No.4 Hamilton Place in 2012. RAeS (NAL)

In 1926 there had been an appeal for an Endowment Fund specifically for the acquisition and upkeep of a new home. Largely through the efforts of various Presidents, from the small beginnings of 1926 it swelled over the years to well over £100,000. By the time the Society finally achieved its own lecture theatre in 1960 the Endowment Fund had reached over £130,000.

By 1937, the membership had reached almost 2,000 and the library was outgrowing the available accommodation. It was clear that the offices of the Society were again becoming too small, so appeal efforts were intensified for the Endowment Fund. In 1938 the Society acquired from the Crown the lease of No.4 Hamilton Place, together with the mews property opposite, 8 and 9 Hamilton Place. 

The reception area in 1939. RAeS (NAL)

The lounge or foyer in 1939 with the Council Room through the arched doorway. RAeS (NAL)

Believed to have been built about 1805 by Adams and previously occupied by the late Leopold Albu, who spared no expense to make the house one of the most dignified and gracious in London, No.4 Hamilton Place became the headquarters of the Society. A Committee, with advisers from the Royal Institute of British Architects, was formed to make the necessary alterations and to furnish the premises in keeping with the dignity of the Society and the original beauty of the house. All the furniture and fittings – in mahogany and walnut – in the Council Room and Committee Rooms were specially designed. The official opening took place in 1939 with a two-day reception on 16 and 17 June. Three months later, WW2 broke out.


The Royal Aeronautical Society Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Production, appointed in 1941, on the terrace behind No.4 Hamilton Place. From left: Sir Arthur Gouge, Chief Designer, Short Brothers, AVM Sir Ralph Sorley, CRD Ministry of Supply; Capt J L Pritchard, RAeS Secretary and Secretary of the Committee; T P Wright, USA, Guest of the Committee for one meeting; Sir Stafford Cripps, Minister of Supply; Sir Roy Fedden, Chairman; Sydney Camm, Chief Designer, Hawker Aircraft; R K Pierson, Chief Designer, Vickers; Dr L A Aitchison, Professor of Metallurgy, Birmingham University, and C C Walker, Chief Engineer, de Havilland Aircraft. RAeS (NAL).

Many of the Society’s most treasured possessions, such as rare historical books, old prints, irreplaceable and valuable items, including the minutes of the Council meetings since 1866, were moved to the country; records and lists of members were duplicated and one set was kept in the country. Although the offices did not receive any direct hits from bombs, windows were blown out and other damage caused on several occasions. Everyone on the staff fire-watched.

Many of the normal activities of the Society were suspended for the duration of the war but new and important activities began. With the co-operation of the Air Ministry and the then Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Society arranged a number of secret weekend meetings early in 1941 at which members of all the Royal Air Force Commands and the Fleet Air Arm met leaders of the aircraft industry. Wartime operational experience, criticisms and ideas were freely exchanged between pilots and air crews, ground crew and staff, and the designers and aircraft and engine makers. Among the topics discussed at these meetings were the fighting qualities of aircraft, engines, maintenance, propellers, undercarriages and accidents. As the tempo of the war increased and because of increasing war restrictions and the difficulty of transport, food, accommodation and the bombing, these meetings had to be discontinued at the end of 1942 – but they accomplished much that was important.

In addition, from 1941 until 1946, there was an Advisory Committee of the Society which reported directly to successive Ministers of Aircraft Production. The suggestion for such a Committee was originally made by Sir Henry Tizard, a Past-Chairman of the Society, when he was Special Technical Adviser to the Minister of Aircraft Production, at that time Lt-Col J T C Moore-Brabazon (afterwards Lord Brabazon), a Past President of the Society. The proposal was put by the Minister to the Council and the Advisory Committee was formed almost immediately. It consisted of six or seven leading technical representatives of the aircraft industry, drawn from the membership of the Society, to whom the Minister could refer any problem on which he wanted advice. The Committee was also empowered to advise the Minister on problems which it considered required urgent solution for the war effort. Ministers availed themselves of both kinds of advice in an atmosphere completely free and unrestrained. Although the membership changed under pressure of war, A H R Fedden (later Sir Roy) remained as Chairman throughout and Pritchard was the Secretary to the Committee. This Committee was kept in being by succeeding Ministers of Aircraft Production. Among those who served on this Committee were Sydney Camm, Arthur Gouge, E W Hives, R K Pierson, C C Walker, Major T M Barlow, Major F B Halford, Roy Chadwick – all leading aircraft and engine designers – and Dr L Aitchison, one of the foremost metallurgists.

Meetings with the Minister were held once a month and during the five years of its life the Committee prepared no fewer than 40 secret memoranda on problems arising from the war. Lord Brabazon wrote to Fedden:“The Royal Aeronautical Society and especially those members who gave their time at so difficult a period in the war are to be congratulated and thanked for what they did to bring about a successful air triumph.”

So secret was the work of this Advisory Committee and the work done at the weekend meetings between the Services and industry, that only those members closely connected with them knew anything about them until after the war. The full story has yet to be told.

Despite the war some of the more normal activities were continued or gradually resumed. New rules for the grade of Fellow were passed, Branches resumed lectures, as did the Graduates’ and Students’ Section. In 1939 the Society had held discussions with the University of London and agreement had been reached on the founding of a BSc in Aeronautical Engineering; resolutions on the Education and Training of Aeronautical Engineers were forwarded to the Ministries of Labour and Aircraft Production, to the Air Ministry and to the Board of Education. Arrangements were made to enable the Associate Fellowship Examinations to be held in POW camps, at stations of the Royal Air Force and aboard HM ships.


An ESDU data sheet from 1977.  

Another wartime activity of the Society, also secret at the time, which became of increasing importance in the years that followed, was the setting up of a technical department in 1940 and the appointment of special technical committees to produce data sheets, first on stressed-skin structures and, in 1942, on aerodynamics. These secret data sheets proved of inestimable value during the war to the aircraft industry at home, in Canada, Australia and in the United States of America.

Although the Society had produced some data sheets in 1927, and the Institution of Automobile Engineers produced a number in 1921, the Society can claim to have pioneered, with its technical committees and specialist technical staff, the collection, critical evaluation and presentation of design information in a form immediately usable by designers and technicians, so saving them innumerable hours of individual research.

After the war the technical department lost a number of its members but, in 1951 and 1952, new staff were engaged and work on the now unclassified data sheets was greatly expanded to cover not only structures and aerodynamics but also performance, fatigue and, for several years in co-operation with the Institute of Fuel, fuels and oils. In 1960, at the request of the SBAC and the Ministry of Aviation, the work of the technical department was extended to cover transonic aerodynamics and, in 1962, flight dynamics. This work was financed by the SBAC and the Ministry of Supply (afterwards the Ministry of Aviation) which made equal contributions. Work was also undertaken on Materials Handbooks for the Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development (AGARD) of NATO.

Then, in 1963, the Fielden Committee made its report on ‘Engineering Design’ and cited the Data Sheets of the Society as an example to be followed by other institutions. The Committee also recommended that the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) should finance any project devised by the institutions. DSIR’s responsibility in this respect was later transferred to the Ministry of Technology.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers had been reviewing the possibility of providing a service of this type for some years and was the first to take advantage of a grant from the Ministry of Technology for this purpose.

Rather than set up a completely separate activity, the Institution asked the Society if it would supply the technical and ancillary support for a new service on mechanical engineering through the technical department. This was agreed and the much expanded department, known since 1966 as the Engineering Sciences Data Unit (ESDU), working with new technical committees of the Institution, added a wide range of new subjects to its responsibilities. Consequently, the Society’s long-established Aeronautical Series and the Institution’s Mechanical Engineering Series formed interlocking parts of a system of data sheets and memoranda in a common format.

In 1966 the work of ESDU was extended to the Chemical Engineering field, in co-operation with the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

In 1968 ESDU moved out of No.4 Hamilton Place and the mews houses at 8 and 9 to rented offices on the fifth floor of 251-259 Regent Street. Subsequently Council decided to sell ESDU (29 June 1982) as a separate organisation. ESDU was later acquired by IHS in June 1997.

3 May 2016