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Croydon Airport

'The fame of Croydon Airport is world-wide. When his Majesty ascended to the throne twenty-five years ago, the site occupied by the aerodrome was just a stretch of fields. Now it has become a gateway to the Empire.' Wallington and Carshalton Times, May 1935.

Between the wars, the name of Croydon held the promise of glamour and romance. The reason was the presence of Croydon Airport: the stepping-off point to Europe and the world for those who could afford air travel, the hub of the Empire's air mail services, and the start or finish of many heroic long-distance flights.

The airport owed its existence to two adjacent First World War airfields. The first, opened in December 1915, was Beddington Aerodrome, one of a ring of small airfields dotted around London to protect the capital against Zeppelin raids. It later became a training base. The second was Waddon Aerodrome, a test flying-ground attached to National Aircraft Factory no 1, which began operations in January 1918.

At the end of the war, the decision was taken to combine the two airfields, and to make them the 'Air Port of London' - the capital's official customs airport, the point of entry or departure for all international flights. Croydon Airport (or Croydon Aerodrome, as it was at first called) opened on 29 March 1920. The airport's origins as two separate airfields meant that it was physically divided by Plough Lane: the two halves were linked by a level crossing, where road traffic had to be halted at first by a man with a red flag, and later by a gate.

Regular scheduled flights were introduced, carrying passengers, mail and freight to Paris, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and from 1923 to Berlin. A number of British air companies operated from Croydon (including Instone, Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd, and Handley Page): most of these merged in 1924 to become Imperial Airways Ltd.

In the mid-1920s, the airport was remodelled. The airfield was extended, Plough Lane was closed permanently, and a new complex of buildings was constructed on the eastern side of the site, adjoining the Purley Way. These included a new terminal building - the first purpose-designed terminal in the world, opened on 2 May 1928 - the Aerodrome Hotel, and hangars.

Many of the great pioneering aviators of the day came to Croydon. They included Alan Cobham, who flew from Croydon to Capetown and back in 1925-6; Charles Lindbergh, who flew into Croydon in 1927, shortly after completing the first solo trans-Atlantic flight; Bert Hinkler, who made the first flight to Australia (Croydon to Darwin) in 1928; Charles Kingsford-Smith, who beat Hinkler's record in 1929; and many others. In 1930, Amy Johnson flew from Croydon to Australia, the first woman to do so, and later returned to Croydon to a rapturous welcome.

Regular services, by British and European airlines, were extended across Europe and to many parts of the world. Every effort was made to provide a luxury standard of accommodation, but the passengers were not always appreciative. One described the flight to Paris as: 'They put you in a box, they shut the lid, they splash you all over with oil, you are sick, and you're in Paris'.

Mail was carried from Croydon across Britain and Europe. Air mail services began to India in 1929, to East and South Africa in 1931, to Australia in 1934, and to Hong Kong in 1936.

The airport also became a popular attraction for visitors. Not only could they watch airliners landing and taking off, they could also, for a few shillings, go on a joy-ride over London.

A few days before war was declared in September 1939, Croydon Airport was closed to civil aviation, and became instead an RAF fighter station. 'Lord Haw Haw', on German radio, warned: 'Croydon must beware. She is the second line of defence. We know the aerodrome is camouflaged, but we know just what kind of camouflage it is. We shall bomb it and bomb it to a finish.'

As a fighter station, Croydon played a front-line role in the Battle of Britain, and was also regularly visited by high-ranking dignitaries. On 15 August 1940, it became a target during the first major raid of the war on the London area: the neighbouring factories of British NSF, Bourjois and Redwing were severely damaged, and six airmen and over sixty civilians were killed. In 1944, Croydon became the London base for RAF Transport Command, and in this role began to see use again by civil aircraft.

In February 1946, the airport was finally handed back by the RAF to civilian control. However, as early as 1943, discussions had been held which called its long-term future into question. Technical advances meant that post-war airliners were going to be larger and more numerous, and Croydon, with no room for expansion, was too small to cope with the demand. In 1946, Heathrow was designated as London's airport. Although many felt that Croydon had a role to play as an overflow airport, it had been announced by 1952 that it would close. The last scheduled plane flew out on 30 September 1959.

In the 1960s, the western side of the site (in the London Borough of Sutton) was built up as the Roundshaw housing estate; while the eastern section (in the London Borough of Croydon, around the airport buildings) developed as an industrial estate. Many of the road names adopted recall the airport's history: Mollison Drive, Lindbergh Road, Olley Close, Brabazon Avenue etc to the west; and Imperial Way, Lysander Road, Horatius Way and Hannibal Way to the east. In the 1990s, the former terminal building was refurbished as office units, with the name of Airport House, and in 1997 was marked by a restored De Havilland Heron (the model of aircraft that made the last flight out of the airport) mounted on its forecourt.   Airport House now includes a Croydon Airport visitors centre.  The Airport Hotel survives as the Forte Posthouse. A war memorial to the dead of the Second World War was unveiled on the Purley Way, close to the airport site, in 1991.

Further Reading

Bob Learmonth, Joanna Nash and Douglas Cluett, The First Croydon Airport, 1915-1928
(Sutton Libraries and Arts Services, 1977)

Douglas Cluett, Joanna Nash and Bob Learmonth, Croydon Airport: the Great Days, 1928-1939
(Sutton Libraries and Arts Services, 1980)

Douglas Cluett, Joanna Bogle and Bob Learmonth, Croydon Airport and the Battle for Britain,
1939-1940 (Sutton Libraries and Arts Services, 1984)

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Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

 

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