Why UNESCO should declare Croydon Airport a World Heritage Site

By - Monday 9th June, 2014

The time has come to celebrate Croydon’s pivotal role in the history of aviation. Ian Walker, Chair of Croydon Airport Society, explains why Croydon Airport deserves to become a World Heritage Site

Airport House on Purley Way, Croydon, where first principles of modern Air Traffic Control were invented.
Image used with the permission of the Croydon Airport Society.

UNESCO, World Heritage, Croydon – words not often seen together in the same sentence. What does Croydon have that puts it on a par with the other 981 United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation giants on the planet?

Croydon Airport on the Purley Way is a place of significant technical innovation and developments that have shaped global air travel. These innovations didn’t happen in New York, LA, Paris or Amsterdam – they happened at the Air Port of London, Croydon. For many years it was the UK’s only international airport and a focal point for the world’s media. This was a global giant.

UNESCO “seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”. This is abbreviated to ‘outstanding universal value’.

Air travel has transformed mankind, and Croydon’s contribution was essential

Every year an extraordinary 3.3 billion passengers fly somewhere, according to IATA. Air travel has transformed mankind. Croydon Airport has made an essential contribution.

The process of declaring a site within the UK to be of global interest is managed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with support from English Heritage and ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites. To be included on the World Heritage List, the potential site must have ‘outstanding universal value’ defined by any one of the ten criteria set down by UNESCO.

‘A unique testimony and an outstanding example’: the Croydon control tower as it appears today.
Image used with the permission of the Croydon Airport Society.

Potential sites go through a two-stage process, first qualifying for inclusion on the Tentative List. The site must also have the support of local stakeholders. DCMS then scrutinises each proposal and works with all stakeholders to ensure the site is viable for the future. Having qualified, it is passed to UNESCO for consideration for the World Heritage List. The whole process can take ten years and, at present, the DCMS nomination process is closed.

Nominations can be made under multiple categories of the ten criteria but a site only needs to qualify in one area. For Croydon Airport I suggest nominations be considered on the following grounds:

• representation of a masterpiece of human creative genius

• exhibition of an important interchange of human values; also as a site of developments in architecture or technology

• as a unique testimony to a cultural tradition

• as an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history

Croydon invented the first principles of Air Traffic Control

A few examples of Croydon Airport’s major international achievements are:

• Radio Position Fixing: using ground radio receivers to pass a navigation fix to pilots. This was approved by the Air Ministry in 1922 and was the beginning of the global network of radio navigation aids

• Mayday, Mayday: international distress procedure. This was invented in Croydon by Fred Mockford in 1923 and approved as the international standard in 1924. How many lives have been saved over the last 90 years by this one innovation?

• Air Traffic Control: Croydon invented first principles and concepts such as Control Zones, Low Visibility Procedures and Flight Levels

• The building of the world’s biggest air terminal in 1928, representing a step-change in airport design. This incorporated all airport functions in one super-efficient building containing the most advanced radio communications network on the planet. It is now the world’s oldest Air Traffic Control tower.

Croydon Airport’s story begins in 1916 during World War I, defending against aerial attacks and later producing aircraft for the war effort. Even Winston Churchill took flying lessons there.

Many world-record-breaking flyers went through Croydon, including Charles Lindbergh, Charles Kingsford-Smith and Amy Johnson, the first pilot to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930. Amy Johnson was greeted by a million well-wishers on her return and went on to become one of the most followed global personalities of the decade.

Heritage tourism is a growth industry – it is our immense good fortune to have this historic place

Croydon Airport was once one of Britain’s top tourist attractions, attracting over 73,000 people a year. Our first national airline, forerunner to British Airways, was established here.

Recognition of heritage and cultural sites is important on a number of levels. The National Trust and English Heritage are seeing an increase in visitor numbers year on year. Heritage tourism is one of the UK’s growth industries and a key part of the UK brand. In July 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) revealed that heritage-based tourism is now worth £26.4 billion to the UK economy. Tourism is the sixth largest industry in Britain and Britain is the seventh most popular destination in the world. Tourism generates £134billion each year for the UK economy (9% of 2012 GDP), directly supports over 2.7 million jobs (9.1% of the total workforce) and is the UK’s sixth largest export earner.

Croydon Airport has left an indelible mark on the world and its global influence continues today. It is our immense good fortune that we have such a unique and significant historic place in Croydon. Let’s use it. The historic airport, Croydon – world class heritage.

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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  • David White

    This is an interesting post. Croydon Airport is arguably the most important historical site in the borough.

    As well as the list of “firsts” given by Ian, I would add that Croydon was effectively the first airport in the world to operate scheduled international commercial services. This title might technically belong to Hounslow Heath which operated such services in August 1919, but Croydon took over from March 1920.

    • Croydon Airport

      Thank you for joining the debate, David. The “firsts” are just the tip of the iceberg of the innovation that took place are Croydon. Some developments are now the fundamental cornerstones of the global air transport network and essential for its effective operation. For example the founding principles of Air Traffic Control demonstrated immense creativity,ingenuity and innovation that are still in use today and have stood the test of time.
      Croydon also had a massive cultural and social effect on the UK. This was Britain’s only international airport for a decade and the major UK gateway for two decades. The 1930′s was an incredibly important decade for women’s equality which brought some very high profile women aviators to the fore. Amy Johnson’s record breaking flights from Croydon saw her become one of the most celebrated women worldwide. If Twitter was around in the 1930′s Amy would have been in the Top 100 most globally influential people on the planet.

  • John Townes

    Congratulations Ian on a very worthy cause. You have my support.