Heritage Lottery Fund grant unveils secrets of Croydon’s wartime history

By - Monday 25th September, 2017

The wartime exploits of Croydon-London airport led to the birth of the aviation industry

Photo by the Historical Croydon Airport Trust, used with permission.

Just over one hundred years ago, an airfield was built on the edge of Croydon to defend against German Zeppelin raids during World War One. The Historic Croydon Airport Trust (HCAT) has received a £9200 National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to explore that ‘war in the air’ and how it impacted the local area.

The project, called ‘Fighting for Air: The First World War: Origins of Croydon Airport’, will foster greater understanding of how London Croydon Airport was developed from the World War One airfields at Beddington and Waddon, built as part of the nation’s air defences.

The Historic Croydon Airport Trust is the volunteer-run charity that operates the very popular Croydon Airport Visitor Centre. The charity is now actively looking for volunteers to become involved with the project, researching and interpreting information on the Great War in the air, the implementation of air defences and the long-term impact of the aviation industry on parts of Croydon and Sutton. Volunteers will investigate the HCAT archives to place what happened in Croydon and Sutton within a wider London and national context. Part of the project will see volunteers make research visits to places such as the RAF Museum at Colindale. You can click  for further information.

Three Croydon schoolboys were killed in their beds by the bombing

On 13th October 1915, a night time Zeppelin airship raid on Croydon brought devastation for local residents. The Zeppelin LZ14, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Alois Bocker, began bombing South Croydon then headed north, hitting houses between Edridge Road up to Stretton Road. Bombs fell on Oval Road where the school was hit. There were no air raid warnings and the bombing killed nine people with fifteen injured.

Three Croydon schoolboys were asleep in their beds when their house took a direct hit from one of the airship’s bombs. Brian, Roy and Gordon Currie were aged just ten, fourteen and fifteen years old when they died. The development of the airfield was a direct response to the airship raid and part of a wider ring of air defences gradually developed around London.

As Germany widened its air raid capability with new bombers, the National Aircraft Factory No.1 and aircraft testing airfield was built in Waddon in 1918. The factory employed women ‘war workers’ as the predominant workforce and numerous industries were established to support the war in the air. The combination of these new industries and the influx of airmen and support workers billeted in the local area had a major impact on Waddon, Beddington and surrounds.

Croydon Airport is thrilled to received Heritage Lottery funding

In spring 2018, to mark the centenary of the first aircraft production at Croydon, there will be a series of events hosted about the airport’s involvement in the First World War. A new display will be installed in the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre micro-museum. The impact of the war and the effect of the fledgling aviation industry on the local area will be mapped on the history pin website with a free heritage map produced.

Croydon Airport is thrilled to receive the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund for this project, thanks to National Lottery players. We look forward to making an important aspect of local, national and international history better known.

The World War One airfields continued to play an important part in Britain’s history when peace was restored. In 1919 it became a major RAF training airfield where HRH the Duke of Cambridge, the Queen’s father, and HRH the Prince of Wales learnt to fly. Even Winston Churchill tried his hand at flying but gave it up after a brutal air crash at Croydon. Fortunately, for Britain and history, Churchill survived. Churchill retells the story in his book Thoughts and Adventures.

International air routes spread out from Croydon across the globe

A year later the two former airfields were merged together to form Britain’s first major international airport, helping to establish its fledgling international air travel industry. In 1924, the new airport became the home base for its first national flag carrier, Imperial Airways. International air routes spread out from Croydon reaching across the globe through Africa, India, the Middle and Far East, eventually reaching Australia in 1934. The Imperial Airways London Croydon-Brisbane Australia air route cut the journey time down to a mere two weeks. Many of the air routes established from London continue to this day and remain some of the world’s longest established international connections.

In 1928, the world’s first modern air terminal and air traffic control tower were built. The former airport terminal building along the Purley Way is now known as Airport House. On May 5th this year, due to the buildings significant historic and architectural importance, Historic England announced that the protected listed status of the building had been upgraded to Grade II* (two star). Only 5.8% of listed buildings in England and Wales are Grade II* including Covent Garden Market, BBC’s Broadcasting House and the Tate Gallery.

Part of the building’s importance relates to the significant events that took place there. On 5th May 1930, the previously unknown Amy Johnson flew into history from London Croydon Airport when she made an extraordinary nineteen and a half day record breaking flight to Australia. Amy’s return on the August Bank Holiday saw South London come to a standstill as a million people lined the streets as her cavalcade left London Croydon Airport and edged its way to the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Amy would go on to make more record-breaking flights from Croydon, including flights to Moscow, Tokyo and Cape Town.

Without the establishment of the two World War One airfields and the development of a network of industries around them, London Croydon Airport would not have become a significant part of aviation history.

Ian Walker

Ian Walker

Ian is a trustee and volunteer with the Historic Croydon Airport Trust, a heritage conservation and educational charity operating the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre and Archives. He works as an airline pilot with a major UK international airline.

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  • Chris

    I commenting on Mr Ian Walker. On Croydon Airport. This article is very interesting for me. When the film of the Dan Brown’s Book. The Divic code came out. I’ve misspelled the name. Croydon Airport was used in this film.
    I saw the film at Fairfields Hall which has a cinema room. The audience in the theatre recognise the Airport as
    Croydon and were surprised, so was i
    It showed that this Airport is still in
    demand even though it has Passed its
    sale by date. This was also the first time I had ever seen this airport and it was used in a film that was shown all over the world.