Thursday, 25 May 2017

Croydon Heritage: aviation, education, inspiration!

Croydon isn't thought of as a heritage destination, but its annual Festival highlights the amazing history to be found there. As this year's festival approaches, I'll highlight a few of my favourites from earlier visits. They range from mediaeval to modernist, Arts and Crafts to aviation. If you're inspired to explore for yourself, the festival runs from 24-30 June and the programme is here.

Let's start with a look around Croydon Airport, whose open day is on 25 June. (I visited back in 2013.) And for between-the-wars glamour, where better to start than with Agatha Christie?
The midday service to Croydon had started. It contained twenty-one passengers - ten in the forward carriage, eleven in the rear one. It had two pilots and two stewards. The noise of the engines was very skilfully deadened. There was no need to put cotton wool in the ears. Nevertheless there was enough noise to discourage conversation and encourage thought.

When Agatha Christie sent the characters of Death in the Clouds on a flight home from Le Bourget airport, Paris, of course they landed in Croydon. It was the first purpose-built passenger airport in the world and a stylish destination for anyone flying into London. Famous aviators of the period also flew to and from here: this was the departure and return point for Amy Johnson's record-breaking flights to Australia and South Africa (in the Pathe newsreel below), while Charles Lindbergh landed here at the end of his solo transatlantic flight.

In these pioneering days of commercial aviation, Croydon was at the forefront of essential innovations. This was the first airport to introduce air traffic control: today's visitors walk around the first air traffic control tower in the world. In 1923, its Radio Officer, F Stanley Mockford, created the 'mayday' distress call here.  In frequent communication with Le Bourget, Paris, he chose the word for its similarity to the French m'aidez (help me). 

Beddington Airfield and Waddon Aerodrome, built during the First World War, were combined in 1920 as Croydon Aerodrome. During the following decade, the air terminal building was added, along with a hotel. When Imperial Airways, later BOAC and now British Airways, were created in 1924 by merging existing companies at the government's behest, they were based here.

There was no passenger car park: wealthier passengers arrived in chauffeur-driven vehicles while the slightly less wealthy were brought by bus from Victoria. Although flying was a more luxurious experience between the wars than it is today, waiting at the terminal was not. With no other examples to model itself upon, it was inspired by railway stations - so the booking hall had wooden benches for passengers to sit on while they waited to board. There was also a small shop: very different to the large retail areas in modern departure lounges.

In the Second World War, Croydon became a base for fighter planes and was thus important in the Battle of Britain. Although it returned to civil use after the war, its air traffic declined drastically as new, larger airports took over. In 1959, it closed altogether.

Today, the main terminal building still survives - converted into offices, but with much of its character intact and a museum in the control tower. It is well watched over by Croydon Airport Society, who are dedicated to sharing its amazing story.


Kay G. said...

My husband is from Croydon! I am glad that there is a society so that people will remember the history of the old airport.

CarolineLD said...

Yes, they're doing a great job. If you and your husband ever visit Croydon, the airport is open monthly!

Kay G. said...

Thanks, Caroline!