An Airline Terminal in the City Centre (Empire Air Terminal, London, UK)

Opposite London’s Victoria Coach Station is another Streamline Moderne building with a transport heritage. Not that you’d know it today, because it’s now the headquarters of the National Audit Office, a public body which keeps tabs on how public money is, or is planned to be, spent in the UK. The National Audit Office has recently been heard prognosticating gloomily on the business case for High Speed 2, the planned high speed railway from London to the north of England.

The clue that the building once had a rather more significant transport role is in the sculpture over the main entrance, by the artist Eric Broadbent, which shows winged figures over the world. It’s entirely apt because when it opened in 1939 this building was the Empire Terminal, headquarters and passenger check-in for Imperial Airways.

The National Audit Office building, previously the Empire Terminal, London. Panorama (it's a big building and hard to capture in a single shot from across the road). By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
The National Audit Office building, previously the Empire Terminal, London. Panorama (it’s a big building and hard to capture in a single shot from across the road). By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The architect was Albert Lakeman (about whom information is very patchy, though he subsequently designed a Dunlop factory in Durban, South Africa¹), and at the Empire Terminal he created one of the earliest modern airline terminals, albeit a very long way from any airport. A central clock tower of some 10 storeys is flanked by curved wings of five storeys, with pavilions at the ends.

The National Audit Office building, previously the Empire Terminal, London. The central clock tower. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
The National Audit Office building, previously the Empire Terminal, London. The central clock tower. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

A canopy running between the pavilions is supported on piers at the centre, which stand in front of the main entrance, underneath the sculpture. The Empire Terminal was finished in Portland stone, giving it a sleek, bright appearance. There are long wings running out from either side of this central part of the building, but these are later additions to add more office space. They’re not very successful; they neither capture the authentic spirit of the original part of the building, nor are they distinctive enough to bring something new and interesting to it.

The National Audit Office building, previously the Empire Terminal, London. The later additional wings can be seen running out from behind the original building. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
The National Audit Office building, previously the Empire Terminal, London. The later additional wings can be seen running out from behind the original building. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Today it’s perhaps hard to understand what an airline terminal is doing so far from an airport, but at the time it all made sense. Imperial Airways (which became the British Overseas Airways Corporation only a year after the Empire Terminal opened) operated from both Croydon Airport in south London, and also ran flying boats from Southampton Docks (where we’ve been before), on the south coast of England. The flying boats are held in fond regard by a certain kind of transport commentator who longs for the days when passenger transport was seen as having intrinsic glamour. After the airships, the flying boats were, you see, the second most glamorous form of transport ever devised.

I want you to imagine boarding a flying boat at Southampton. Once inside its shimmering silvery body and settled into your chair, you could glance out of the window at the sparkling cerulean blue sea, under a cloudless powder blue sky, feeling the whole plane gently rising and falling on the swell. The doors are closed and then, with a roar, the propellers begin to turn and the flying boat heads out to sea. Inching forward slowly at first and then moving faster over the sea’s surface, cutting a die-straight line through the water, the spray behind it a plume of glittering diamonds arcing up into the air and crashing back down. And then, with a final effort, your flying boat breaks free from the water like a flying fish leaping brazenly from the ocean in an attempt to touch the sky itself. And you really could.

I seem to have become distracted.

Anyway, these were the days when airlines believed they were in the city centre to city centre travel business. How civilised it must have been to know that you could check in at the Empire Terminal and then relax as the airline transported you to the airport (or flying boat dock), with your luggage safely under their auspices. You need give no further thought to your luggage until you were reunited with it at your destination.

The Empire Terminal was ideally placed to serve both Croydon and the flying boat docks, adjacent to London Victoria railway station, and with direct access onto one of the platforms (there’s a picture here). The Empire Terminal’s clock tower is still is easily visible on the approach to Victoria station, and is sometimes confused with Victoria Coach Station by people who know only that they are looking for an Art Deco building in the vicinity. From the Empire Terminal, air passengers were taken to Croydon or Southampton by train. Even in later decades, after the flying boat service ceased (in 1950) and Croydon Airport closed (in 1959) the Empire Terminal continued in use. Victoria station offered direct rail services to Gatwick Airport, while specially designed bus and coaches with luggage holds that had a customs seal facility, offered comfortable and convenient links to other airports too.

As car travel became increasingly popular over the post-war decades, long-stay car parking became many passengers’ preferred way of accessing the airports. Numbers on the coaches linking the Empire Terminal – and indeed all the other inner-city airline terminals, for there were several, not least those at Waterloo Station and at Cromwell Road in west London – dwindled. It just wasn’t worth the airlines’ time and effort for the small numbers who continued to want to use such facilities, and eventually the central London airline terminals closed. The Empire Terminal closed to passengers at the turn of the 1970s/80s, and was listed by statutory heritage body English Heritage at Grade II in 1981.

If the outside is a dramatic (though dare I suggest a little austere) piece of Streamline Moderne, what was the interior like? Well, it was an absolute gem of Art Deco gorgeousness. Fortunately, RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) has an image library with photos of the interior at its opening in 1939. By the 1960s, all that supreme style had been swept away in favour of a different sensibility, which nonetheless has a charm all of its own. English Heritage has a photo gallery showing the 1960s interiors. I’m not sure what the interior currently looks like (you can’t just waltz in to the National Audit Office) but I doubt there’s much to show the building’s original use.

The closure of the in-town airline terminals was the point at which airlines stopped putting their passengers first, and instead put their own business interests first, admittedly partly because of car drivers who were prepared to make their own way to the airport. The shift to private car access made it possible for airlines to have terminals only at the airports, saving considerable sums of money by eliminating the duplicate facilities in town. You can draw a direct line from this moment to the customers-last philosophy of certain low-cost airlines today. But for those of us who don’t/can’t/won’t drive to their airport, the loss of the in-town terminals means a slog all the way to the airport on public transport, trying to keep several large suitcases under control, and generally inconveniencing regular domestic passengers travelling with us.

The idea of remote in-town terminals has never quite gone away though, especially as the latter years of the twentieth century saw an increasing realisation that public transport was by far the best means of meeting the surface access needs of airports. A fleet of London Victoria-Gatwick Airport Gatwick Express trains which entered service in 2000 had large luggage cars to allow luggage check-in at (where else?) Victoria Station. There really are no new ideas under the sun. Around 1999, a remote luggage check-in facility had been introduced at Paddington Station in London, so that airline passengers bound for Heathrow Airport could relieve themselves of their bags before catching a Heathrow Express train. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 put paid to both facilities, unfortunately.

The Empire Terminal remains as a reminder of the days when air travel from the city centre was rather more civilised, and certainly more stylish, than it is today. I wonder how many people who pass the National Audit Office’s doors today realise the building’s original role as an airport terminal miles away from any runway?

How to find the Empire Air Terminal

The green arrow marks the location

References and further reading

¹ http://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/archframes.php?archid=924

English Heritage’s National Heritage List record for the Empire Air Terminal, here.

The London Airports with Particular Reference to their Transport Links to London. Mike Horne (2012). Via this page.

Imperial Airways Empire Terminal, Chris Taylor (2009). Here.

4 thoughts on “An Airline Terminal in the City Centre (Empire Air Terminal, London, UK)

  1. Until the late 90s, BA still had check in desks above Victoria Station where you could check in for your Gatwick flight and check in your luggage. Victim of either post 9/11 security or cost cutting or both. And Swissair had a similar arrangement at principal railway stations – I used it at Lausanne for flights out of Geneva. As you say, much too civilised to survive today’s airline bean- counters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s