Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Croydon Airport


John King was booked to speak to the Society in March 2006 on the subject of Croydon Airport. Sadly he was unable to do this following surgery which left him with severe mobility problems. We wish him well, and hope to listen to him on this subject at some time in the future. In the meantime, Richard Buchanan has sent us the following report of a talk which John gave to the Southwark and Lambeth Archaeological Society.

Croydon was first used as an aerodrome for defence by the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, but at the end of the war they vacated the site. However, Hounslow Heath, another wartime aerodrome, reverted to cavalry use – and in 1920 Croydon came back into use for commercial aviation. It took over the RFC buildings surrounding an old farmhouse on one side of Plough Lane, a road that divided it from an Aircraft Assembly Works next door, with a railway style level crossing gate between them.

In 1920 it briefly had an airship tower – London was hosting a Dominion Leaders conference, and a demonstration flight of a new Airship was laid on – however, the tower was soon removed, as it had been built on private land. During the 1920s the Aircraft Assembly Works were used as an Engine Shop.

Pilots, from France, navigated to Croydon by following railway lines: from Ashford along the long E-W line through Kent, then north along the Brighton line. The government got the railway companies to paint the names of salient railway stations along the route on their roofs – such as Tonbridge and Banstead. After a couple of collisions it had to be decided whether planes should keep left or right of the tracks – right was agreed. 

Emergency landing places along the route were established – one was at Penshurst.
Many small companies were set up, one of the first being Air Transport & Travel, though few were successful. In 1924 several aviation companies were amalgamated to form Imperial Airways, with a government subsidy (this was meant to be tapered down – but grew…). The French and Dutch gave higher subsidies to their aviation industries. Imperial Airways were known for good comfort (for the times) and safety. Air travel was for first class passengers up to the time of the depression, after which a wider market was sought. 

The aeroplanes were piston-engined biplanes, with the pilot in an open cockpit - many of the British models were by Vickers, De Haviland and Handley Page.

Other airfields came into being at this time, with Grove Park and Eltham in SE London.
In 1928 Croydon airport was enlarged. The centre of Plough Lane was removed, uniting the whole site. The wartime buildings, with their later additions were swept away – to be replaced by the splendid terminal building, with its main hall accommodating the offices of the airlines. The Aerodrome Hotel was built next door, by the new Purley Way - one could go on its roof for 1d to see the aeroplanes. There were plans for a railway connection, with powers granted in 1929, but the depression intervened; plans were revived in 1934 but came to nothing.

There were several historic occasions at Croydon. Lindbergh flew in with his “Spirit of St Louis” after his flight from New York to Paris, and was greeted by enormous crowds – he appeared on the old wooden control tower, and spoke, ending with “all I want is a cup of tea”. In August 1931 Amy Johnson was there after her solo flight to Australia. Her aeroplane, Jason, is now in the Science Museum.

Croydon airport was not ideal. It never had a concrete runway, and the grass landing strip had a considerable dip in the middle with steeper gradients on either side than recommended. Croydon, however, as an established airport, continued to be busy. Railway Air Services Ltd used it to provide a mail service round Britain. In the Second World War the RAF moved in with a squadron of Hurricanes. After the war it continued as an airport for flying club and charter work, until 1959 when Morton Air Services flew out for the last time (to Rotterdam). The site was sold in 1963, to Guardian Royal Exchange.
In 1978 the Croydon Airport Society was founded. It has had several events particularly that of 1980, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Amy Johnson’s flight to Australia. 

However the main aim of the Society was to set up a Croydon Airport Museum in Airport House, the main terminal building, which is Grade 2 listed. The local Council was supportive, but a succession of new owners have had opinions ranging from supportive to dismissive. Airport House is now developed for office use, with a De Haviland Heron displayed outside (the last type of plane to fly thence), and a Tiger Moth (recalling flying club days) hung from the ceiling of the main hall. The Society now has a Visitor Centre there, and hope for the Museum is not dead.

Unfortunate commercial development at the rear is less pleasing than a view of the airfield. However, the site is still flyable. The Aerodrome Hotel is still there, but renamed – “Aerodrome” was thought to suggest aircraft noise to potential guests!
The Society has much material to display, and is still getting more: about the aerodrome itself, its staff, the aircraft which used it, and the passengers it served. A French pilot from the early years met and married a Croydon girl – recently, as his widow, she gave them over 200 photographs he had taken. More photographs were found in a Lufthansa archive at Cologne. It also has material on other airports and airfields serving London.

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