after-dinner cigar was an unassailable social convention for the kinds of chaps who could afford to travel by air.

The R101 was an experimental British civil airship of groundbreaking design.  It was completed in 1929 and intended for long distance travel across the British Empire.  At the time it was the largest flying craft in the world.  Unfortunately, as everyone knows, the R101 crashed on its maiden overseas voyage.   The airship was en route from RAF Cardington to Karachi, via Egypt.   The crash took place near Beauvais in northern France on the 5th of October 1930.  48 of the 54 people on board perished.  Many of them were dignitaries and officials, including Lord Thompson, the Air Minister.

This unusually shaped table cigarette lighter is engraved sequentially around the six longer sides of the base “R101; Beauvais;  France;  5, 10, 1930”. The other two faces have a cross-shaped device, apparently just there for decorative reasons.  The question is, why should the lighter be so engraved? The engraving is undoubtedly old but was clearly added after the manufacture of the lighter (it is not properly designed and does not really fit the spaces). There would seem to be no reason for this engraving, unless the lighter had some genuine connection with the R101.

There are two possibilities I think.

The first is that the lighter was made from a piece of debris recovered from the wreckage. Certainly it is a extremely peculiar shape for a lighter and it is possible that it began life as something else.  It is not however, immediately obvious what that other thing could have been. Despite the base looking like a nut and the top section looking like it screws off, I’m pretty sure it is actually made in one piece – although it is possible that a threaded hole may have been blanked off under the base.  Could it have been a valve of some sort?   If not a mechanical component I guess it could perhaps have been part of some sort of onboard decorative fitting – say, a railing support.  Much of the structure of the R101 was made from a new aluminium alloy, variously known as duraluminum, duraluminum or “Dural”.  This lighter is also made from an unusual light alloy of some kind – so maybe there is something there that adds up.

The other possibility is that the lighter was on board the R101 in exactly this form.   As we have seen, the R101 had a smoking cabin and it is likely that there would have been lighters on each table.  The styling of this lighter is exactly of the period and the curvaceous shape could be a conscious echo of the shape of an airship, so perhaps it was specially designed.  If this supposition is correct, then the lighter could have been salvaged from the wreckage intact and engraved subsequently to mark its connection with the R101 and its tragic end.  I think it is inevitable that local people and rescue workers would have scavenged souvenirs from the wreckage so this theory is certainly not impossible.


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