Airport House, Purley Way,
Croydon, CR0 0XZ
Sunday September 2 2018
This is a Museum, run almost entirely by volunteers, which only opens once a month hence our Sunday visit. Linda’s photos were taken by plane enthusiast Roger and we were also joined by Mary J, who has lived in nearby Sutton for all of her life.
The Museum offers both free flow and guided visits and we opted for the latter – our guide had clearly been a plane lover since child hood and spoke with undiminished zest of early air travel in general and this airport in particular.
There are three interlocking strands to this visit: the historic and very decorative buildings, the history of the airfield and the evolution of British Imperial Airways which is closely tied to that of the airfield.
The buildings you see today were completed in 1928 and as such were designed to offer the intrepid traveller an experience somewhere between the luxury values of travelling by liner, and the convenience of going by train. We were told that it was the first PURPOSE BUILT civil airport in the world, pioneer of such now-standard features as the separation of arrivals and departures and of freight and passengers, not to mention a succession of purpose-built control towers. The date of completion reflects the favoured style of the times – ART DECO – though like much of that inter-war construction the materials are not all that they might seem. It is essentially a brick building covered in some kind of composite painted white – not even Coade stone as you might expect. The third storeys were added in later years. At its busiest the airport had several hangars and outbuildings, now demolished. The very presence and success of the airport also generated related industries for Croydon that supported or were part of air travel – this in turn encouraged employment and an expansion in nearby housing – all in an area that was once fields…
I may sound a little dismissive of the building but in fact in late summer sunshine it looked lovely with just enough embellishment to give it a ‘modern but classic’ air. Once inside the Thirties style continues with wooden panelling and a welcoming reception desk. Unlike today’s airports where the emphasis is on encouraging you to spend money by reducing seating capacity this , the world’s first purpose built airport lounge offered congenial seating and just one kiosk – a prototype WH Smith’s selling what is had always sold. The original wooden banquettes have been replaced by leather look sofas.
To understand exactly why it is here we were reminded that during the First World War the Germans were sending over Zeppelins, which could fly at great altitude for up to 20 hours non-stop, enabling them to drop bombs on English targets, though their navigation was not always precise. When bombs from one wandering Zeppelin killed civilians in London, public and Parliament demanded visible countermeasures and the Royal Flying Corps established a presence at Croydon (largely ‘window dressing’ as it took time to develop effective anti-Zeppelin measures). Subsequently, it was recognised that as the threat came from the east Croydon was not the best centre to combat it and the airfield then became a base for training RFC pilots who departed for the front after very few flying lessons, many never to return. There was also an aircraft factory.
Come the end of the conflict, airplanes, and the pilots who survived weren’t going anywhere so the airfield started hosting novelty flights then as peace and commerce re-established themselves civil aviation took off in all senses. While the fields remained – at that point aircraft took off and landed into the wind on grass – the building went up.
The Reception area and the stairs are adorned with photographs of the airport at its busiest and most famous. One of the most celebrated pilots was Amy Johnson who flew solo starting from here to Australia. Less well known is that she attempted to fly West across the Atlantic (previous crossings had all made the passage West to East because of the prevailing winds, and even today the time difference crossing the Atlantic is significant). There is a telling photo of a failed take off with her short-lived husband looking less than pleased with the resulting plane damage – he was short lived as a husband that is, it having been a case of marry in haste and repent at n leisure...
Another interesting photo shows the line-up of overseas planes with their national insignia including Lufthansa’s swastika tail symbol sitting happily next to a Dutch plane – not so two years later.
From something like 2,000 passengers in the first year of operation numbers rose to over 120,000 by the mid-1930s but transporting mail remained for a long time the most lucrative part of the business. Also the number of passengers could be eclipsed by the number of sight-seers – over 100,000 turned up at the airport to welcome the return of Amy Johnson.
One piece of aviation history that Croydon can NOT claim is the famous ‘Munich’ photo of Neville Chamberlain emerging from an aircraft in 1938 holding aloft his famous piece of paper: that flight landed at Heston airfield. Heston appears as well as Croydon in ‘The History of Aviation’, a large mural by William Kempster commissioned for Heathrow and unveiled by the Queen in 1969, which is on loan to Croydon till the end of the year.
Interspersed between the large size photos are a variety of historic advertising and promotional posters offering everything from tea in the air on a jaunt down to Brighton or ‘weekly trips to India & Australia’ – the latter taking three weeks, with multiple overnight stops. These were all the proud boasts of Imperial Airways whose home turf this surely was. Early aircraft were barely-converted bombers left over from the War, and even later purpose-designed biplanes retained features such as open cockpits for the pilots even if passengers travelled in comfortable (?) cabins. Advertisements pointed out that aircraft with 4 engines were naturally safer than those with only two.
As we admired the control tower from the outside m our guide explained how primitive early aircraft control was… From the pilots’ points of view their navigation was determined but what they could see and hopefully recognise from the air – prime landmarks being the coast, the River Thames (you’ve gone too far) and the railway. A favourite route from Europe was to find Brighton and follow the railway line to East Croydon then some-one had helpfully stencilled CROYDON in the grass. Of course this makes night time navigation near impossible and for those pilots heading over deserts they would have to hope for a handy camel trail to guide them.. As for predicting the arrival of any plane as the chaps in the top floor radio room were expected to do, this involved taking three radio bearings and plotting them with string on a map and triangulating the result, by which time of course the plane would have moved on. There is an example of this for you to try.
There was also a flight simulator but not surprisingly this was being monopolised by other visitors.
The radio room has been reconstructed and is very atmospheric and on the way back down you can admire (astound at) the rickety nature of the basket weave chairs passengers were seated in. On the other hand the menus were pretty luxurious.
So what happened to bring Croydon Airport to a halt? Well, not surprisingly 1939 saw an immediate halt to all commercial flying. As Croydon was eventually deemed to be too far south and west for combative flying it again became a training base and remained as such throughout the war. Fighter Group 11 were however based here for a while and there are suitable tributes to them.
Come 1945 and the new order in Europe and the World: commerce started up again but Croydon was considered too small, with no scope for building the permanent runways now needed for modern long-haul aircraft, so with more space needed in 1951 Heathrow – then some marshy fields – was set up, and the rest of its story we know. Croydon continued in use for small-scale short-haul flights until 1959 (the last flight by a De Havilland Heron is commemorated by the mascot aircraft in front of the building). Imperial Airways meanwhile morphed into BOAC (the non-European arm of what was then the national airline) and flew as such until privatised by Mrs. Thatcher into the British Airways we have today.
Imperial’s insignia – a winged globe which hangs in the reception / waiting lounge – was removed and only discovered many years later in a dusty hanger corner at Heathrow but was rescued and donated to the Museum where it hangs today.
Pride in early flying and pilots , early aircraft and innovative technology and design and respect for the pioneers are what makes this museum visit well worth finding the time to experience.