Museum History

A Brief History of Salisbury Hall and the Site of The de Havilland Aircraft Museum.

The site of the Hall and the Museum is, without doubt, a very old one. It is close to the first century BC settlement of Wheathampstead, the major Roman town of Verulamium and St. Albans which is of late Saxon foundation. Early notable (but unwelcome!) visitors to the area were probably Julius Caesar in 54BC, and Boadicea of the Iceni in 61AD. During the early 9th century the site was part of the Manor of Shenleybury. It was held by Asgar the Stallar, who was probably a high official to the Wessex King Egbert. After the Norman Conquest the Manor passed to the de Mandeville family who held it when the Doomsday Book was written in 1086. In 1380 the Hall passed in marriage to Sir John Montague, later Earl of Salisbury. It is perhaps at this time that the Manor acquired its now familiar name of Salisbury Hall. About 1420 Alice, Countess of Salisbury, married Sir Richard Neville, who became Earl of Warwick. He had two sons, Richard Neville (better known as Warwick the Kingmaker) and John, Marquis of Montagu, who were both killed at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471.

A new house was built about 1507 by Sir John Cutte, Treasurer to King Henry VII and Henry VIII. The house was purchased in 1668 by James Hoare, a London banker. At this time the present house was built, bringing with it associations with Charles II and Nell Gwynne, who lived in a cottage by the bridge to the Hall. Her ghost is one that is said to have been seen in the Hall. The Hall passed to Sir Jeremy Snow’s nephew, John Snell, and from then through various hands, and during the latter part of the 19th century was occupied by a succession of farmers. However, about 1905 Lady Randolph Churchill, as Mary Cornwallis West, came here to live. Her son, Winston Churchill, became a regular visitor.

During the 1930s Sir Nigel Gresley, of the London and North Eastern Railway, was in residence. He was responsible for the A4 Pacific Steam Locomotives one of which, Mallard, holds the world speed record for steam locomotives of 126.5 mph. Rumour has it that the name came from the ducks in the moat.

The de Havilland Aircraft Museum was the first aviation museum in Britain, when it opened to the public on 15 May 1959, just 18 years after the Mosquito Night Fighter W4052 had been flown out of adjacent fields by Geoffrey de Havilland Jnr.

Aviation first came to Salisbury Hall in October 1939 when the de Havilland Mosquito design team moved in as a security precaution against the British Government stopping work on the project. The Mosquito was designed initially as an unarmed high speed bomber, later being developed into the first multi-role combat aircraft, excelling in unarmed photo reconnaissance, night fighter, precision strike, intruder, and anti-shipping roles, amongst others. A barn like hangar was erected across the moat where the first prototype was hand built out of wood by a team of craftsmen, using non-strategic material and non-strategic labour. A total of three Mosquitos were flown out of the surrounding fields to Hatfield saving a month of dismantling and reassembly.

De Havilland left in 1947 and the Hall slipped into a derelict condition in 1955 the Hall was taken in hand by an ex Royal Marine Major named Walter Goldsmith

The Mosquito Prototype W4050 returned to become the first aviation exhibit housed in a hangar behind Salisbury Hall, saved for posterity by Bill Baird and Walter Goldsmith under what was then known as the Mosquito Appeal Fund. Walter had discovered the Mosquito link with Salisbury Hall, and approached Bill Baird, who was desperately trying to find a home for this priceless aircraft, to save it from a November 5th bonfire. Walter contacted many of the original WW2 Mosquito sub-contractors requesting funds to erect a hangar to house the Prototype, since it would not last long in the open. A suitable Robin hangar was found nearby and moved to Salisbury Hall, inside which the Prototype was assembled. Members of the Committee included Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, Constance Babington-Smith who discovered the V-1 rocket in a reconnaissance photo of Peenemunde, the aviation author Charles Gibbs-Smith, John Cunningham, a senior representative of the RAF Benevolent Fund, Lord Erskin, as well as Walter and Bill Baird.

The collection began to expand in early 1968 with the arrival of the Venom Night Fighter, which is currently stored, and a Vampire Trainer. The next major addition was Mosquito B.35 TA634 which was presented by the Liverpool Corporation on 15 May 1971. The arrival of this aircraft brought new challenges in conservation, as the aircraft was parked outside at the mercy of the British climate. It was around this time that I was invited to join the Committee and in 1974 we began to look at ways to expand the collection by buying the freehold of the site with additional de Havilland aircraft, housed under cover of a new hangar. Eddie Chapman/Agent Zigzag a visitor.

The name was changed to the Mosquito Aircraft Museum, and on Cup Final Day in 1974, the Supporters Society was formed. In 1977 the de Havilland Aircraft Museum Trust Ltd was formed to operate the museum, and gained charitable status. The main initial task of the volunteers was to prepare the site for the expansion and erect a hangar to protect the historic exhibits. One of the earliest additions was Hornet Moth G-ADOT followed by Chipmunk WP790, which was the first exhibit restored by the volunteers. This was followed by Vampire J-1008 which flew into Hatfield from Switzerland on 20 August 1974, and over the next twenty or so years new additions included a Sea Vixen, Sea Venom, Comet 1 fuselage the major components of a Mosquito FB.VI which is now close to completion, a Dragon Rapide, a pair of Doves, a Heron, a DH.125 business jet and the front fuselage of a Trident Two. The most recent addition is the fuselage of a BAe.146-100 airliner, completing the Hatfield jet airliner heritage.

Now we are starting the next major expansion plan with a new hangar adjacent to this hangar to house more of the threatened exhibits including the unique Comet 1 fuselage and the Sea Vixen.

Philip Birtles, President of the de Havilland Aircraft Museum – January 2016