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TOPIC: South Fambridge

South Fambridge 17 Feb 2009 07:45 #1

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South Fambridge - The First Airfield in Britian?

Spotted this article in the local rag, don't know if anyone else has seen it but it makes interesting reading, weather permitting I'll pop along Thursday night and get a photo.



South Fambridge was first British airfield
8:40pm Thursday 5th February 2009

By Tom King »

Pemberton Field is a modern residential close in South Fambridge. You could walk through it, or fly over it, a thousand times and be unaware of its significance.

Only the name gives anything away. The ground beneath these homes and gardens is historic. It marks the site of what was almost certainly Britain’s earliest dedicated airfield.

This month sees the 100th anniversary of the first experimental flights beside the River Crouch meadows.

On February 19, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust will unveil a memorial to the airfield at South Fambridge. The granite block specially made and imported from Italy will be set up at the approach to the village. It’s a little late in the day, maybe, but Fambridge’s significance is finally to be acknowledged.

The honour of being the first aerodrome has traditionally been given to Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, but recent research by Hockley schoolmaster Ken Layzell suggests Leysdown may have been basking in false glory.

“It was a close-run thing, but the evidence from publications at the time suggests Fambridge was first,” he says.

The trusts director-general Ken Bannerman agrees: “We can’t finally prove Fambridge was first, but it may have been.”

Diplomatically, the trust’s director-general, plans to place an identical memorial at Leysdown a day after the Fambridge event.

First or second. The point would hardly have worried the pioneering aviators who flocked to Fambridge in 1909. They were men of the here and now, unconcerned about the history books. Yet history was what they made.

There is another reason why Fambridge has been eclipsed by Leysdown. While Leysdown thrived, even receiving a visit from the Wright Brothers, Fambridge proved a failure, except as a bog.

The rickety flying machines, far from heading into the skies, tended to get mired down in the Essex mud.

A few years later the site would be used for early seaplane trials on the River Crouch.

The tale of this pioneering site may be short, but it is also stirring.

It has direct links to two of the most significant events in aviation, the birth of the RAF and the creation of the Spitfire. And it is dominated by a bizarre and colourful Essex hero, one of the most extraordinary adventurers of 20th century British history.

Noel Pemberton Billing was half rogue, half visionary genius, and the two sides were so entangled no one, probably not even Pemberton himself, ever knew which side they were dealing with.

Whatever else, though, he was a great man of the skies and when it came to aviation, he was one of the angels.

When he died at his home in Burnham-on-Crouch in 1948, his obituary in the Aeroplane referred to him as “an adventurer of adventurers. The legitimate father of the Air Ministry and the RAF”, and “founder of Supermarine” (the firm that created the Spitfire). In the Aeroplane writer’s opinion, he was also the founder of “what I believe was the first aerodrome in England”.

Mr Pemberton Billing played many roles, as MP, inventor (he filed 400 patents), boxer, yachtsman, champion horseman, campaigner and professional gambler.

But it is his extraordinary scheme at Fambridge that captured the public imagination for decades to come.

The Wright Brothers took to the skies for the first time in 1906. Two years later they visited France and Britain to spread the message.

The effect on a young generation of Brits was galvanising. Hundreds of young men, scattered in barns and sheds around Britain, set about building their own flying machines.

Some were actually built, and take-off experiments with the rickety machines were then conducted from meadows, commons, and stately home lawns, wherever the would-be pilot could find a level strip of turf.

Mr Pemberton Billing, an ardent, driven patriot, wanted Britain to be at the forefront of aviation, but he realised energies were being dissipated.

He conceived the idea of what he called a Colony of British Aerocraft, where inventors, pilots and aviation engineers could live and fly together as a community, learning from one another.

Their efforts would be backed up by facilities such as hangers, mechanical workshops, a drawing office, electricity generator and telegraph office, as well as a clubhouse.

Most important of all, it also offered a take-off and landing strip, or, in the more sedate jargon of Edwardian times, “flying ground”.

“In my search for a suitable site for an aerodrome,” Mr Pemberton Billing recalled, “I stumbled across a real deserted village, South Fambridge, a tiny tin town (composed of corrugated iron buildings) grouped round what had once been a hydraulic crane factory.”.

The February 1909 edition of Flight magazine reported the factory had been fitted out. In March, Mr Pemberton Billing took a display stand at the first aero exhibition at London Olympia.

Other aviators were swiftly caught up in his vision, and began to converge on Fambridge.

Aircraft and men alike arrived by train on the Wickford to Burnham-on-Crouch line, and were then shipped across the river by the Fambridge ferry. Nobody, it seems, actually tried to fly in to Fambridge.

Some of the most famous names in early aviation crossed the Crouch on that boat, including Jose Weiss, Robert Macfie, Seton-Karr and Gordon England, all of whom feature strongly in history books covering early aviation.

Through the summer of 1909 the colony was a hive of activity. By November, though, the dream had petered out.

Mr Pemberton Billing surrendered his interest in the property, and the pioneers drifted away. They had been defeated by the marshy terrain.

Mr Pemberton Billing, his eyes fixed on the skies, hadn’t reckoned on the importance of the earth. The one facility the well-equipped Fambridge site lacked, was adequate hardcore.

Aviation returned briefly to Fambridge in 1914, when experiments were conducted on the river with an early flying-boat prototype, the Talbot Quick.

The plane’s promoter, Mr Croft, was attracted by the boat-building skills available along the Crouch and this time the plane was actually constructed at Fambridge.

But he launch went badly wrong, a mechanic was drowned, and the plane was abandoned Win Catton had been born in Fambridge, two years before the village was discovered by Mr Pemberton Billing.

As a young girl, she played around the wreck of the old flying boat and heard tales about the year the aviators came to the village. Win was the mother of Ken Layzell.

“I was born and brought up in South Fambridge, yet I was not aware of the history which was made there until relatively recently,” he says.

He became gradually more intrigued by his mother’s recollections, and when she died in 1998, he set out to compile information about the lost aerodrome.

The old crane factory burnt down in the early 1960s and the airfield is now a housing estate.

Little remains of what Ken calls “England’s first, almost forgotten, aerodrome.” But the emphasis is on the “almost’, and on February 19, when the memorial is unveiled, South Fambridge’s importance will be re-established.

Tribute is planned not just on the ground, but also in the air, as a Spitfire passes overhead acknowledging the significance of the place where, in a sense, it all began.

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South Fambridge 17 Feb 2009 09:12 #2

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So which is the oldest now in Britain???

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South Fambridge 17 Feb 2009 12:36 #3

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Some more history I'ce found about the site.

Ashingdon Parish was the site of considerable early aviation development in the early 1900s. There were several designers of sea-planes producing their early aircraft at hangars in South Fambridge and floating them out to carry out test runs and take-offs and landings in the very wide, straight and calm waters of the tidal River Crouch on the Northern boundaries of Ashingdon Parish. These included the Howard-Wright biplane in 1908; the Jose Weiss No. 1 monoplane in 1908; he returned in 1909 with powered gliders; the Robert McFee monoplane in 1909; the Talbot-Quick water biplane in 1914.

A few years later, much work and flying was done with many types of early aircraft at the first Rochford Aerodrome in Ashingdon which was located in the very large square field at the Western corner of Hyde Wood Lane and Canewdon Road. The most famous aircraft flown from there were the Avro 504K and the tiny "Flying Fleas". By 1933 some flying had moved to another field in Ashingdon Road where Southend Flying Club acquired and operated a Blackburn Bluebird III, two Moths and a new Avro 638 Club Cadet where they operated hourly services to Rochester in pool with Short Brothers.

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South Fambridge 17 Feb 2009 17:28 #4

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Good question, South Fambridge or Leysdown? Guess if the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust don't know, no one does, unless you know different?

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South Fambridge 17 Feb 2009 22:17 #5

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None of those it was Laffan's Plain of SF Cody fame - also reported in Flight of that year - 'The first Pratical Flights in England' - February 1909. Pemberton Billing indeed established an aerodrome but and I quote 'unfortunately there was no one ready to take advantage of the scheme'!

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