“Historians often face the challenging job of representing history second hand and the heavy responsibility of telling other people’s stories on their behalf. However, Biggin Hill Memorial Museum is offering a very different experience. Through video interviews, photographs and written testimonies, the real people involved in the Battle of Britain will share their experiences with you first hand. I hope visitors to the museum will be inspired through these honest accounts of life at war and the many people behind the military successes passed down as legend through the years.” (Historian and TV presenter Dan Snow)
Following a 16-month construction project, the brand new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum will open its doors to local, national and international visitors for the first time on 2 February 2019, offering them the chance to experience the inspirational history of Britain’s most famous airfield. Major funding for the project came from the National Lottery and Central Government.
The museum will tell the story of Biggin Hill through the experiences of the people who served and lived there. The museum also secures the future of St. George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance, the moving memorial to the 454 pilots killed flying from RAF Biggin Hill during the Second World War. The Grade II-listed Chapel, built in 1951 at the behest of Sir Winston Churchill, with a wooden floor made from slats of sectioned propeller blades and 12 stained glass windows designed by Hugh Easton’s studio (responsible for the Battle of Britain window at Westminster Abbey), has been painstakingly restored to its original 1950s design and will continue to serve as a place of worship and pilgrimage.
RAF Biggin Hill played a pivotal role in the Second World War. Originally established in 1917 as a testing ground for pioneering developments in flight, Biggin Hill has given us many of the comforts we take for granted as we fly around the world today –air-to air communication, seat belts, altimeters, pressure gauges to name a few. But it is Biggin Hill’s role in the Battle of Britain (July – October 1940) that defines its history. Part of a chain of airfields that protected the capital, RAF Biggin Hill was memorably described by Churchill as ‘the strongest link’. The inspirational experiences of ‘the Few’, who risked their lives in defence of the nation, and ‘the Many’ who supported them on the ground are revealed from a wealth of newly discovered archives and collections.
The museum is a sensitive, contemporary design that wraps around the chapel, similar to a cloister, acting visually as a frame and symbolically as protection. From the fighter pilots facing the realities of aerial combat, to the local pub landlady creating a sense of normality, to children scavenging souvenirs from the battles overhead, the story told by the museum is above all about the people who served, worked and lived there. The museum will protect and share these important stories with future generations, thanks to a very active schools programme, and will preserve the memory of those whose extraordinary bravery in the skies and on the ground played a significant role in shaping the course of the 20th century.
More than 80 exhibits – many donated by the public – are included in the interactive, multimedia display. The museum will be split into ‘themes’ – Early Years, Station Life, Community Life and Remembering. A diverse and unique array of objects will bring the personal stories to life, from a 50kg unguided bomb (not active) and the Biggin Hill ‘Scramble’ and ‘Victory’ bell s, to a Luftwaffe tea set and the table from a local pub that had fighter pilots’ names carved into the wood. Visitors will also see a set of children’s Recognition Cards depicting 14 German aircraft and a child’s gas mask and box. The fears, excitement and losses of aerial combat will be revealed through items such as an escape crowbar for a Spitfire, a cockpit clock for a ME109 German aircraft, Br owning machine gun, log book, fragments of pilots’ maps, compasses, complete uniforms and flying jackets. A wealth of personal items – cigarette cases, swagger sticks, ID cards, wallets, binoculars – along with letters, photographs and oil paintings, by legendary WAAF artist Elva Blacker, complete the display.
Audio guide commentary is led by historian Dan Snow, who is joined by the voices of veterans including the late Geoffrey Wellum (the youngest Spitfire pilot to fly in the Battle of Britain at just 19 years of age) and Tom Neil. A visit to the Museum climaxes in thought-provoking displays on combat, bravery, fear and loss.
Before visitors enter St. George’s Chapel they are encouraged to look up through a light-well to the sky and contemplate the unchanged frontline of the Battle of Britain. It was up there that the 454 pilots memorialised on the reredos behind the altar in the Chapel gave their lives.
Organisations and individuals have given over £5.3 million to allow Phase One of this long-awaited scheme to become a reality. Building and conservation work started in September 2017, following a successful National Lottery funding award of £2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Other funds included a £2m from Central Government along with grants from Bromley Council and other fundraising. The total amount includes a £1.5m endowment fund to support the future management of the museum. Generous donations continue to be received towards developing Phase Two – the Learning Centre and Memorial Wall.
Biggin Hill Memorial Museum Director, Jemma Davey, says: “There has long been an aspiration for a museum which remembers ‘the Few’ and honours ‘the Many’. The museum shares people’s experiences of war at RAF Biggin Hill ‘in their own words’. We hope their stories will inspire generations and continue to remind us of the very best of the human spirit.”
Stuart Hobley, Head of HLF London, said: “Established more than a century ago, Biggin Hill has a history that is truly iconic; compelling stories of ordinary men and women who led extraordinary lives to champion our values of freedom and choice. Thanks to National Lottery players, we are proud to support the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum to ensure that those voices, and the contributions they made to our lives today, are rightly remembered.”
The museum’s Patron is Sir Winston Churchill’s great grandson, Randolph Churchill. He comments: “The name Biggin Hill, like the name Winston Churchill, has become synonymous with Britain’s defiance of Hitler and Nazism. This is highly appropriate as the history of the man and the airfield were always closely entwined. My great grandfather helped establish the Royal Air Force in the aftermath of that first global conflict, and watched as Biggin Hill developed from his nearby home in Chartwell. This was an airfield he knew, and which helped inspire his oratory about the role of ‘the Few’.”