The RFD Company was founded by Reginald Foster Dagnall in 1920. Dagnall was a keen balloonist and airship pilot, who, during the First World War, had been manager at the manufacturing company, Airships Ltd. He set up RFD initially to make flotation bags which would keep aircraft afloat if they crashed at sea. The company soon branched out into inflatable boats and even glider planes and moved to Guildford in 1926. Impetus for expansion to Godalming came from pre-war Government fears about the threat of air attacks, by Germany, on British cities, and the need for large numbers of barrage balloons to protect against this possibility.
Barrage ballons were made from a silver-coloured fabric. They were very large and the patterns required much intricate measuring, marking and machine stitching. In action, they were filled with hydrogen (making them airborne) and then winched up to the required height on steel cables by members of the RAF Balloon Command. The balloons forced German bombers to fly higher, which reduced their bombing accuracy.
RFD was made a public company in 1936, which provided the necessary investment to build the Catteshall Lane factory. Both factories employed considerable numbers of female workers during the Second World War. In 1940, Lord Beaverbrook, who was in charge of aircraft production for the Government, paid a surprise visit to RFD at Godalming. He was shocked to find that the firm was only operating one daily shift and ordered the management to set up a night shift - with immediate effect. The company, which already employed between six and seven hundred people, had to send numbers of the girls and women home so that they could rest before coming back to work that night. The managers then set about finding more workers around and about Godalming. The workforce managed to produce 100 barrage balloons per month during the height of the war.
The factory also increased production of small, rubber inflatable dinghies - for use by aircraft crews whose planes came down over the sea. The RFD team developed a revolutionary type of boat contained by a protective outer bag. This was forced apart when a string was pulled, inflating the rubber vessel inside. Attatched was a container, which carried signalling equipment to be retrieved by the crewmen once aboard. As forced sea landings, sadly, became more frequent, ingenious ways were found to incorporate extra equipment (such as oars) into these emergency boats in order to improve the airmen's chances of survival.
RFD Godalming also made life-jackets (commonly known as 'Mae Wests' after a famous Hollywood film actress) and inflatable devices for keeping crashed aircraft afloat so that they could be salvaged. By the end of the war, the company's Catteshall Lane factory was employing 1000 workers. All the orders they fulfilled had been from the Government, which presented the management with a problem in keeping the factory going once the orders were suddenly ended.
Many employees had to quickly find other jobs and the company was forced to look for other products in order to keep the remaining 250 in work. While it continued to manufacture the mainstay products of life-rafts, RFD also went into producing; shopping bags, beach balls (using the remaining stocks of fabrics left over from the war), protective work clothing for hazardous industries, new types of air, and marine, lifejackets, hot air balloons, printed textiles, an anti-aircraft gun training device and, later, inflatable chairs.
The Godalming factory was burned down in a fire in 1954. By then, though, the company was sufficiently profitable to be able to re-build on the site and it remained in production until closure in 1986. Post-War, RFD became a very successful manufacturing group, which bought up other companies in the UK specialising in rubber and textile products.
Godalming Museum owns a considerable archive of company records and photographs from RFD.
Rescue From Disaster - The Story of the RFD Group
Nockolds, Harold (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1980)
Available for referemce in Godalming Museum library
Surrey at War - 1939-1945
Ogley, Bob (Westerham:Froglets Publications , 1995)
Reference, Godalming Museum Library