Southend's Early Aviation History

The Concorde above the old bowling
alley at the pier, 1986.
It seems hard to believe that the annual Southend Airshow which saw its debut in 1986 has now not been held since 2012. Growing up in the Southend area throughout the nineties and early noughties, the airshow became a huge spectacle for my generation. With aircraft arriving and performing practice flights, if you lived under the flight path at Rochford it was an event that lasted the whole week.

For those older than myself, the best memory of the airshow probably comes from the first in 1986 when a British Airways Concorde flight diverted on its way back to Heathrow to do a double pass over the seafront - with over a hundred passengers on board!

Sadly since 2012, the local council and organisers have both cited financial issues as being the cause for the scrapping of the event at Southend, and the prospects of it returning in the wake of other free airshow events around the country being cancelled (like the one originally planned for Great Yarmouth for June 2017) its chances are bleak.

The local memories of the annual airshows, the recently expanded runway at the airport and the Vulcan bomber which has enjoyed its long and sedentary existence there since 1987, has very much left its mark on the town and is now an integral part of the local history. I think Southend residents take it for granted that aviation is a part of the culture of the town now, but how far back does the town's love affair with flight go?

The answer will probably shock even the most ardent of local aviation enthusiasts.

I began this article thinking that the time periods from the early 20th century up until present day would fill a single blog post. I was wrong. Whilst writing this I continued to find more and more information, and it was getting far too much to put into one article. This then is now the first in a series of five posts that will be released (hopefully all soon) and I hope you enjoy them.

The Early Experimenters 

An image allegedly of Forbes and Arnold's
prototype aircraft.
One of the first recorded flying activities in the area allegedly came from two local men from Leigh-On-Sea named Victor Forbes and Arthur Arnold. Their very primitive heavier-than-air design made mostly of bamboo struts, began being tested on the flat fields of Westbarrow Hall Farm in 1909. Given that the farm's property today backs onto the airport, (the original farmhouse today lies along Cherry Orchard Lane) one would assume that the fields of Westbarrow Hall once incorporated much of what would become today's airport. Its strange to think that some of the earliest attempts to gain heavier-than-air flight not only occurred right here in Essex, but on the very site of a now modern airport!

Looking at the craft above however doesn't instill a great deal of confidence. The machine appeared in a journal entitled Flight in 1910, and indeed it seems there is no record of any substantial flight having ever being accomplished by Forbes and Arnold at Westbarrow Hall.(3*) It seems the issue with it was that they were using a water cooled car engine which the journal remarked "proved to be too heavy for the machine". (7*)

Despite set backs in the fields between Eastwood and Rochford, the local area had another site in 1909 that was a significant first in Britain's aviation history. On a particularly wet and muddy field in South Fambridge, just a mile or two north of Ashingdon, Britain's first ever airfield was set up by a number of industrious enthusiasts with the intention of using the site to build and test new aircraft designs at. Around February 1909 (but possibly earlier,) a makeshift hanger was made out of an old hydraulic crane factory at the site, and a group formed under the official name of "The Colony of British Aerocraft". 
Frederick Handley-Page sitting
in his glider, 1909.

Noel Pemberton-Billing, the coordinator and purchaser of the site would eventually go on to found the Supermarine company, which of course manufactured the Spitfire shortly before and during the second world war!

The "Colony" also allegedly had a workshop in central Southend and the staff based there and at Fambridge published literature entitled the "Monthly Review of the World's Progress and Practice in Aerial Navigation".(1*) It was in this publication that Noel would suggest to the relevant authorities the need for a military force he dubbed an "Imperial Squadron of Aviators". This was three years before the Government eventually organised the formation of the Air Battalion!(5*)

Despite Noel Pemberton-Billing being way ahead of his time in some respects (and eventually rose to become a British MP in addition to running a highly successful aircraft manufacturing company) he was not always so lucky in his ventures, and seemed to drift from project to project. He had run away from home at thirteen to South Africa, where he'd been a boxer, had served in the police, and fought in the Boer War. When he got back to Britain he began studying law, and had managed property for a short while before selling steam powered yachts. It was at this point in his life whilst living in Burnham, that he would venture over the river Crouch to consider his luck at aviation.

According to the the book "Essex and it's Race for the Skies" written by Graham Smith, Pemberton-Billing had secured the large funds necessary to start playing with aeroplanes through a wealthy friend and benefactor, on the proviso that he should find a suitable site to fly and construct the craft at. He chose South Fambridge as the (arguably) suitable location, and in doing so, secured his £150 investment to begin his experimenting.(4*)

Having such a varied and chaotic lifestyle often meant he was strapped for cash though, and despite his research into aviation implying that he had vast pools of wealth, he was very often just scraping by. One account on a website (although this isn't verified) says "on one occasion while resident at Fambridge [he] asked a local resident if he could borrow a few shillings. The owner was so angry he not only told our hero to clear off but threw a book at him – and not just any old book but a copy of the Bible!" 

After the opening of Fambridge airfield was announced by the papers, two other airfields not too far away opened within a few weeks in joint competition to be the second. One was on the Isle of Sheppey, and the other was sited in Dagenham which at that point was still little more than a rural village. The Dagenham site had already been working on dirigibles for a while beforehand - but its time as an airfield was only brief as by the following year it was shut down. The sheds that were on site were sold off cheap to Frederick Handley-Page (who would later go on to manufacture combat aircraft for the British that served in both world wars) and moved to nearby Barking.(8*)  It is alleged that the Dagenham airfield sat where the Ford car plant sits today.(1*) 

Whilst at the 1909 Aero Exhibition at the Olympia hall, Pemberton-Billing met Gordon England who was interested in his Fambridge site, and who in turn introduced Pemberton-Billing to the French aviator José Weiss. By the end of the year "The Colony" had made a number of professional connections, including Frederick Handley-Page.

Jose Weiss' 'Elsie', possibly on
the riverside of the Crouch?
In August, the American Robert F. Macfie arrived at the Air Colony after having spent some time learning flying principles from Bleriot in France. Within six weeks of having arrived, his own Tractor Monoplane was built and ready for testing, but after a series of minor accidents most likely due to the uneven and wet ground at Fambridge, he deemed the site unsuitable for use in flying and continued his work a few miles down river on Foulness Island. Unsurprisingly, he also suffered from bad weather and surface conditions there as well, and after being ordered off by the War Office stored his machine inside the Kursaal for a short time whilst he organised its relocation to France. To add a further set backs for him, the aircraft was later damaged in transit to Paris before being refused permission to practice flight in France at all anyway! (6*)

It soon became apparent to all involved that the Fambridge"Colony" had been a failure. With the exception of a few short hops, no significant flights had taken place, partly because regardless of whether the designs there would of flown given the opportunity, most of the time they were bogged down by the wet clay soil there, made worse by the wetter than average weather that summer. Gradually activity at the site wound down, Weiss and Gordon England returned to Sussex, and Pemberton could no longer afford to pay the staff which he employed on site. He moved to Woolston in Southampton and returned to selling and chartering yachts for a while. The last issue of Pemberton's monthly review was published in January of 1910.

Today the only clue we have to the Fambridge airfield's existence is a small memorial placed on one of the village's verges. The memorial's unveiling occurred on the centenary in 2009, with a spitfire flight arranged to fly overhead to mark the fantastic link the site has with the Spitfire's manufacturer and British aviation in general. According to The Echo, the local paper; "The memorial was unveiled by Kenneth Bannerman, director general of the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust. The trust has been responsible for funding both the memorial and the Spitfire flypast."

Wings Over Canewdon

'Daisy' the craft designed and flown
by Gratze at Canewdon.
Eugene V. Gratze of Whitfield Street, London had designed and built a monoplane lovingly named 'Daisy' and had arranged to have it taken to the October Blackpool air meeting in 1909. Unfortunately the wings were lost during transit on the rail network whilst en route to Blackpool, but undeterred Gratze set about building a new set of wings and improving the overall design. In May 1910, Gratze moved 'Daisy' out to Canewdon (a few miles east of Fambridge) to continue his trials which appear to have been a success. By 1911 Gratze put 'Daisy' up for sale for the sum of £80, advertised as a proven flyer, before he dropping out of the aviation game altogether. No other aircraft are known to have been built or developed by Gratze.(8*)

The Flight At Roots Hall

In a more exuberant account, the first recorded flight in Southend town centre was the flight of George Barnes in July 1910 which took place not in the relative safety of some empty field but in the crowded football pitch at Roots Hall! A few hundred spectators paid to enter the grounds to view the flying machine, but from the adjacent fields, windows of nearby homes and from the top of St Mary's church tower, thousands flocked to watch their first glimpse of flight.

According to wikipedia's account, George Barnes was likely known locally as a bit of a celebrity for both pedal and motorcycling after having won a cycling event in Southend in 1901 and two other awards for cycling in Crystal Palace a year later. He was the sixteenth British pilot to be recognised and accredited with the Aviators Certificate by the Royal Aero Club after taking his first official flight at Brooklands race course. However, it seems that he had been working for Humber as a test pilot for some time before his certification, and was purportedly "the first Englishman to fly a monoplane". 

A photo of Barnes in his Bleriot XI parked
on the Roots Hall grounds.
The aircraft Barnes flew was a French monoplane design called the Bleriot XI, built in this case by the British cycle manufacturer Humber under licence (the company eventually sold off their design patents to the well known British cycling manufacturer Raleigh in 1932.)
The link between cycling and early flight may seem strange today, (it was also the case in America with the Wright Brothers) but the innovations and research into keeping both pedal bikes and motorcycles light weight were also invaluable to early aircraft designs.

The Bleriot XI was a very successful design for its time, which along with its creator Louis Bleriot achieved the very first heavier-than-air crossing of the English channel in July of 1909. This wasn't a bad achievement considering the aircraft was only equipped with a 25hp engine! Development of the Bleriot continued until the early stages of WWI with a number of European nations using them predominately in a reconnaissance role, although the last variant to be produced was equipped with a comparatively punchy 140hp engine and an additional seat behind the pilot for a gunner.

Due to high winds, the display at Roots Hall was postponed for two hours whilst Barnes waited for the conditions to improve. Whilst he waited, he powered up the engine to 1400rpm to give the crowds something to watch. A reporter for the Southend Standard reportedly wrote on that day; "People at the rear of the machine had to hold onto their hats and umbrellas; coats and trousers were shivering in the breeze like the flag on the mast of a ship". (2*)

The windy conditions continued unabated for the rest of the afternoon, but in complete odds with the paranoid and safety conscious culture of today's world, Barnes decided that he was going to fly anyway. The first flight attempt lifted the craft just a few inches off the ground, but the second saw the aircraft soar for fifty yards, just high enough to clear a fence and some hedges. With high winds continuing, any further attempts for the day were cancelled.

The Aero Club And Southend

A few months previous to Barnes' flight, The Aero Club had approached Southend council, asking whether they would sponsor their proposal of hosting an aviation week in the town. One of the events local supporters, a Mr. E.J. Newitt who was a land owner and property developer, offered up land in Southchurch to host the event which, had it have taken place, would have been attended by many famous aviators including Claude Graham White and Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame.) Although the Aero Club offered £8000 to promote the week, the local Councillors and mayor turned down the event based on the cost. The cost to fit the grounds for the event were expected cost in excess of £3000, and the event organisers had also wanted the town to offer up £1000 as prize money for the event's winner. (It seems the town's attitude towards these events has come full circle!)

An editorial in the Southend Standard at the time was released in opposition to the idea of funding an Aviation week. An excerpt reads;

"If an event can be arranged at a moderate cost, my goodwill goes with the promoters; but if the aviators stand out for big fees for flights, there is little need locally to take trouble, for we can get on quite nicely without an Aviation Week and it cannot be long before an aviator, looking for a new world to conquer, will notice that the Estuary has not be passed on aeroplane and will hurry to enterprise and conquest."(2*)

The idea of Southend hosting the Aviation Week was soon dropped in the face of such local opposition. I would assume Barnes' flight at Roots Hall was at that time an attempt to rouse some sort of local enthusiasm for the project, but the town council's position wasn't swayed, at least yet.

Claude Graham White's Henri Farmen float plane
in the Thames Estuary off Southend Pier.
The above newspaper quote seems quite prescient, as the town only had to wait a few years before Claude Graham White flew into Southend from Margate on the August bank holiday in 1912. This was the first official "Flying Week" in the town, which had been fully prepared with the building of temporary hangers and exhibition tents adjacent to a jetty, to accommodate the incoming seaplanes. The event attracted large crowds eager to greet White's display.

Mr. White arrived along with his wife in his bright blue painted Henri Farman float plane, with the words "Wake up England" displayed in large font under the wings as part of a national campaign (in part supported by the Daily Mail) to garner national support and investment in both civil and military aviation.

Later on, other aircraft joined Mr. White including float versions of the Bleriot XI and the larger Short S41 seaplane which later that week would manage a flight to Clacton from Southend within twenty-five minutes! The pier was opened at a fee, enabling a closer view of the flying machines by the public, which seemed to be met with huge success.

From that point forward the relationship between the seafront and aviation seemed destined to be intertwined, a few exhibitions were held along the seafront until the outbreak of the first world war.

The Kursaal's Airship

Just before the easter of 1913, after securing a new owner and renewing it's licences, the Kursaal set about organising an air display of a different kind in celebration of its grand reopening. Inside the 14th of March edition of the The Southend and Westcliff Graphic (one of the original local papers from 1907 until 1917) a small snippet revealed the plans:

"We are informed by Mr. C. J. Morehouse, owner of the Kursaal, that he has negotiated for the arrival of a dirigible airship at Southend on Saturday, March 22nd [this date appears to be a misprint]. This will be between two o'clock and five o'clock in the afternoon, and the airship, after making a number of circular movements, will be on view to visitors to the Kursaal pleasure grounds.

The airship will again be on Easter Monday, and will make a flight.

The exceptional interest that is everywhere shown in aircraft, coupled with the awe inspired by those mysterious foreign visitors at night by air, makes the occasion one which will not fail to awaken the keenest enthusiasm among residents and visitors alike."

Easter sees the opening of the Kursaal pleasure grounds.(9*)

Caption reads: What we may possibly see in the future
at the head of the Pier to deal with
foreign aircraft (Southend is one of the prohibited
areas under new aircraft regulations.)
The "mysterious foreign visitors" this short article alludes to, would of course be German Zeppelins which ever since their first sightings over the eastern counties in 1909, had been the source of an ever growing sense of foreboding in the country. The possibility of future aerial warfare was now becoming apparent to not just the Government, but also the press and general population. Just the year previous in October of 1912, the Germans were alleged to have sent over a Zeppelin in the cover of darkness to the garrison town of Sheerness, just over the water from Southend.(10*) The incident had shocked the public and had provoked the British Government to finally take action. By April of 1913, regulations had been hastily brought in to effect, limiting where air traffic could fly. Legislation specifically stated that no aircraft may land anywhere on the northern bank of the Thames, or fly near the Shoebury garrison.

The airship tethered in the old Kursaal grounds as
spectators look on. Image from 28th March,
1913 edition of  Southend and Westcliff Graphic.
After the incident at Sheerness, serious considerations began being made for local anti-aircraft batteries, but few solutions were found before the start of the war.(11*)

Unfortunately due to strong winds and rain, the airship ordered for the Kursaal's display wasn't capable of flying. In fact a few weeks previous there had been seriously strong winds which had caused considerable damage in the town, particularly to boats on the foreshore. Despite the setback, the airship still brought in quite a crowd with the craft simply tethered to the ground in what was the amusement park (now the council estate.) 

The Last Chance For Fambridge

Despite the fact that the 'Aero Colony' at South Fambridge had pretty much packed up by 1910, it didn't stop one final attempt from being made by a few enthusiasts working out of the now disused sheds left behind by Pemberton and his colleagues. A Mr. J.J Talbot and W. B. Quick had designed and built a curious looking seaplane design whereby the upper and lower biplane wings were joined together in a closed oval shape. On the 20th of August 1914, the seaplane was finally lowered into the river Crouch for testing where it performed dreadfully. After repeated attempts to get airbourne, they eventually got it to skim a few hundred yards along a straight part of the river before it capsized and sank. Sadly, at some point along the way, one of the men helping with its operation was drowned. (Some sources say when the machine was lowered into the water, others suggest it was when it capsized.)
The Talbot & Quick float plane at the Crouch,
which unfortunately resulted in the
death of one of the workers.

Had the Crouch seaplane got airbourne though, it would have been highly illegal. The British Government had banned all civilian flying activity over the British Isles since declaring war on the 4th August 1914.

Within four years the various aircraft designs had matured into capable (or at least in some cases) weapon and reconnaissance platforms. The nature of warfare had changed forever, and with that change came a danger to every civilian within the range of enemy aircraft. Southend, like so many other towns in the south east of England, was now a relatively easy target to hit, and would be right in the firing line throughout the first world war.

The great war in the sky had begun.


(1.) "Wings Over Essex" written by Donald Glennie - Essex Countryside, Vol 3, Page 136, Summer of 1955
(2.) "The Start Of Southend In The Sky" article for Southend Standard on the 22nd of January, 1970.
(3.) "A history of Aviation in Essex" written by K.A Cole, published by The Royal Aeronautical Society in 1967. [Page 10]
(4.) "Essex and its Race for the Skies" written by Graham Smith, published by Countryside Books in 2007. [Page 22]

(5) "Essex and its Race for the Skies" written by Graham Smith, published by Countryside Books in 2007. [Page 24]
(6) "Essex and its Race for the Skies" written by Graham Smith, published by Countryside Books in 2007. [Page 28]
(7) "Essex and its Race for the Skies" written by Graham Smith, published by Countryside Books in 2007. [Page 52]
(8) "Essex and its Race for the Skies" written by Graham Smith, published by Countryside Books in 2007. [Page 56-57]
(9) "An Airship For Southend" - The Southend and Westcliff Graphic, 14th March, 1913 issue.
(10) "The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government 1909-14" written by Alfred Gollin, published by the MacMillan Press in 1989.

Kursaal Airship Image: The Southend and Westcliff Graphic, 28th March 1913.
11. "A history of Aviation in Essex" written by K.A Cole, published by The Royal Aeronautical Society in 1967. [Page 11]


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