Reginald Foster Dagnall (1888-1942) used his initials, RFD, to name a company, which he founded in 1920. Since then it has been the leader for over 80 years in the field of marine and aerospace safety and survival Equipment. Dagnall was born in 1888 at Fulham, his father, Walter, was a mat-cum-carpet manufacturer.
Dagnall visited the International Aero and Marine Exhibitions at Olympia in 1909 and 1910. He joined the Willows Company making airships as a mechanic at the age of 22. He became an assistant engineer with Spence Bros. of Highbury manufacturing balloons and airships, and was then asked to join a new company, Airships Ltd, as works manager in Merton where he became general manager. Before the First World War, Dagnall made experimental inflatable boats, which he tried out on Wisley Lake in 1919. The Godalming Museum Local Studies Library has photographs of airships c.1915-17, and also balloons from 1943-71. There is a also a large quantity of records, photographs, and ephemera on RFD.
In 1920 Dagnall set up RFD and in 1926 he moved his business in Hersham to a garage at 17a Stoke Rd, Guildford, making floatation gear. In March 1930 he organised an informal meeting of the London Gliding Club at Stoke Farm when his ‘Dagling’ glider was pitted against the original German ‘Zögling’. He was interested in airships, balloons and gliders.
In 1932 RFD invented the first inflatable life raft. The demand for inflatables increased and in 1936 RFD expanded and moved to Catteshall Lane, Godalming. Dagnall was making gliders, towed targets, barrage balloons, and dinghies. The Godalming Local Studies Library has a book of patent claims made between 1939-45, and press cuttings from 1928-1959. The RFD Company was making inflatable life rafts for Imperial Airways. In 1940 Dagnall was asked to invent a one-man dinghy, and with collaboration they were the first company to produce a single-seater life raft in a dinghy pack fitted to a parachute pack for all fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force in WW2. In 1940 there were 600-700 girls working on balloons at Godalming.
Dagnall died on the 16th November 1942 aged 54.
In 1945 the Godalming factory had an area of 120,000 sq. ft. six times larger than in 1936, and a workforce of 1,000 strong. RFD had manufactured the first life rafts fitted with CO2 cylinders capable of inflation by a device patented by Dagnall. This however caused constant explosions, which later set off a fire on the 17th August 1954 at Godalming.
A small part of the factory remained and the factory was re-built. The company remained in Godalming until 1986 when the 13 acre site was sold, and the factory demolished in 1988. Manufacturing operations moved to Northern Ireland. It trades today under the name of RFD Beaufort Commercial. The company’s history can be read in Rescue from Disaster: The Story of the RFD Group, by Harold Nockolds (1980).
In 2011 Godalming Museum held an exhibition Every Day an Adventure: Memories of RFD.