The sorry looking row of hostesses’ hats and pilots’ caps at Speke airport said it all.

Liverpool airline British Eagle had gone into liquidation. All flights were grounded and the uniforms would never be worn again.

Planes emblazoned with the proud British Eagle logo were parked up next to the runway as staff learned the news.

It was Friday November 8th 1968 and 20 years of a bold aviation adventure had come to an end.

Surplus hostesses’ hats and pilots’ caps lined up at Speke airport, November 1968

Surplus hostesses’ hats and pilots’ caps lined up at Speke airport, November 1968

British Eagle was launched by former bomber pilot Harold Bamberg on April 14th 1948. He had just £100 in capital and two old Halifax bombers converted for carrying fruit and vegetables.

Known then as Eagle Aviation, the company quickly acquired three more Halifaxes and two Avro York aircraft in late 1949.

The fledgling airline won its first regular contract to fly troops to Singapore in 1951. Eagle then flew back-up services for British European Airways (BEA) and bought a large fleet of Vickers Viking aircraft.

By the summer of 1957, the airline was pioneering package holidays after buying travel agents Sir Henry Lunn Ltd.

British Eagle launched commercial operations between Bermuda and New York in May 1958, competing head-on with BOAC, Pan Am and Eastern Airlines.

British Eagle staff start a whip-round at Garston Employment Exchange, November 1968

British Eagle staff start a whip-round at Garston Employment Exchange, November 1968

The Beatles fly British Eagle to the Liverpool premiere of their film A Hard Day’s Night, July 1964

The Beatles fly British Eagle to the Liverpool premiere of their film A Hard Day’s Night, July 1964

Further expansion followed when Liverpool shipping company Cunard bought a controlling stake in March 1960. Their investment paid for two new Boeing 707 jet aircraft in May 1961.

In its heyday, British Eagle carried a string of stars and sporting personalities into Speke, including the Beatles, Everton FC and most of the Merseybeat bands.

But stricter foreign exchange rules coupled with the end of Government troop movements began to bite in 1967. Trade dropped and debts mounted up.

The airline issued redundancy notices to 418 employees in Liverpool and London at the end of the 1968 summer season and announced the closure of its Speke maintenance base.

Everton FC leaving Speke airport for a pre-season friendly in Oslo, August 1965

Everton FC leaving Speke airport for a pre-season friendly in Oslo, August 1965

Engineers work on a British Eagle jet at Speke airport, July 1964

Engineers work on a British Eagle jet at Speke airport, July 1964

British Eagle ceased trading on November 6th 1968 and went into liquidation two days later.

The airline’s last flight – a Bristol Britannia from Rotterdam – landed at Heathrow the following day.

The scenes at Speke spoke volumes. Staff started whip-rounds in a last-ditch bid to save the airline.

Chief Air Hostess Betty Gillan, right, training new recruit Ursula Larsen, June 1960

Chief Air Hostess Betty Gillan, right, training new recruit Ursula Larsen, June 1960

Redundant British Eagle planes lined up at Speke airport, November 1968

Redundant British Eagle planes lined up at Speke airport, November 1968

Chief Pilot John Winch launched a campaign to raise £2,500 to pay debtors and held a collection with his colleagues outside Garston Employment Exchange.

But it was all in vain. The proud independent airline that had challenged the big boys for two decades was now part of aviation history.

 

*Many more unmissable photos feature in Clive Hardy’s brilliant book Around Liverpool and Merseyside in the 1960s, available from our online shop.