Adjacent to the World War One RFC/ RAF airfield at Beddington, the National Aircraft Factory No.1 was rapidly constructed in 1918. It was the first of three National Aircraft Factories built to mass produce aircraft for the war effort. The target output of each factory was 200 completed aircraft per month. This was an ambitious target, but by the end of the war, Britain was building over 30,000 aircraft annually and the industry employed over 350,000 people.
In October 1917, the Government announced a £1,500,000 finance package to facilitate the construction and equipping of a new type of factory to be known as the National Aircraft Factories. Three were to be built with sites identified at Waddon in Croydon, Aintree in Liverpool and Richmond in London. The Richmond factory was never constructed, instead, replaced with the conversion of a partially built factory at Heaton Chapel, Manchester.
Construction on the Waddon site began on the 20th September 1917 in anticipation of the government finance package. The Waddon facility consisted of 58 buildings, covering an enormous 650,000 square feet on a site of 240 acres. The factory was constructed and later managed by Holland, Hannen and Cubitt Limited with the construction work completed in just eight months.
The factory needed vast quantities of materials for its construction. Some 2,000 tons of steel, 5 million bricks, 2,000,000 tonnes of concrete, 90,000 feet of timber and 240,000 square feet of sheet glass were needed to complete the 58 buildings, along with half a mile of double railway track. The factory had its own short section of railway line served by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB & SCR). The railway line spurred from the West Croydon to Epsom line, a quarter of a mile west of Waddon station, with a level crossing installed across Stafford Road, Wallington, for access to the factory site.
W.Cubitt and Co. proudly announced the rapid construction of the factory on behalf of the Ministry of Munitions, producing an inventory of the vast quantities of materials used. The inventory included a “Diary of Events” giving the timeline for the key milestones in the building’s rapid construction; 16th September 1917 Air Board approval, 20th September first ground cut, 21st September building contract signed, 17th November first plant installed and on the 12th December 1917 the offices were occupied.
Moving into the New Year by the 15th January 1918 the power supplies and cabling were in place and switched on. With enough operational equipment installed, aircraft production began. Just fifty-eight days later, on 14th March, the first Airco DH.9 aircraft was completed and handed over to the President of the Air Council, Sir William Weir, in a small ceremony. On the 15th June 1918 the building contract was fully completed. In just under 39 weeks from the decision being made the factory, comprising some 240 acres of buildings, was fully complete with the contract signed off.
The Airco DH.9 was a single-engined, piston-engined bi-plane bomber with a crew of two. Wingspan was just over 42 feet (12.9m), maximum speed was 113 mph with an endurance of four and half hours. It had a forward firing Vickers machine gun and one or two rear-mounted Lewis machine guns with a bomb load of 210 kgs. The aircraft went into service in November 1917.
As well as producing Airco DH.9 aircraft, the factory was also producing aircraft interrupter gears. An interrupter gear is a synchronising mechanism that allows an aircraft’s fuselage-mounted machine guns to fire through the arc of a spinning propeller without striking the propeller itself.
Alongside the new factory, an additional aerodrome was built to test fly the new DH.9s as they came off the production line. The aerodrome was known as Waddon and was located on the site of New Barn Farm – to the east of Plough Lane (now Mollison Drive, Wallington) and opposite the RAF airfield.
The war brought much social change and gave women new work opportunities with extensively employment for them at National Aircraft Factory No.1.The factory became a major employer in the area with personnel growing to over 2100 people. However, with the armistice of November 1918, its raison d’etre came to an abrupt end. Aircraft production came to a halt which meant that the factory was now overstaffed. On Saturday 11th January 1919, 1500 factory employees were made redundant and the remaining 600 staff had their salaries cut. The sudden loss of work led to large protests in Croydon with representations made to the Mayor of Croydon, who was less than supportive of the workers’ protestations. In the factory’s short life of aircraft production, its total output was 241 aircraft and over 3000 interrupter gears.
The factory didn’t close completely but was re-purposed with a new task. With the end to the war, the RAF now had in excess of 10,000 aircraft they no longer required and needed to dispose of. National Aircraft Factory No.1 became National Aircraft Depot No.3 and was now a key site for dismantling and disposing of the RAF’s excess aircraft. Redundant aircraft were stripped down into component parts and sold off. One of the enormous factory sheds contained over 1,000 aircraft fuselages and there were over 6,000 aeroplane engines available for re-sale. Every part of the aircraft was re-cycled and put to a new use. The fabric was stripped from the wings and fuselages and, once the dope was extracted, sold for a good price to high- grade paper manufacturers, the paper of high enough standard to be used in bank notes. Steel tubes and wing bracing wires were re-purposed to make bed frames. The factory was an early example of large scale recycling.
In April 1920, the National Aircraft Disposal Depot No.3 was bought by Sir Handley-Page’s Aircraft Disposal Company, adding to the other five A.D.C factories in the group. The Aircraft Disposal Company, as part of the deal to purchase the surplus factories, also acquired all the government surplus aircraft and parts for overhaul and disposal.