Aerodromes in interwar Britain

So far, this blog has had plenty to say about the increase of car ownership in interwar Britain; the development of public transport; and even the popularity of competitive cycling. It has, however, not yet touched upon that other mode of transport which swiftly developed during the 1920s and 1930s: airplanes.

Like many of the changes that became embedded into British society during the interwar period, it started in the Edwardian period. After the Wright brothers made their pioneering flight in the US in 1903, the first flight in England took place in 1908. As is common with the development of new technologies, its first application was in the military. Germany’s successful use of Zeppelins and Gotha bomber planes during the First World War prompted the British army to expand the activities of the Royal Flying Corps (later to become the RAF) and develop a first aircraft factory in Croydon.[1]

A short-lived RAF base in Hounslow hosted the first ever commercial international flight in 1919, to Le Bourget airport in Paris. Shortly thereafter, the facilities at Croydon developed into the only international airport in Britain, launching flights to Paris, Rotterdam and Cologne. The Hounslow base closed, although after the Second World War Heathrow Airport was developed nearby.

Early flights were not just for passengers, but also for the transport of ‘air mail’, allowing much swifter international communications than had hitherto been possible. The pilots of these commercial flights were often ex-RFC pilots, as they were the only group of people already trained to fly planes.[2]

Although Croydon was the international airport, there were many other airfields in existence throughout the interwar period, including around London. The types of planes used in the interwar period were light and flew relatively low to the ground compared to modern jet planes. They therefore did not need extensive runways to take off and land. A large and level field was usually all that was required. This is visible, for example, in this British Pathé footage from 1927 showing ‘Mousehold Aerodrome’ in Norfolk:

Mousehold was a former RAF base which after the First World War housed a flying club, and eventually developed into Norwich Airport in 1933 (NB the current Norwich Airport is on a different site). Throughout the 1930s, many local airports opened up across Britain as domestic flights were viewed as the modern alternative to rail travel. Once again, the need to expand air travel was framed as a competition with Germany, where passenger numbers were much higher.[3] The general enthusiasm for flight and flying which also expressed itself in literature and other art forms has frequently been referred to as ‘airmindedness.’[4]

In addition to the development of commercial domestic and international flights, aerodromes were also sights of spectacle when they hosted the arrival or take-off of celebrity aviators. Throughout the 1920s especially, there was an appetite for developing new flight routes and setting new speed records. Although Alcock and Brown managed the first successful non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919 (from Newfoundland to Ireland), the man who managed to do the trip as a solo flyer received much more attention. Charles Lindbergh flew from Long Island to Paris in 1927. When he landed in Croydon a week later, an estimated 120,000 people attended the airfield to welcome him.[5]

A few years later, Britain’s own Amy Johnson became an icon of modernity when she flew on her own from England to Australia in 1930 – the first woman to manage that feat. An article in the Daily Mirror at the end of that year lauded 1930 as ‘the most wonderful year in history for women’ partially because of them being ‘outstanding in aerial feats.’[6] Johnson herself savvily used the media to secure an income, as she did not receive any formal sponsorships. She sold the exclusive reporting rights of her flight to Australia to the Daily Mail and continued to use this tactic for subsequent record-breaking attempts.[7]

The development of jet planes after the Second World War shifted aviation from something that was potentially accessible to a large portion of the population, to a technology that required large capital investment and specialist training. Croydon Airport could not accommodate the newer, bigger planes and Heathrow, opened in 1946, took its place as London’s premier airport. Many of the local airports either closed down or became solely used by amateur flying clubs. The war had demonstrated the devastation that bomber planes could cause, tempering previous enthusiasm for air flight. For a brief period, however, Britain had been enamoured by the modern possibilities of going up in the air.

[1] Bob Learmonth, Joanna Bogle, Douglas Cluett, The First Croydon Airport: 1915-1928 (Sutton: Sutton Libraries and Arts Services, 1977), pp. 19-20

[2] Ibid., pp. 40-48

[3] Michael John Law, 1938: Modern Britain – Social Change and Visions of the Future (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 115-120

[4] Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber (eds), Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain (London: Palgrave, 2020)

[5] Learmonth, Bogle, Cluett, The First Croydon Airport, p. 72

[6] ‘1930 the most wonderful year in history for women’, Daily Mirror, 29 December 1930, p. 3

[7] Bernhard Rieger, ‘‘Fast couples’: technology, gender and modernity in Britain and Germany during the nineteen-thirties’, Institute of Historical Research, vol 73, no. 193 (2003), 369