A History of
Shawcraft was the company commissioned to fabricate the original Dalek props for Doctor Who (and the two Dalek movies) throughout most of the 1960s. However, Shawcraft’s work for the BBC is just a small part of their story.
To understand how Shawcraft came into being and what motivated their early work, it is important to understand a little about the backgrounds of the three individuals who started the company.
Reg Haynes had previously had a career as an army aircraft recognition instructor. He was also a talented artist who regularly submitted cartoons to aviation magazines.
Stan Wilkins was ex-RAF and had previously been employed as a tool maker.
Bill Roberts, originally from Penydarren, Merthyr, Wales moved to Southall before the start of WWII and had enjoyed a career as an aircraft engineer, working for Miles Aircraft.
All three had their roots firmly in aviation and the military. With this type of experience, it was easy for them get jobs after the war, working for Woodason Aircraft Models, a company set up in the 1930s and run by master model maker Victor Woodason (1904-1964).
Bill Roberts (centre) at the gates of the Shawcraft workshops, leaning on a familiar friend.
Woodason Aircraft Models was based at Heston Airport, Hounslow and this is where Reg, Bill and Stan met and began to learn their trade as aviation modellers. By 1947 Bill Roberts had decided it was time to move on and set up a workshop of his own in his private garage, in Southall, west London. Not long after, Reg Haynes and Stan Wilkins followed, teaming up with Roberts to form Shawcraft Models, registered at companies house as company number 590084.
Reading between the lines, it would seem that the parting with Woodasons was amicable. Woodason moved their business, around 1950, to a garage at Victor Woodason’s new private address – 604, London Road, Langley. This was directly opposite the Ford Motor Company’s van works. It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that when Ford came looking for model makers to produce miniature versions of their latest cars, they would enquire across the road at Woodasons, who would in turn recommend Shawcraft as likely candidates for the work. More on this later.
The three’s previous experience making model aircraft, and the contacts they had established while working at Woodason’s, meant that aviation modelling was an obvious choice for the newly established company's focus.
As Shawcraft began to expand, it became apparent that their premises were too small and larger workshops were rented near Iver station. These comprised of an old carpenter’s shop, found through estate agent Alfred King. This shop had originally been used to produce doors and window frames during the construction of Richings Park.
The 90ft by 25ft workshop was made from weatherboard and sported a tarred, fibre ridge roof. In order to create some space for storage, the floor of the first 60 feet of the workshop was raised by around 4 feet on brick pillars. This created an underfoot space in which moulds, patterns and raw materials could be safely stored. This area was also the home to a growing population of rats that would often invade the workshop during the night.
The rear of the workshop was converted into a wood mill where large sections of bulk timber were machined to suit the various projects going on in the main workshop. The task of milling and preparing the timber was given to Barry Edwards, the nephew of Bill's wife Anne and an ex-Hurricane pilot who had fought in the Battle Of Britain.
In addition and using the same agents, they rented four nearby lock-up terraced garages, around 40 yards away, accessible from a cinder track, next to Hoey’s haberdashery on Bathurst Walk. Two of these were converted into a spray shop, managed by Charlie Carlton (another relative of Bill Roberts), who lived above Hoey’s shop. A third garage was used as storage for redundant moulds etc, while the fourth was set up as a small satellite workshop, dedicated to producing animated Rolls-Royce Dart turbo-prop engines, commissioned as part of a long running contract. These were made by Shawcraft employee, Ron Giddings, another former Woodason employee.
The main body of the workshop was divided into two main areas, one which housed lathes etc for woodworking and metalworking and one kitted out with benches for the use of the model makers.
The machinery consisted of a Drummond lathe (often used to make wooden bullets for films), a larger metal working lathe, a combined jigsaw and disk sander, a profile shaping machine and a pillar drill.
The internal partition walls which separated portions of the workshops were designed in such a way that they could be either hinged away or removed completely in order to facilitate the removal of larger props and models.
Shawcraft model of a BEA Airspeed AS.57 Ambassador.
The office was at the opposite end of the workshop, near the main entrance. Due to the modification of the internal workshop floor, the bottom half of the office door was lost, below floor level! Next to the main entrance was an old electric cooker, which was used by the staff to make tea, heat up soup and melt blocks of Vinatex rubber for mould making.
The job of Foreman was given to Vic Bowden, an ex-RAF Meteor pilot. He joined the company in 1952 and remained with them for the next 42 years.
Note that despite the move to Iver, the company’s early links with Southall did continue. Many years after their move, in the mid 1960s, a Dalek on loan from Shawcraft was often seen on display, on a float at the Southall carnival.
At this point, almost everyone involved with the company had connections with the military and aviation. It is not known whether this was a deliberate choice made because of the types of work that they were taking on at this time or whether the management were more comfortable with staff from backgrounds they were familiar with.
This bias towards aviation-experienced staff paid off around 1952/53 when Shawcraft were commissioned to produce some components for the Somers-Kendal SK-1 – an actual, real lightweight jet aircraft. The work was put their way by aircraft designer and ex-test pilot, Hugh M Kendall who had previously worked with Bill Roberts at Miles Aircraft.
This lead to Shawcraft becoming ARB and AID approved, making the fuselage assembly jig, the jig for pre-moulding the front fuselage plywood skin, the jig for making the aluminium engine cowling, moulds for the fuel system’s synthetic rubber components, the wooden mould to make the vacuum formed acrylic cockpit canopy, the fibreglass nose and tail cones, the drag-chute housing, wing tips, undercarriage doors and footwell boxes.
An ash skid, fitted to the plane by Shawcraft actually saved the plane from severe damage when it bellied down the runway after a badly timed retraction of the undercarriage. Minor defects prevented the plane from participating in the 1956 Air Races and the aircraft suffered turbine failure while in the air, on 11th July 1957, and was grounded. After Storage at Cranfield it passed through various hands but was never restored and did not fly again. It’s current whereabouts are unknown.
Similar work was taken on from a number of other aircraft manufacturers from around the world. Indeed, by 1960, Bill Roberts reported that 50 per cent of the company’s output was for international clients.
Shawcraft were also busy making model aircraft for advertising, display and exhibition uses. This work began to get the company’s name noticed and they were offered commissions to build models for the film industry. The largest model aircraft they are know to have built was a replica Vickers Vimy, built in 1954, with a wing span of 67 feet. This was built for the film company British Lion for The Long Hop, a film about Alcock & Brown’s transatlantic flight. Despite some considerable investment in pre-production, this film seems to have been abandoned. There is little information available but The Long Hop does not feature among the 349 films made by British Lion. However, the model was made and paid for. As part of the brief, the model was required to be able to taxi under it’s own power at speeds of up to 25 mph. This was achieved by fitting two Ford V8 engines which drove the large (10.5 ft) propellers.
It appeared on a static display at the Battle Of Britain air display at RAF Biggin Hill in 1955. Twelve years later, the nacelles and engines from this model (minus the propellers) turned up as set dressing, placed on the backlot at Shepperton Studios for the Dalek mine scenes in the 1966 film Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. The fate of the aircraft remains a mystery, though it is possible that it remained stored in a dismantled state until the late 1980s.
Shawcraft's replica Vicker's Vimy engines, used as set dressing at the Daleks' mine.
Difficult projects like the Vimy proved how invaluable Shawcraft’s experience with real military engineering was. The gigantic model was test assembled near the Shawcraft workshops, on waste land that separated the local shops from Hoey’s haberdashery.
Smaller scale aircraft work included a BOAC Argonaut with a wing span of only 2.5”, complete with working electrics which illuminated the cabin and powered the navigation and landing lights. This model was used as part of a scale model of London Airport.
Numerous other scale aircraft were produced, mainly for export. Some were commissions for museums but many were built as demonstration pieces for aircraft industry representatives. A number of these planes have survived, in private collections.
In 1955 new employee Ken D'Maurney Gibbons, freshly demobbed from the RAF began work at Shawcraft. He was involved in making the master patterns for the 1.72nd scale model Hawker Hurricanes and Vickers Supermarine Spitfires, cast in bronze for the film Reach For The Sky - the story of Douglas Bader. Other work carried out by Ken included repairing illuminated landscape models for the British Transport Commission and illuminated 1/16th scale cutaway models of Elizabethan, Viscount, Britannia and Trident airliners for travel agents to promote BEA, BOAC, and Aer Lingus. Ken's recollections of his time with Shawcraft were recorded in the Richings Park Gazette and form the basis for much of the information published here. Ken died in 2014, in Devon.
In 1956, Reg Haynes retired. He left the business to run a craft shop in Keswick. Bill Roberts bought out both Reg and Stan and formed Shawcraft (Models) Ltd, becoming the sole managing director. Ken D'Maurney Gibbons became his assistant and later (1959) went on to become the general manager
Fibreglass and other plastics were being used as Shawcraft’s primary raw materials from the early days. Their first all-fibreglass model is reported to have been a scale model of a de Halilland Mosquito, with a 6ft wing span, built for the film industry.
Requests for more work of this kind came in and fibreglass became the material of choice, due to the convenience of being able to make multiple copies of parts from a single mould. This was ideal when several versions of a particular prop were required for stunt work etc. Production in fibreglass was much quicker than making bespoke items individually from wood. Hand-crafted parts were therefore only produced for mock-ups, prototypes and pattern making.
As the demand for items modelled in fibreglass increased, it became necessary for Shawcraft to purchase a second factory. This unit was set up in late ‘58/’59 at 69 Rockingham Road, Uxbridge. It would later be the birthplace of the Daleks.
From quite early on, Shawcraft were also producing scale models of various motor cars, commissioned by the Ford Motor Company for their showrooms as display pieces. It is known that Ford had 14 such models on display at their museum in Dagenham and at least two have turned up at the Museum Of British Road Transport in Coventry.
Scale Ford Consul - one of many 8th scale models built for the
Ford Motor Company.
Click to enlarge.
These 8th scale models were the responsibility of employees Lez Ward, Stan Wilkins, Ron Waldron and John Stears. Lez made the majority of the Ford car modes, one of which, a 22” by 7.5”, Ford Corsair 2 door 2000E recently came to light when it was sold privately on eBay for over £3,000.
Models constructed by Shawcraft (and full size replicas) appeared in more than 25 films made by such studios as J Arthur Rank, British Lion, Hammer Films, Ealing Studios and Shepperton. They ranged from aircraft with 3-inch wingspans to the 67ft wingspan of the Vickers Vimy mentioned earlier. There was also a 40ft model of the Titanic – one of many nautical models made by the company – made for the film A Night To Remember.
Over the years, model work was done for films such as: Above Us the Waves, Angels One Five, The Malta Story, The Purple Plain, The Net, Quatermass II, Check Point, Reach for the Sky, The Battle of the River Plate, Sea Fury, Hornblower & the Atropos, Campbell's Kingdom, The Sleeping Prince, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Abominable Snowman, Ill Met by Moonlight, Yangtse Incident, Sink the Bismark, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Castaways, Superman II, The Guns of Navarone, The Bedford Incident and Cromwell.
Architectural models also featured among Shawcraft's production including factory layouts for Nuclear Engineering (Langley airfield), Johnson & Johnson (Slough trading estate) and housing development models for the Uxbridge Town Council.
Many of the Shawcraft exhibition models were photographed in monochrome by the local Richings Park photographer, Freddie Standewick who lived and worked in a local studio flat opposite the bakery in Bathurst Walk. His pictures of the Company's models were often used by such magazines as Flight and The Aeroplane. Other photographs of the larger special effects, such as the 40ft Titanic model and a 32ft Graf Spee battleship, were taken and published by The Middlesex Advertiser & Gazette.
The location of the workshops, on the edge of a prosperous estate, led to many approaches from the public, ranging from pleas to repair lawn mowers and rotivators to requests to build prototypes of various inventions.
Jock Cockburn, the inventor of the Rotosythe lawn mower, was a regular for whom Shawcraft built the prototype Ski-Cat, a device for training water-skiers. That was followed by a prototype hovercraft trialed on the gravel pits near West Drayton. Other approaches for help included one from the local Brownie pack, who required an urgent GRP repair to their Toadstool. The work was duly carried out to their satisfaction!
Many models were also made for Museums. The London Science Museum which commissioned a model of a Napier Deltic engine. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum commissioned, in 1967, a 1:6 scale model of Vostok 1, which carried Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth. Shawcraft Models based their model on photographs of an earlier Russian model that had been on display in Paris, in 1966. The Shawcraft version is still owned by the Smithsonian but is not always on display.
Other Shawcraft models currently held at museums include a scale Britannia locomotive replica and a 1/24th scale British Railways Mark 1 railway carriage, built around 1960. The master patterns for small gauge rolling stock such as this were built by Shawcraft employee and master model maker Lez Ward. The Britannia locomotive is currently part of a collection of railway related models on display at the National Railway Museum, York, UK.
In 1963 Shawcraft were commissioned to make the wooden master moulds for nine weapons including a Lee Enfield rifle, an Arab cavalry sword and a Webley and Beretta pistol. These patterns were used by P B Cow (Li-Lo) Products of Slough, to make production moulds, from which were produced 4,500 GRP weapons for the epic film Lawrence of Arabia.
They also made the wooden master for the first glass-fibre two-seat body of the Lotus Elan sports car. A similar master was made for the single seat GRP body for the Lotus 40 race car, made for Ian Walker Racing in West London. During this period, 1964-73 Shawcraft also sectioned stationary diesel engines and made collapsible exhibition plinths for use overseas.
Shawcraft model of Vostok 1 at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
It was at around this time that the company began making props for the BBC and most notably for Doctor Who, though it must be noted that they also worked on other shows such as Dad’s Army, (a show with subject matter which leant itself perfectly to Shawcraft’s skills).
The team worked with early vacuum-forming processes and the shaping of polystyrene blocks to form ship and aircraft parts. These means of model construction are now commonplace, but at the time, Shawcraft were pioneers in the field.
In 1963 the BBC did not have the facilities required to produce the volume of props required for a weekly sci-fi show. The in house visual effects department was small and staffed by only two people – Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine. When they were approached to create the props for Doctor Who, they requested extra workshop space (4000sq ft) and four extra staff. This request was rejected and alternative arrangements were sought.
The construction crew working on the show had previous experience of Shawcraft and recommended them as ideal candidates for taking on the work. The most important aspect of this arrangement was the ability to create good props, scenery and effects on-budget. Bill Roberts was always full of ideas on how effects could be achieved and props built cheaply, without compromising the look. The tight schedules enforced by the show’s weekly slot often required the Shawcraft team to work long into the night.
One of their first commissions for the show was the TARDIS console, complete with motor and working switches/lights on the control panels.
It was their later involvement with constructing the Dalek props which has given Shawcraft their place in history. The Dalek design was created by Raymond P Cusick – the designer working on the show at the time. He took his concept along to a meeting with Bill Roberts, explaining exactly what was required of the props. Roberts then made some suggestions of his own and, with Cusick’s approval, used his discretion for much of the Dalek detailing. He worked out how to build a set of four good-looking Dalek props within the allotted budget.
The Daleks’ overall size was worked out by Roberts, who sat on an office chair and was measured up – the logic being that if he could fit inside, then so could the Dalek operators. When the finer points of the design had been established, Roberts decided to make as much as possible of the Daleks out of fibreglass. This was largely a budgetary decision, given that Shawcraft employed a number of staff who were skilled in GRP work. They did not employ any carpenters and hiring more staff would have increased costs.
Shawcraft employee Ron Nicholson was the man given the task of overseeing building of the Dalek props. Ron, who started work at Shawcraft in the early 1960s, (having previously worked in the film industry as a model maker) was also the one most often responsible for the repair and maintenance of the Daleks over the next few years.
Other props were also constructed for the first Dalek story, including a swamp creature and a scale model of the Dalek city. The city model was rebuilt and made more convincing when extra time became available, after it was announced that the episode was to be re-shot.
Shawcraft’s relationship with Doctor Who would continue for the next five years, with them supplying, maintaining and operating many of the props and visual effects. Notable Doctor Who props made by Shawcraft include the Slither, the Zarbi, the Mechonoids, the Chumblies, and the Macra Terror.
Movie Dalek skirts under construction at Shawcraft.
Given the level of skill and the detail that is clearly evident in many of Shawcraft’s surviving engineering models, and the quality of work evident in photographs of their film props, it may seem odd that some of their work for Doctor Who looks relatively cheap. The key factor here is budget. Companies and film producers with large budgets could rely on a high standard of work from Shawcraft. The BBC, however, were on very tight budgets, with extremely short deadlines. Shawcraft were relied upon to produce something great, quickly, for next to nothing – a feat that they often managed. However, as time went on this seems to have become increasingly difficult to achieve. This may have been down to the volume of higher-paid work being offered to Shawcraft, leaving them without time to devise ways to make the BBC’s shoestring budget stretch a little further.
When the two Dalek movies were being planned, Shawcraft were commissioned to produce the hero props for both. The movie props were created from re-tooled moulds that were produced with more care, attention and time. The higher budget meant that the Daleks were, overall, of a much better finish than their TV cousins, with sleek paint-jobs and more fibreglass work.
Relations with the BBC came to a head by March 1967, when an irate Innes Lloyd (visual effects organiser for Doctor Who) sent a memo complaining about problems experienced during the production of The Faceless Ones and that the Macra (Terror) prop had cost over £500 to build. This was a staggering amount of money in 1967, as Lloyd noted, “the same price as a cheap car”.
Not long after this, the BBC stopped using Shawcraft, their last major involvement being on the story The Evil Of The Daleks, in 1967. No further Dalek props were ever supplied to the BBC by Shawcraft
At this time, the BBC began to expand their own in-house visual effects department, investing in space and staff, with a view to reducing production costs on a longer term basis.
Meanwhile, Shawcraft had their eye on higher-profile work, such as the fully working scale model of the flying car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, built for the film of the same name.
In the 1970s Shawcraft progressed from model making and special effects and acquired CAA registration as Shawcraft (Engineering) Ltd. They made and refurbished airliner refrigeration units for British Caledonian Airways. This was very much a return to their roots, focusing on aviation-based projects.
Shawcraft also continued to produce scale concept models for the architectural and engineering industry and carried out occasional prop-building work for the film industry. This type of work continued well into the 1980s.
Bill Roberts retired and sold Shawcraft in July, 1987 to David Harrington of L & R Engineering. The company continued at Rockingham Road until it was finally wound down by liquidator’s Ian Holland and Co., who were appointed on the 19th January 1998.
The distinctive Shawcraft van, pictured in 1967.
Bill Roberts had moved from his Southall terraced home back in 1956 and retired to Swallowfield, a detached house in Swallow Street, Iver Heath, in the grounds of which he designed and built a large detached bungalow, where he died in November 1990. His wife had died six months earlier, in May. They were survived by a daughter, Annette, and two sons. Young Bill developed a specialist classic-car restoration business in the Thames Valley while David, the younger son, has been involved in a small way in producing effects over the years. Now his own son Matt Roberts is employed in the same industry as a special effects supervisor currently working on Game Of Thrones.
The former Shawcraft workshops in Rockingham Road, Uxbridge were recently up for sale and their eventual fate is not known. It is possible that they could be demolished for re-development. This would be a sad end to a building which has helped to create so much history. Many would argue that such a place deserves preservation, recognition and a blue plaque. Time will tell.
The information within this history was gathered together from the following sources:
richingspark.com (article by K. DeMaurney Gibbons, originally published in the Richings Park Gazette).
airandspace.si.edu (Smithsonian national Air and Space Museum)
collectair.com (information on Victor Woodason)
doctorwhomagazine.com (Doctor Who Magazine).
Special thanks to Dave Roberts and Julie Killick for supplying corrections and additional information.
Dalek at the Shawcraft workshops during routine maintenance.