For one brief and unwanted moment, Squadron-Leader Michael Rope, Margaret’s younger brother (right), was one of the most talked-about men in Britain. He was one of the supervising engineers on the Airship R101, and became one of its high-profile victims when the ship crashed down from the skies in the autumn of 1930.
Nearly fifty people were killed in the disaster, which created headlines around the world.
Such was the value of Michael’s ‘story’ that the newspapers even reported on his requiem mass, which was held at Westminster Cathedral, and was conducted by his brother Father Henry.
Michael was born in Shrewsbury in 1888 to the remarkable Rope family, as one of a number of talented siblings. His sister Irene attended Oxford and became a leading botanist; his brother Henry was a man of letters & poet as well as a priest; while Margaret, the subject of this website, was a leading stained-glass artist.
Michael is remembered in more than one way today: his good looks and his calm nature made him the ideal model for Margaret, and his face can be seen across English churches representing many a saint in stained glass made by her.
Like almost all his siblings, he converted to Catholicism not long after his father died.
After leaving Shrewsbury School, Michael pursued an engineering degree in Birmingham before finding himself working on the imperial railways in Nigeria.
The lure of the First World War was too much for him, as it was for many young men, and he joined the nascent RNAS, the corps that was to be the precursor to the RAF.
In 1915, he became Lead Designer on the SS Zero airship project. This airship was highly successful; and seventy-seven were eventually put into service in both reconnaissance and anti-submarine roles.
He was, by accounts of his friends, a quiet and unassuming man, who rose by talent alone.
The airship was seen by the government of the day as the future for air travel, and such was Rope’s expertise, that he was eventually asked to join the team at the Royal Airship Works, where they were responsible for producing the revolutionary new R101.
Among innovative developments that can be ascribed to him specifically was a “parachute” wiring system for securing the gas bags which gave the airship its lift.
Launched in 1929, the R101 was the largest, and most luxurious, airship in the world – its restaurant could hold fifty diners.
However airship technology requires a most delicate system of balances and checks, and inherent problems were always present; indeed, Rope, not long before the R101’s fateful flight, had written to the Chief Designer, Lieutenant-Colonel Richmond, about his concerns.
On 5 October 1930, en route for India, the airship R101 plummeted to its premature final destination, having only got as far as northern France.
Back home, Rope’s wife Lucy Doreen, just 23 years old, was pregnant with their first child.
Such was the widespread shock at this disaster, nearly one hundred thousand people paid their respect to the victims as their bodies lay in state at Westminster, and a national memorial service was held at St Paul’s. Rope is buried with the other victims in a joint grave at Cardington near the very airship works where the R101 had been built.
To all intents and purposes, the wreck of the R101 marked the end of the airship idea. Though the Americans continued research and development, a similar disaster finally put a finish to their work, as it did with the German project, when the Hindenburg burst into flames in 1937.
However, Rope’s belief and enthusiasm for the airship idea were carried on by his young widow, who made it her aim to sustain the concept in his memory.
Lucy Doreen Rope was patron of the Airship Heritage Trust all her life and its main supporter. She endorsed the establishment of a Lighter Than Air Museum – which was finally granted planning permission just three days before her death in 2003.
She had never remarried.
She also determined that he would have another form of commemoration.
Just one year after Michael’s death, work was started on a chapel, built on land owned by her family. Thus Michael Rope is remembered to this day in the small Holy Family and St Michael Church, in the Suffolk village of Kesgrave – Catholic mass is celebrated here for all who wish to come most Sundays.
The building is small and quiet tribute.
Stained-glass made by Marga lines the walls, and a model airship hangs above the altar.
Crispin Rope, the son that Michael never met, still oversees the site.
On 27 November 2014, 84 years after the disaster, Baroness Smith of Basildon, together with members of the Airship Heritage Trust, unveiled a memorial plaque to the R101 in St Stephens Hall in the Palace of Westminster.
This article first appeared, in a modified form, in The Salopian Magazine in summer 2018.
(Photographs courtesy of the Rope Trust Archive)
If you wish to comment on this article, please write something in the Comments Box further down this page.