Airfields being closed for development is an old, old story
These days we continue to be assailed by threats of airfield closures, largely driven by avaricious developers trying to acquire the land for housing. At the end of WWII there were no fewer than 683 wartime airfields, each of which was large enough to support a control building. Today, even including smaller flying sites, the most recent Department for Transport research indicates the total is likely nearer 400.
Despite the efforts of groups such as the General Aviation Awareness Council and, more recently, the All-party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation, this rate of closure has increased significantly in the past decade. The classification of airfields by former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as ‘brownfield’ industrial land has, since 2006, opened the way for property developers to see airfields as lucrative, easy-to-build-on locations. Once thriving airfields such as Panshanger, Manston, Hucknall, Sheffield and Filton are now just history.
But you have to roll the clock back a lot further to find the first-ever announcement of the closure of a flying site. Monday 25 July 1859 to be precise. That was the evening on which, according to its billboards and posters, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens announced that 'It Will Positively Close Forever’.
For almost two centuries (it was mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diaries in the 1660s), the Gardens had entertained Londoners with firework displays, horsemanship, tightrope walking, and music, while its footpaths and booths were noted for romantic assignations. In 1817 there was even a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, with over 1,000 soldiers participating. Then, in 1836, pioneer balloonist Charles Green struck a deal to provide ‘Thrilling Balloon Ascents’ on a regular basis.
According to the (highly recommended) history of early ballooning Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes, Green was already an experienced exponent of the art. The son of a family of fruit merchants Stephen is CEO of the Light Aircraft Association, Vice-chair of the General Aviation Awareness Council, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years helping restore the ‘Biggles Biplane’ 1914 BE2C replica from the heart of Dickensian London, he was approaching forty years old before his first flights were recorded in the mid-1820s. As he gained in technical expertise, he proved a canny businessman too. It was Green who realised that, instead of using expensive hydrogen to fill his balloon, he could simply use coal gas from the nearest gas main. The readily available domestic gas would only allow a balloon to lift half the weight, but at £80 per filling instead of over £250 for hydrogen, it must have seemed a bargain!
By the time Green struck his deal with Vauxhall’s owners he was already a celebrity aeronaut, with over 200 ascents to his credit. The new agreement also helped fund the construction of a new balloon of unprecedented cost and size. The red-and-white-striped Royal
Vauxhall was over eighty feet high and had a capacity of 70,000 cubic feet. It had a nine-foot, oval wicker basket, capable of carrying nine passengers, and it apparently came with the unheard of price tag of £2,000.
After a series of short tethered flights carrying passengers above the Thames (and providing capital-wide advertising for the Gardens), Green put himself, the balloon and Vauxhall Gardens on the international map when, on 1 November 1836, he embarked on what would be a world-record transcontinental flight. Aboard with him were a journalist, Monck Mason and a wealthy benefactor, Robert Hollond MP who helped finance the flight. The pre-event publicity rightly focused on their provisions as much as their preparations for the flight. The Royal Vauxhall’s three occupants apparently departed carrying ‘forty pounds of ham, beef and tongue; forty-five pounds of cooked game and preserves; forty pounds of bread, sugar and biscuits; sixteen pints each of sherry, port and brandy’ and, not least, several dozen bottles of champagne!
Having departed at 1 p.m., they made swift progress across south-east England reaching Calais just before dusk. As they flew on into the night, the flaring foundries of Liège in Belgium proved an unmistakable landmark, then darkness until they saw the glimmer of the river Rhine. When, at daybreak, they landed, descending into snow-covered pine trees, they discovered they were 35 miles north-west of Frankfurt, in the Duchy of Nassau in northern Germany. They had flown an unprecedented 480 miles in eighteen hours.
The fame that attended the recordbreaking flight drew crowds to Vauxhall in unprecedented numbers. Over the next two decades the balloon, now named Royal Nassau made over 250 further flights, carrying passengers to view the vistas of London, being used as the launch point for ‘aerial firework’ displays, even carrying acrobats or trapeze artists. Green also flew for more serious purposes, carrying scientists aloft and also undertaking the first aerial surveys of the capital, allowing both the first ‘A to Z’ maps to be produced as well as the first demographic guide, mapping the rich and poor areas of the city.
London though was changing and with it Vauxhall Gardens’ fortunes, as the arrival of the railways offered Londoners other places for their entertainment. In July 1859 the fateful posters announced the Gardens’ closure. Green, now in his seventies, with over 500 balloon flights to his credit, went into retirement in a small villa above the Holloway Road in North London, which he named Aerial Villa. The Royal
Nassau joined him. Carefully folded, the venerable balloon was stored in his coach house.
The Gardens’ final posters, however, contained some fateful words: ‘… workers will commence taking down the whole of the buildings, and clearing the ground in order to let it for building purposes’. Sound familiar, anyone?
Green realised he could simply use coal gas to fill his balloon