First Flight (Croydon Airport Terminal, London, UK)

In the unprepossessing surroundings of an industrial estate just south of Croydon, south London, stand some smart buildings in a restrained neo-Classical style. They are transport buildings, although their purpose wouldn’t be immediately apparent from a map. Luckily, a stuffed and mounted De Havilland Heron, and the fact that the largest building is called Airport House, give more than adequate clues. These are the surviving buildings of Croydon Airport – a lodge, a hotel and most importantly of all, the airport’s terminal. That building occupies a position similar to that of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the realm of rail transport, because it was not only the first purpose-built integrated airport terminal in Britain, but in the world.

Croydon Airport Terminal. © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page
Croydon Airport Terminal. © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page

Just as there were other railways before the Stockton and Darlington, there had been other airport buildings before Croydon’s 1928-built terminal. But Croydon’s was the first integrated structure, in which arrivals, departures, customs facilities, airport administration and air traffic control were all brought together in the same building, in a way which was recognisably like that of the airport terminals which would be built from then on.

Unusually for such an attractive building, it was designed by the government, in particular the Directorate of Works and Buildings, Air Ministry. In those more interventionist times, the government took a considerable degree of interest in the air transport sector. It had already created the state-owned Imperial Airways as Britain’s national airline in 1924, and chosen Croydon as its home base; the airline was the forerunner of today’s British Airways.

The terminal building has two storeys, with a central entrance under a large semi-circular window. This is flanked by two other large windows with semi-circular headings. All around the building the windows over the doors are detailed with diamond pattern window bars. Over the main entrance, at the top of the building, is a clock, and the front of the building is rusticated, in other words made to look as though it is built of stone blocks. With literally no other airport terminals to base their designs on, the Directorate of Works and Buildings came up with something that looks rather like a well-appointed municipal town hall. The neo-Classical style can be seen on countless civic buildings of the same period, and while it suits the terminal building very well, its architecture definitely has something of the public sector about it. If Trumpton had an airport, this is exactly what it would look like. Note that although the entire building is finished in pale render, this photograph shows that the airside at least was originally finished without.

Croydon Airport Terminal. The clock, decorative window bars and rusticated finish are well seen in this view. Photo by YoavR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Croydon Airport Terminal. The clock, decorative window bars and rusticated finish are well seen in this view. Photo by YoavR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In plan, the terminal is built in a figure of eight shape, around two courtyards which allows natural light into the various parts of the building. The main entrance leads into a double-height lobby, with balcony at first floor level. It is flooded with natural light too, which comes in through a massive domed skylight. The floor is a quite fabulous wooden parquet affair (which I hope is either original or a good recreation), and there are plenty of other decorative devices to admire. The walls sport neo-classical pilasters and panels, there’s a wonderful winged globe sculpture, and the glass lampshades are just gorgeous.

Inside the terminal building at Croydon. Photo by YoavR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Inside the terminal building at Croydon. Photo by YoavR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On the airside of the building stands another first, Croydon Airport’s control tower, apparently the first ‘proper’ control tower at an airport (I’ll let the aviation experts argue that one out). Standing taller than the rest of the building, to give air traffic controllers a good view of the airport, the tower has large windows on the upper floor, with a cantilevered balcony wrapping around, on which are mounted several clocks. The roof is walled at its edges, with openings decorated with stylish metalwork.

Croydon Airport control tower, integrated into the terminal building behind. Photo by Brendan and Ruth McCartney [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Croydon Airport control tower, integrated into the terminal building behind. Photo by Brendan and Ruth McCartney [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Croydon was an airport of firsts. As well as hosting Britain’s first national airline, and seeing the construction of the first modern airport terminal, Croydon Airport also saw the development of air traffic control as we know it today, using aircrafts’ radios to fix their positions in the sky. It also saw the invention of “Mayday” as a distress call (rather than the Morse code SOS). Croydon was the starting point of many of pioneer aviator Amy Johnson’s flights.

Croydon Airport terminal set the pattern for terminals which followed it. Visit the historic Shoreham Airport or Speke Airport terminals today and you can see clearly the same design philosophy being used. The neo-Classical stylings of Croydon Airport’s terminal were swiftly exchanged for the far more modern-looking Streamline Moderne seen at Shoreham (built eight years later) and Speke (11 years later), though.

Although Croydon Airport was Britain’s pre-eminent airport in the inter-war years, it fell out of favour after the Second World War. With grass runways and a lack of room for expansion because it was situated on the edge of London, Croydon had limited scope for development. Instead, a site to the south-west of London was chosen to be Britain’s premier international airport: Heathrow. Situated outside the edge of the urban area, which has since grown towards it, Heathrow now faces exactly the same challenges to its development, its planned third runway proving impossible to site without involving substantial property demolition and even more substantial controversy. Croydon Airport served regional air routes after the war, but traffic declined slowly and it closed in 1959. Parts of its airfield were built over and other parts left as open land for community use.

Croydon Airport terminal was listed at Grade II in 1978, recognising the quality of its design and its role in civil aviation history. The contemporary airport hotel survives, still in use as a hotel. Towards the southern end of the site, an original lodge also survives, listed at Grade II as well. It is currently unused and is in poor condition, appearing on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register.

Croydon Airport's lodge, looking a little sorry for itself. Photo by hahnchen at Wikimedia Commons (must include link if medium allows) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Croydon Airport’s lodge, looking a little sorry for itself. Photo by hahnchen at Wikimedia Commons (must include link if medium allows) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The terminal building, however, has found a new use for itself as a business centre, and it also houses a visitor centre explaining Croydon Airport’s historical importance. Another part of the building is now a restaurant. It’s an extraordinary place, all the more so for having been forgotten by so many people, and worthy of a visit.

Bibliography and further reading

Historic England’s listing citation for Croydon Airport Terminal, here

Historic England’s listing citation for the lodge at Croydon Airport, here

The indispensable website of Croydon Airport Society, from which many of the facts and figures in the above article were drawn. Find it here

How to find Croydon Airport Terminal

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

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