A Bit More of Our History

The Spitfire is an iconic fighter plane that is beloved by aviation enthusiasts in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.  The Spitfire’s actions during the Second World War are renowned and have been celebrated in words and film since that time.  The history of RJ Mitchell, the Chief Designer of the plane, has also been well documented, but what is not so well known is the unique history of the people who actually helped to build it. The Spitfire Makers Charitable Trust was formed in Southampton in 2020 to help to ensure that this history is not forgotten.

Southampton, Hampshire, is well known as a port city, but in the world of aviation it also known as the birthplace of the Spitfire.  The Vickers-Armstrong Aviation Ltd Supermarine works, known locally as just “The Supermarine Works”, was situated on the bank of the River Itchen, in the suburbs of Woolston and Itchen, just across the river from Southampton Docks. The factory employed workers from Southampton and the surrounding areas, many of whom, during the war years, were women and girls. 

Images courtesy of Vickers Armstrong Archives, The Supermariners and Hampshire Airfields Websites

In September 1940, the Supermarine works were destroyed in two Luftwaffe bombing raids with the aim of stopping the production of the Spitfire. This did not succeed and instead of trying to rebuild the factory the production of the plane was dispersed to more than 30 secret sites in and around Southampton with many local workers speedily trained to become Spitfire Makers.

Top right: Supermarine Works – Itchen after the bombing: Bottom right: 2018 image of the two sites with the jetties still visible. Images courtesy of Vickers Armstrong Archive, The Supermariners and Google Earth

Several of the secret dispersal sites were located in the Shirley area of Southampton, and many local people were amongst those employed in them. In 2007 a local history group set up by the Friends of St James’ Park in Shirley, took part in an Oral History Project funded by a Heritage Lottery grant. During the Project local residents were interviewed with regards to their memories of St James’ Park. Their WW2 memories included the military air balloon that was operated in the park, then Shirley Recreation Ground, by the RAF and WAAF, a balloon that was helping to protect the local secret Spitfire production sites.  These residents also shared their experiences of working in the production of Spitfires at the sites in Shirley.  

One resident, Don Smith, proved to be a fount of knowledge about the area during WW2 and went on to become a key point of research for the project and also later for a play “The Shadow Factory” written by Howard Benton and performed at the newly opened Nuffield Southampton Theatre city site in 2018.

Veteran “Spitfire Makers” meeting the cast of “The Shadow Factory” at the opening performance of the play in 2018. Images courtesy of Nuffield Southampton Theatres.

An education and outreach project, “Out of the Shadows”, based on the back story of the play was launched in 2018 with professional actors and volunteers taking the Spitfire stories to the suburbs of Southampton, schools and community venues, and an exhibition at the Nuffield Southampton Theatre site.

Out of the Shadows project cast. Images courtesy of Liz Webb and Vicki Stacey

Alan Matlock a retired schoolteacher was a cast member of “The Shadow Factory” play and an education outreach volunteer for the Out of the Shadows project.   In 2018, when Alan was first performing in The Shadow Factory at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, he was so inspired by the story that, since then, he has been further researching the dispersal factories and helping to track down the “hidden” locations of the dispersed Spitfire production around Southampton and beyond. From this Alan has developed a public talk, “Building Spitfires Without a Factory”, based on his findings.

Along the way, Alan has had the pleasure and privilege to meet survivors of the bombing of the Supermarine factory and workers – both women and men – who played their part in maintaining the supply of planes to the fighter squadrons. 

The FoSJP History Group, now renamed as the Shirley Local History Group set up an annual series of public talks which have proved to be very popular and have continued every autumn in the Shirley Parish Hall, which was identified by Don Smith as a former secret Spitfire production site. Alan Matlock’s talk in the autumn of 2019 broke record audience numbers and received a very positive response.  At the talk, a member of the audience asked why the ‘hidden’ locations that Alan shared with them were not currently recognised in any form and so, the seeds of an idea for the Spitfire Makers Memorial plaques were sown.  Since then Alan has been joined by a small group of like-minded enthusiasts including guides from Solent Sky Museum and local historians, who want to ensure this heritage is preserved and commemorated. The project was launched to a capacity audience on 23rd February 2020 in the Shirley Parish Hall with the aim being to recognise the many women, girls, men and boys who worked in the dispersal factories through a series of plaques to be located on the site of each “Shadow Factory”. 

Image courtesy of Bruce Larner – Friends of St James’ Park

The Shirley Local History Group have continued to support Alan in the gaining recognition for the Shirley-based Spitfire production sites but in order to allow the scope of the project to be widened across Southampton and beyond it was decided that an independently constituted organisation should be set up. And, on 5th March 2020, The Spitfire Makers Charitable Trust was formed to manage the project and, in association with The Supermariners, Solent Sky Museum, Southampton City Archives and other history groups in and around the Southampton area, to protect the history it unfolds.   

Solent Sky Aviation Museum, Southampton

Solent Sky began as the RJ Mitchell Memorial Museum in 1974. Based in an old building where the BBC studios now are in central Southampton, the museum housed the Supermarine S9 and the Mk24 Spitfire, with the Fairey Gyrodyne outside.

Images courtesy of Robert Stidworthy and Solent Sky Museum

The current museum building, close to Ocean Village in Southampton, was built in 1983 [opening in 1984] to save and house the Short Sandringham flying boat in addition to other aircraft, and the function  of the museum has expanded to include all aviation in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight, being the region known as the Solent. Although the museum now houses many different aeroplanes, the main attraction is still the Supermarine Spitfire, which was designed and built in Southampton.  Solent Sky depicts the incredible story of aviation in Hampshire and the Solent region, with more than 20 airframes from the golden age of aviation. Hampshire and the Solent region were the centre of the world for aviation research and development between 1910 and 1960. More than 26 aircraft manufacturers made this area their home and built everything from biplanes to spacecraft, and of course the legendary Spitfire.

The Supermariners Website

Created by David Key a self confessed “Historian, Software Engineer & breaker of things”.

Dave has taken his love of the history, the Spitfire, and the area of Hampshire known as Hursley, to bring together a wealth of information about the war time association of the Supermarine Design Team and the Hursley Park Estate.

Sparked by the stories of the Supermarine Design Team in Hursley, and the chance to talk to those who were there, Dave’s initial interest has now broadened to include the full story of the Supermariners and led to the creation of The Supermariners Website.

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