Those Magnificent Men In Their Dagenham Flying Machines
Rob Smith reveals that one of London’s grimiest industrial streets was the site of one of Britain’s earliest airfields and possibly visited by the Wright Brothers
Chequers Lane near Dagenham Dock is typical of the curious landscape of this part of London – where wild flowers grow amidst piles of rubbish, and lorries blow up clouds of dust. In 1909 its seclusion and availability of space made it an ideal experimental area for the Royal Aeronautical Society. And who better to open the test facility than the pioneers of flight – the Wright Brothers.
The idea for the testing began with Baden Baden-Powell, brother of scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell had been interested in flight since witnessing a balloon ascent in 1880 at the age of 20. He went on to design a kite capable of lifting a man, these were sent to the Boer War to be used as observer platforms, but arrived too late to be used. Baden-Powell was aware of the military possibilities for flight. With Orville and Wilbur Wright making a powered flying machine in 1903 and Frenchman Louis Bleriot building a monoplane in 1907, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain became concerned that the British Empire was becoming left behind in the world of flight. Baden-Powell campaigned for a dedicated test facility, away from prying eyes, and eventually land was secured near Dagenham Dock, for £50 a year. Hangars and a clubhouse were constructed.
Baden-Powell had flown with Wilbur Wright in 1908 so he was keen to have the Wrights open the Dagenham facility. In May 1909 they visited London, though it is unclear if they actually made it to Dagenham
Several machines were built at Dagenham, including a quadruplane (four wings stacked on top of each other) designed by Baden-Powell himself, which was intended to be able to fly for an hour, though it didn’t actually manage to take off. More successful was a monoplane built by J E Neale which went on to fly from London to Manchester. An Australian gold miner called C. A. Moreing worked on building a navigational gyroscope at Dagenham with two other Australian engineers. The society also designed a radio controlled boat. It must have been an interesting place, with innovative discussions about new technology interspersed with the loud sounds of crashing aircraft! Local fishermen complained that the noise from the site was scaring local fish away.
The Dagenham flying ground did not last long. The ground was too rough for higher speed take off and it soon became necessary to look elsewhere. However one of the users of the flying ground, Frederick Handley-Page decided to go into production at a site in nearby Barking – London’s first aircraft factory, built using buildings from the Dagenham site reassembled. Handley Page went on to become one of the biggest aircraft manufacturers producing the Halifax bomber in World War Two.
While the Dagenham site was not a particular success, it paved the way for rapid improvements in design. It’s staggering to think that just 30 years after those primitive experiments, high performance aircraft like the Spitfire were flying over Dagenham, guarding the Eastern approach to London in the Battle of Britain.
You can hear more about Dagenham industrial history in my walk on July 4th