Once upon a time, air travel was considered glamorous. The provenance of the rich, the famous and royalty, you could consider yourself “someone” once you had set foot upon a plane.
And it wasn’t Heathrow or Gatwick that the elite travelled from. Believe it or not (and I took some convincing), the UK’s first international airport was based in…Croydon. Yes, you heard me right. On the Purley Way, to be precise: these days, better known as the home of IKEA and drive-through McDonalds.
Croydon Airport, so I learned today during my visit to its Visitor Centre (the airport itself is long gone), witnessed many historic events – including Amy Johnson’s solo flight to Australia in 1930 and George VI’s and Edward VIII’s flying lessons – and played a key role in both World Wars.
And yet, it had inauspicious beginnings. The area in which the airport was built was farmland until 1914 (“producing the finest wheat in Surrey”, so our guide informed us), when it was requisitioned. In 1915, Beddington Aerodrome opened – a fighter base from which to defend London from attack by airships and bombers. Waddon Aerodrome opened in 1918 – and the two were combined into Croydon Aerodrome, a civilian airport, opening with customs and passenger handling facilities in 1920. Croydon Airport, as it became known, was now an international airport for London – and the first purpose-built international airport in the world, as well as the most famous.
Its exterior alone was attractive: classical style, with art deco features – the type of government style replicated across the Empire. Inside, you would find a booking hall complete with check in counters, weather displays, a newspaper kiosk, coffee shop, a post office and a bookstore – not so very different from what you might expect to find at the likes of Heathrow or JFK, just far more tranquil. Unlike either of those airports, your enjoyment of the flying experience was the priority of the airlines – and each passenger was allocated their very own “airline assistant”, who met them as soon as they arrived in the entrance hall and stayed with them until they stepped on to the plane.
Air travel during the 1920s had its drawbacks, mind you. How would you feel if, upon arriving at check-in, excited about your forthcoming holiday, you were told that you couldn’t get on the plane until you’d been weighed? Well, that’s what happened to every passenger back then; they, along with their luggage, were weighed so that the airline could determine in which seat to put them, it being the only known way of balancing the plane out.
Actually, on the subject of seats you might raise a startled eyebrow when you discover that all airplane seats were made from old-fashioned rattan, that there were no seatbelts – and that the seats were not, in any way, fastened to the floor. Instead, in periods of turbulence, they (and you) slid backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards…until said turbulence had subsided.
Airline food, however, was another story. No pre-packaged, tasteless cuisine: oh no. Instead, you were served five separate courses, on real crockery, furnished with silver cutlery and linen napkins. All accompanied by vintage wines, of course. The Visitor Centre exhibition includes a number of 1920s airline menus and our mouths were watering just from reading them.
Although, our already startled eyebrows were raised once again when we learned that all of the food was prepared at the back of the plane using, of all things, a Primus stove – health and safety regulations in those days being a dim and distant dream.
As the 1920s progressed and the 1930s beckoned, the world of air travel opened up more & more – and so did its purpose. With flights being used by passengers, freight and mail, by 1929 destinations from Croydon Airport included Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Persia and India, with Australia added to the list in 1931. (And I never, ever thought I would type the words “Croydon” and “Persia” in the same sentence).
In the meantime, Croydon Airport was acting as a pioneer for many ground-breaking systems. Air traffic control was devised here, as was early direction finding by radio – and this is also where the ‘May Day’ distress call was invented.
What a tragedy that at a time of such technological advancement and social reform should have been stopped in its tracks – again – by brutal conflict. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and all of Europe would become engulfed, again, in conflict.
Suddenly, and dramatically, Croydon Airport saw a massive increase in traffic, with holiday makers in Europe cutting their vacations short and hastening back to the UK, accompanied by large numbers of refugees. By Saturday 2nd September 1939, Croydon Airport was a military airport; the following day, Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Croydon Airport would play a key role throughout the war and was a prime target during the Battle of Britain. On 15 August 1940, war came directly to Croydon when the Luftwaffe made its greatest number of raids on any one day during that battle. Six airmen were killed and two telephone operators severely wounded – and the factories around the airfield suffered terribly with 35 civilian staff killed. Despite these horrors, Croydon Airport would remain an important staging post throughout the war.
Post-war, the airport never regained its status as a hub of air travel within the Empire, or as an international airport. Innovations in aircraft design, coupled with political changes, meant that the world of air travel changed forever, with Heathrow usurping Croydon as Londoners’ airport of choice.
The role which Croydon Airport played in the evolution of air travel remains significant, though, and I thoroughly recommend visiting its Visitor Centre to find out more. It’s open once a month, on the first Sunday of every month, and both admission and the guided tours are free. Highly recommended – and one of the most interesting places that I’ve visited in a long while.