THE HISTORY OF SOFFAAM
The story of FAAM is inextricably linked to some of the great characters of the wartime generation of the FAA itself.
The motivation for the museum came from Rear Admiral Percy Gick who, as Flag Officer Naval Flying Training (FONFT), visited NAS Pensacola in the autumn of 1963 and observed the nascent naval aviation museum there. Convinced of the PR value of such an organisation, on his return to Yeovilton he tasked one of his staff, Keith Leppard, to draft a paper for the Admiralty Board. That paper obtained the Board’s approval and, at the turn of 1963/64, Yeovilton’s Air Engineering Officer, Cdr. Robin Foster, was lumbered with the job of creating the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Hangar 11 with about three months to complete the job.
Robin set to with a vengeance and so, when HRH Prince Philip visited RNAS Yeovilton to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Naval Air Service, his programme included the opening of the Museum. Although a charitable trust was established in 1966 FAAM was very much a department under command until Admiral John Treacher became Flag Officer Naval Air Command (FONAC) in 1972. Under Lt. Cdr. Les “Harpy” Cox, who had become Curator in 1966, the aircraft collection had grown substantially and many of them were outside, quietly corroding away. John Treacher told the trustees that they were facing a “crisis of corrosion” and that the trustee body needed to be widened to bring on board civilian trustees who had the financial connections to construct a fund raising appeal and build additional space to house the aircraft. It was at this point that people like Sir Donald Gosling, Bill Regan and Sam MacDonald Hall joined the board and put a fund raising campaign into operation. A Development Director was appointed, one Cdr Dennis White, who would later be appointed Director and hold that post from 1976-87.
The major expansion was complete by 1980 although other aspects remained to be added, and Dennis had brought in Wing Cdr John Segar as Development Secretary to continue raising funds. Jackie Segar was Dennis White’s PA for a few years and she and John retired around 1981. It was John who proposed forming a Society of Friends as a way of building a modest fund raising base. And so it was that on a freezing cold November 1979 afternoon that the founding meeting of SOFFAAM was held on the gallery which now holds the Swordfish/Battle of the Atlantic exhibition.
Dennis and John had recruited Rear Admiral Ray Rawbone to run the founding meeting, and Ken Hermon, Chief Executive of Yeovil District Council, to be the first Chairman. Admiral Ray had flown Seafires during WW2 and later been CO of HMS Heron and it is cheering to know that he will be reading Jabberwock 100. Ken Hermon died several years ago and there are only a few others who attended that founding meeting still around some 40 years later. Derek Moxley, Chris Adams, Ian MacKinnon and I are the ones I am certain of. Anyone at the meeting or who joined shortly after the founding meeting was granted a Membership Number of 100 or below. The first Patron was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Caspar John, and he was followed after his death in 1984 by Sir Basil Blackwell, at that time the Managing Director of Westland Helicopters. The President for a while was Admiral Sir John Treacher who was relieved by Admiral Rawbone in 1982.
I remember that what is now Hall 1 was rather empty for some time. One of the few aircraft in there was the Short S27 replica built by the last serving Director, Cdr Henry Leeves, but this must have been deemed too difficult, despite being the “earliest” aircraft in the collection, to act as the entrance icon, and so the Sopwith Baby, rebuilt at RNAY Fleetlands, was mounted on a plinth in the centre of what is now the shop. The rebuild had been given the identity of the aircraft flown by Flt. Lt. Gordon Hyams RNAS during WW1, who had christened his aircraft “The Jabberwock”, the monstrous creature in Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”. I cannot remember if it was proposed at the founding meeting that an image of the Baby should be the Society’s “brand icon”, or whether that was decided later. It was then inevitable that the Society’s magazine should have an image of the aircraft on its front cover and that the publication should be known as “Jabberwock”.
There is an enormous danger when reminiscing and trying to be accurate that memory will fail and that something important will be left out. I am taking that risk when embarking on a section about the people who helped SOFFAAM develop in its early days and who led Working Groups or held important roles in the Society. I am bound to leave someone out but it will be with no dreadful intent. Ken Hermon held the Chairmanship for several years and his deputy for much of that time was Ronnie Henton. John Segar filled the role of Treasurer and Jackie Segar was the Membership Secretary. The publishing side of the early Society was handled by Peter Hoskin, who was also the Society’s Secretary. There were also four Working Groups. Group One was headed for a long time by Cyril Tubb, and ex-RAF Senior Technician who had, as a very young man, served on the last Schneider Trophy team. Their defined role was to help with the maintenance of exhibits but in reality they concentrated all their efforts on rebuilding the Sea Gladiator, which had arrived from the Shuttleworth Trust as a lorry load of bits. Group Two provided Museum Guides and Stewards, led by Ronnie Henton. Group Three was to help with the work of the Library and Archive team. I led that for a while, not very productively, and was eventually replaced by Peter Anderson who did a much better job. Group 4 did the organisation of social events and fundraising, headed by Jackie Segar. I have checked my facts in an early Jabberwock, which was edited by Peter Hoskin, who was also responsible for the News Letter. The Society had two publications, Jabberwock, which was meant to be the serious magazine, and the News Letter, which dealt with the more social stuff. In the beginning they were both basically photocopied and with a soft cover. Both acquired a blue card outer after a few editions, and then Jabberwock began to get more polished, quite literally because it now had a glossy blue cover, still with the Sopwith Baby as its focal point. The News Letter became the News Bulletin in 1986 and a slight improvement in quality, now being professionally printed and having a news photograph on the outer cover. It would definitely be a glaring omission if I did not mention Lt Cdr “Jan” Stuart whose retirement occupation was running the Skylark Press in Crewkerne and who helped to establish the “glossy” Jabberwock format. Jan was a great character, called a spade a poofter’s shovel and is sadly missed by those who enjoyed his company and admired his utter devotion to all things Fleet Air Arm.
Peter Hoskin, later assisted by Peter House, produced the first 11 News Letters and the first 16 Jabberwocks but then stood down due to their increasing workload with the SOFFAAM travelling sales operation. Edward “Ted” Cuff took over the job, producing News Bulletin No.12 in April 1987and Jabberwock No.17 in July. The two Peters had effected the transformation of Jabberwock into the glossy format it retains to this day. By 1991 Ted handed over the editorial desk to Chris Jessep, who in turn was replaced by an editorial team of SOFFAAM Vice Chairman Maurice Biggs, Secretary Frank Ott and member Steve Farmer. Maurice and Frank continued for several years, bringing in the odd splash of colour for the first time, and moving production to Remous Print of Milborne Port. Throughout its life, a significant element of the magazine’s content has been contributions from members and many of these articles have been published between hard covers as “Voices in Flight – the Fleet Air Arm”, published in 2013.
Ted Cuff handed over the News Bulletin to David Kinloch around 1990 and he continued as the Editor until the Council decided that the postal charges were becoming too high to support two sets of mail outs, and that it should concentrate purely on Jabberwock. At this stage, Society Secretary Malcolm Smith offered to take over and to combine all the information and other material into a newly-designed magazine. The Council decided at this stage to go for a full colour product and this has been the format to date. As an initiative of Gordon Johnson, who was then the Treasurer, the Society also procured a franking machine and put the process of mail distribution on to a more formal basis. Jabberwock, along with the Society’s website, continues to provide information on Society activities to all its members, both at home and overseas.