Building Britain’s First Airport Terminal

The re-development of the airport between 1926-1928 saw the construction of a special building to incorporate all airport terminal functions together, including the workings of Air Traffic Control. Work was completed early in 1928 with the new terminal becoming operational on 30th January. The new terminal was officially opened on Wednesday 2nd May by Lady Maude Hoare, wife of the then Secretary of State for Air, Sir Samuel Hoare. This was the first airport terminal constructed in the U.K and the first in the world to incorporate all airport functions, seamlessly in one integrated structure. The building’s integrated facilities enabled efficient and expeditious handling of passengers and goods through the airport processes which was a key feature in the success of design.

The new terminal building was part of the redevelopment of the London Croydon Airport as enacted by the Act of Parliament- the Croydon Aerodrome Extension Act 1925. The Act itself was a result of the Public Inquiry into the aircraft accident that occurred shortly after take-off from the airport on Christmas Eve 1924. The Imperial Airways de Havilland DH.34 aircraft, G- EBBX, bound for Paris le Bourget crashed a few minutes after take-off onto a garden in South Croydon killing all eight people on board. At the time it was the U.K.s worst civil air accident and resulted in the U.K.’s first Public Inquiry into an air accident, convened at the Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, London on 23rd January 1925. The Inquiry looked into the shortcomings of the former World War One airfield and suggested safety could be improved by extended the grass runways. To extend the runways the airport itself would need enlargement and improvement requiring an Act of Parliament. The redevelopment and relocation of the terminal saw the site experience a tenfold increase in size to cover 330 acres and the new buildings themselves covered thirty-four acres. When opened in 1928 it was the world’s biggest airport.

The new terminal, known as the Administration Building, was located on a new site alongside the recently constructed Purley Way (one of the UK’s first road by-passes built in 1925) facilitating rapid distribution of goods and traffic arriving by air. The building was designed by unknown architects of the Air Ministry- Department of Buildings and Works and constructed by Wilson Lovatt and Son Ltd. at a cost of £267,000. It was constructed using a steel frame which allowed for easy extension for future airport expansion. Walled with 50,000 concrete blocks, the blocks were finished in a special aggregate mix to give the appearance of Portland Stone.

Centre stage in the Administration Building was the check-in area known as the Booking Hall, the central area for administration and passenger processing functions. An innovative design that is now a standard airport design, it featured six check-in desks and administration facilities for the international airlines operating at the airport. The Booking Hall featured a large two-storey atrium surrounded by a first floor balustrade with geometric patterned railings. Atop the atrium sits a magnificent steel framed glass dome, flooding the area with light. The Booking Hall was the first passenger check-in area designed and constructed with designated independent check-in facilities for international airlines.

The Booking Hall led through to Immigration, Security and Customs checks before exiting through the world’s first Departure gate to the south side of the Control Tower. The Arrivals gate was on the north side of the Control Tower. Situated in the middle of the Booking Hall (see photo below) was the octagonally-shaped Departures and Arrivals Indicator- an early version of the electronic Departures and Arrivals information boards now commonplace in airports. Each face of the Indicator would display on a clock face the scheduled time of departure and arrival of each airline’s service. Imperial Airways, as the main operator at the airport, had two faces reserved for its use.

Enveloping the central Booking Hall were two cargo wings- one to each side of the building. The North cargo wing handled “Goods out” of the U.K. and the South cargo wing handled “Goods in”. Each of the two wings featured bonded Customs stores and four double doors for easy vehicular access.

The building featured a high speed pneumatic vacuum tube communication system connecting the Air Traffic Controllers in the Control Tower to the Meteorological Office and Commandant’s Office.