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Air Travel – The Revolution

Britain’s World War One ban on civil aviation was lifted on 25th August 1919, paving the way for the launch of international air services. Hounslow Heath acted as London’s “air port” for the first months of commercial air services. On the day the civil aviation ban was lifted, Aircraft, Transport and Travel Limited launched the world’s first scheduled flight, with their service between Hounslow Heath to Paris- Le Bourget, heralding the age of mass air transport.

1919 was a significant year in the development of the global air transport system that underpins today’s international air network. With the end of World War One, three crucial factors had developed sufficiently to enable the launch of international air services – aircraft, radio and regulations.

Aircraft– aircraft design and capability had seen major advances during World War One, enabling aircraft to become larger, more durable, reliable, with greater load carrying capacity and endurance. Coupled with this, was the advancement in aircraft engine technology to deliver more power with greater reliability and range.

Radio– radio technology developed significantly during World War One. The leap from spark-gap radio to the development of continuous-wave radio transmissions enabled radio-telephony, itself a more effective communication method than Morse code. By the end of the war, more reliable, lighter-weight two-way ground-to-air radio communications systems were established.

Regulations– the recognition by national governments that aviation would be a viable mode of transport and required international agreements to underpin the system, was a major step forward. The Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 heralded the first international aerial navigation treaty, the Convention Relating to the Regulation of Aerial Navigation 13th October 1919, which set out a comprehensive schedule of aviation laws to regulate commercial aviation. The convention came into force on 11th July 1922.

The Aerial Navigation Convention contained forty-three articles and eight annexes that covered all aspects of international air transport. Regulations included licensing for pilots and engineers and Certificates of Airworthiness for aircraft. Article 14 stipulated radio to be installed in aircraft capable of carrying ten or more people and Article 34 established the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) to regulate aviation going forward. ICAN was the forerunner of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation). Annex D created the Rules of the Air and use of lights and signals, with Annex G specifying Meteorology reports and standards. The final Annex H, set out the requirements that international flights must arrive and depart from an aerodrome with Customs facilities, which differentiates an “air port” from an aerodrome.

Hounslow Heath’s time as London’s terminal aerodrome was short lived as airport operations were moved to the larger and better equipped airfield at Croydon on 29th March 1920.  Hounslow Heath was formerly a Royal Flying Corps airfield but had shortcomings as a commercial airfield. In December 1919 the Air Ministry made the decision to close Hounslow and move London’s customs airport to the better facilities and better location at Croydon. Lympne aerodrome on the Kent coast had been established as a secondary diversion airport in the event of emergency, poor weather or aircraft technical issues, to support the new international air route. In the summer of 1919 the Air Ministry had identified four possible “Customs” aerodrome sites, eventually settling on just two sites to serve the whole of the UK – Hounslow Heath supported by Lympne. Handley Page had operated a private Customs airfield between February 1920 and February 1921 before Customs operations were closed and commercial services were transferred to the Croydon. For the next two decades, Croydon was Britain’s primary Customs airport for virtually all of the UKs international departures and arrivals, supplemented from 1937 by the implementation of the Imperial Airways flying boat services from Southampton. Alongside Croydon, Lympne operated in a supporting capacity in case of aircraft en-route emergency or diversion. From 1930 onwards, more small scale airports were built by local councils across the UK, with government funding to help grow domestic services and links to other European countries.

First Airport

The newly appointed London Terminal Aerodrome at Croydon Aerodrome was actually an amalgamation of two distinct and separate but adjacent airfields – RAF Station Croydon (also known as Beddington) and Waddon Aerodrome. The RAF had vacated the airfield in February 1920 as part of a wider consolidation of RAF stations post World War One. The Waddon Aerodrome was established in 1918 as part of the adjacent National Aircraft Factory No.1 (NAF No.1). The 650,000 square foot factory had been rapidly constructed early in 1918 to produce De Havilland D.H. 9 aircraft for the war effort.

The two adjacent airfields were separated by a local road known as Plough Lane. The former RAF station was located to the west of Plough Lane, with Waddon Aerodrome located to its east. With the advent of commercial airline operations commencing at Croydon, the former RAF buildings were re-purposed to handle airline operations, whilst the Waddon Aerodrome was more suitable for take-off and landing. This necessitated aircraft taxiing across Plough Lane as both aerodromes were needed to support air services. A crossing was constructed around 1925 for the aircraft to safely cross the road. In 1928, the airport would be substantially enlarged, redeveloped, and the terminal site relocated to adajacent to the recently built Purley Way bypass. When completed, the enlarged airport was world’s largest.

The airport was owned, operated and managed by the Air Ministry, and in 1920 employed 49 Air Ministry staff. By 1934 there were 1146 employees at the airport. The Air Ministry was a government department and employees were civil servants. Managing air traffic at the airport were the Civil Aviation Traffic Officers (C.A.T.O.s) with radio and telegraphy (Morse code) equipment handled by Radio Officers.

It was at Croydon that Britain’s fledging airlines sought to establish regular intercontinental passenger services. Aircraft Transport and Travel (A,T &T) Ltd and Instone Air Line, promptly moved operations to Croydon to re-commence services on 29th March followed by Handley Page Ltd in February 1921. From 17th February 1920, Handley Page had operated flights from their factory at Crickelwood with a stop a Croydon where much of the continental passenger traffic originated. The French airline, Compagnie des Messageries Aeriennes (C.G.E.A), launched a Paris- Le Bourget to London- Croydon service on the first day of the Croydon operations. The newly formed Belgian airline Syndicat National pour l’Etude des Transports Aeriens (S.N.E.T.A) launched a Brussels- Croydon service on 25th May but this ended late 1921.

Aircraft, Transport and Travel Limited was established on 5th October 1916 by George Holt Thomas as a subsidiary of Airco and holds the distinction of being the first airline established in the UK.

The fledgling airlines predominately used converted World War One bombers such as the Handley Page 0/400 and Vickers Vimy Commercial. Pilots flew in open cockpits and had to endure the extremes of weather that Mother Nature would throw at them. For passengers, the journey was little better. Although the passenger cabins were enclosed, they were cold and noisy, being constructed of wood and canvas, featuring no heating or sound insulation.

Now that a permanent site was found for Britain’s intercontinental airport, work could commence on building the airport infrastructure to support air transport. Plans to install an “Aerodrome Control Tower” were approved by the Air Ministry on 25th February 1920, with the finance approved in April. The Meteorological Office fell under the control of the Air Ministry, with an office established at Croydon on 28th March 1920 just before the airfield became operational as a Customs airport. Weather reports were transmitted at 35 minutes past the hour. In 1920, the Marconi Company installed a Radio Office equipped with a Marconi 100W/CW/ICW telephone transmitter and Type 55 Bellini-Tosi direction-finding receiver transmitting on 900 metres.

(Further information on the development of Air Traffic Control can be found on the dedicated webpage).

British airlines were facing fierce competition from the heavily subsidised European competitors. As winter approached, the three UK airlines that operated from Croydon found it increasingly difficult to compete. In December, Aircraft, Transport and Travel limited suspended operations, and by 21st February 1921 the other two British airlines also suspended operations. The suspension of British air services was a serious matter for the government. In response, the then Secretary of State for Air, Sir Winston Churchill,  established the “Cross Channel Subsidies Committee” to assess and respond to the issue. A scheme of financial assistance was put in place and on 21st March 1921 the two British airlines recommenced operations. The financial viability of the new transport industry continued to be an issue over the next two years which led to the government establishing the Hambling Committee. In 1923, the Hambling Committee recommended that all four British airlines be merged into one company to develop Britain’s air services. The result was the formation of Imperial Airways Limited which came into being on 31st March 1924. The first day of operations was planned for the next day but, due to a dispute with the pilots over remuneration, all operations were cancelled until 26th April 1924, when the first London Croydon- Paris le Bourget service was flown.

The New Air Port of London, Croydon

Christmas Eve 1924 saw the world’s first major commercial aviation accident. An Imperial Airways de Havilland DH. 34, G -EBBX, en-route from Croydon to Paris, crashed a few minutes after departure with the pilot and seven passengers all perishing in the air accident. The aircraft crashed 2.5 km away from the airport on Castle Hill, Purley which is now known as Kingsdown Avenue, South Croydon. A blue plaque on Kingsdown Avenue has been erected near the accident site.

The air tragedy was the first fatal air accident suffered by Imperial Airways. Following the air crash, the UK’s first Public Inquiry into an aviation accident was launched which subsequently made numerous safety recommendations. One of the major recommendations was to improve the safety of the airport by greatly enlarging it, so as to improve the flight paths for approaching and departing aircraft. The Croydon Aerodrome Extension Act 1925 gave the necessary Parliamentary permissions resulting in the permanent closure of a section of Plough Lane and the creation of a new road, Foresters Drive, to route around the enlarged airport. Work on redeveloping and extending the airport commenced in 1926 with the new airport terminal becoming operational in January 1928. The terminal and main airport buildings were re-sited alongside the Purley Way- itself a new road built in 1925 and one of the first road by-passes in Britain. When completed, the new Air Port of London, Croydon was the world’s biggest and most advanced, marking a step change in how airports were designed. It was now nine times the size of the previous airport and covered 330 acres with the new buildings spanning 34 acres.

Alongside the new airport complex a new hotel was constructed to service the needs of travelling passengers and airline staff. Consisting of 50 rooms, 25 of which were en-suite, it provided facilities to supplement those of the airport. It had a first class restaurant, canteens for airline staff and its own rooftop viewing gallery that proved to be a popular tourist attraction. The hotel’s proprietors, Barclay Perkins and Co.Ltd, held an offical opening luncheon on 20th July, 1928 attended by Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for Air. Amy Johnson stayed in the hotel on the night of 4th May 1930, ready for her record-breaking Australia flight attempt the next morning. Amy’s room for the night was located to the front of the hotel and overlooked the Purley Way. She later remarked that she hardly slept due to the road traffic noise from the by-pass.

Passenger numbers grew significantly from when the airport was first operational in March 1920. The first year of operations saw 6383 passengers flying to the continent from Croydon (including the first 3 months from Hounslow Heath), rising to 10,730 in 1921, and to 26,000 a year when the new terminal building was opened in 1928. The early 1930’s saw a sharp jump in passenger numbers as can be seen below:


44,944 passengers


70,162 passengers


87,115 passengers


120,390 passengers

These figures demonstrate, for the time period in question, that this was the busiest airport in the UK and one of the busiest international airports in the world, vying for pole position with Berlin and Paris. 

1935 is the first year that the Air Ministry published detailed figures that included all the new municipal aerodromes around the UK that had gradually become operational as the 1930’s progressed. Of the eighteen operational airports in the UK, the figures show that London Croydon Airport handled 84% of all the UK’s air cargo (3894.4 tons), 49% (120,390) of all UK passengers and 62% of all the UK’s air mail (596.1 tons). The average load factor per passenger flight was the highest of all UK airports at around 66%, with the significant majority of all international passengers using the airport. The next busiest UK airport was Portsmouth with 25,000 passengers.

The new 1928 airport terminal also boasted a rooftop viewing gallery which was a very popular tourist attraction – so much so that the Air Ministry needed to employ full time Tour Guides at the airport to meet demand. It was the UK’s most visited airport by the public. The Air Ministry recorded the number of annual visitors to the airport (see below).


28,454 visitors to the building


58,583 visitors to the building


94,867 visitors to the building


107,059 visitors to the building

In addition to visitors to the terminal, there were also 93,750 visitors to the separate public enclosure in the 1930s.

The above figures exclude visitors for special events such as the return of Amy Johnson after her historic record-breaking flights or the visit of Charles Lindbergh in 1927 after his solo flight across the Atlantic. These occasions would attract over 100,000 visitors to the airport, and when Amy Johnson returned from her record breaking flight to Australia, it was reported that one million people lined the streets of South London to view her cavalcade from the Air Port of London to the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.