The Isle of Wight Society

May 2022

Celebrating in large style!

The Columbine Shed in East Cowes sports the largest Union Flag in the world! 

Built in 1935 by Boulton and Paul for Saunders Roe, the shed was first used for building seaplanes.  Orders for the RAF included the London, Lerwick, Walrus and Sea Otter during WWII.  

The shed covers 50,000 square feet (4645 sq.m.) in area, and has some Art Deco features.  Still only Locally Listed, despite several attempts to gain a national listing, the building is seen as an icon.  

So many innovative designs have emerged from those doors.  The first jet seaplane, the SRA1, made her first flight from here in 1947.  She was nicknamed “the Squirt” by the skilled workforce employed by Saunders Roe.

The largest metal sea plane in the world emerged from the Columbine shed, and the build was completed on the apron in front of the shed.  This was “The Princess”, designed for cross Atlantic travel or trips to Australia.  She shares her 70th anniversary with our Queen, flying for the first time from the Solent on 22nd August 1952.  Regrettably the increased number of concrete runways near city centres saw the demise of the sea plane as a large passenger liner.

Saunders Roe were then given contracts to build rockets, as they had experience designing jet fighter planes powered with rocket engines.  By 1958, Black Knight was launched at Woomera, in Australia, having undergone engine trials above the Needles.  After 20 successful launches of these rockets, all built in East Cowes, the next design was the Black Arrow.  This was a satellite launcher, and successfully launched the first British satellite, Prospero, into space in 1971.  Unfortunately, although we were ahead of the Americans, the British Government decided there was no future in satellite launchers, and two days later cancelled the programme!

In 1957, a new concept, the hovercraft, came to the notice of the government.  First invented by Sir Christopher Cockerell, Saunders Roe were tasked with building a seagoing version.  Again, this happened in the Columbine Shed, and SRN1 first took to the water on 11th June 1959.  Many more hovercraft were designed by the firm, and then flew down the ramp in front of the Columbine Shed on their maiden flights.

The largest was the stretched “Princess” class of SRN4 hovercraft.  These craft saw service on the Cross Channel car ferry route for 21 years.  Hovercraft are still used extensively in difficult conditions, such as tundra and frozen rivers, and of course over extensive sand banks and shores, such as Ryde sands, and as rescue craft for the RNLI in Morecombe Bay.

Our Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977.  That year, the doors of the Columbine Shed were painted in the red, white and blue of our national flag in her honour.  Twenty five years later the flag had a repaint for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.  

This year, Wight Shipyard have provided a second large Union Flag, celebrating our Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  Congratulations and Celebrations!

Sarah Burdett

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Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

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