City Airport

A history of City Airport

* Images courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

The first aircraft landing ground in Manchester was at Alexandra Park and was used for military purposes during World War One.  It was not purchased by the corporation after the war because the need for a civil airfield was not urgent and as the land was privately owned the price would probably have been too high.

The creation of the aerodrome was driven by John Leeming (of the Lancashire Aero Club based at Woodford) who had published a pamphlet on the need for an airport in Manchester which he distributed to the city’s businessmen and press; the outcome of this was it inspired the Mayor of Manchester to become interested and to seek Leeming’s advice on the best site.

Early in 1928 a subcommittee was appointed to investigate the possibilities of an airport for Manchester.  The sub-committee subsequently reported ‘that in the interests of the trade and commerce of the city, the Corporation should reserve or acquire a site in or near Manchester for the purpose of an aerodrome’.  Permission to establish and maintain an airfield was received on 5 November 1928 and an Aerodrome Committee was appointed.  Work on the preparation of the airfield began under the direction of Councillor William Davy chairman of the aerodrome committee, Alderman Carter Deputy Chairman of the Committee and Mr John Leeming of Northern Air Lines.  It was agreed that the council would allocate £200 to the aerodrome’s General Administration expenses.

The Council agreed and approved a site owned and run by the Cleansing Department [used as a refuse and cinder dump] [at Chat Moss, six and a half miles west of the city centre.

Major Mealing of the air ministry attended a meeting of the subcommittee on 21st November 1928 and spoke about the steps that would need to be undertaken to obtain a licence for them.  He stated that the principal requirement for obtaining a licence was Safety to Aircraft.  This requirement would necessitate the levelling off of the site and the provision of a sufficient length of sun to allow aircraft to alight and take off.  The site should be entirely clear of all obstacles such as fences etc.  He had inspected the site and found it entirely satisfactory subject to certain depressions being filled in.  The ground should be fairly level and should be smooth.  He mentioned the two kinds of licences that could be issued by the air ministry in connection with aerodromes: ‘the all-purpose licence’ and the ‘restricted licence’ and said that it was probably the all-purpose licence that the corporation would need. In addition to the requirements for a licence

Major Mealing spoke about general matters connected with the establishment of the aerodrome.  Regulations would be brought in relative to the rating of the aerodrome, the approaches thereto, hanger accommodations and the services that could be obtained at the airport.  Revenues would be derived from landing dues and the supply of fuel (petrol, oil etc).  The appointment of a caretaker would be necessary; he should be an engineer but should not undertake repairs to private machines.  In reply to a question as to whether the air ministry would support the corporation financially in the establishment of the airport, Major Mealing was of the opinion that they would not; as the establishment of the airport was for the benefit of the city.

Meanwhile it was decided to open a temporary airfield at Wythenshawe (Fallowfield) in 1929 and when this was opened Manchester became the first municipality to have authority to provide and control an airfield (first airport in the UK to receive an Air Ministry licence].  Wythenshawe remained in use for part of 1930 as a relief training ground for Northern Air Lines.

On 5th March 1929, the Ministry of Health agreed to loan to the Manchester Corporation the sum of £14,800 for works of levelling the site, constructing entrance roads etc.  Monies from the loan could also be allocated to people working out of hours and for the recruitment of substitutes to cover for permanent staff during which time they were working on jobs for which the loan had been sanctioned.  A week later the Ministry of Health also sanctioned the borrowing by the Town Council of £4000 for paying tenants compensation in connexion with the site of the Chat Moss aerodrome.

On 29th April 1929, the Town Clerk reported that he had received formal sanctions from the Ministry of Health to the borrowing of sums of (a) £1,776 for the cost of altering the existing farm buildings at Chat Moss into offices etc and (b) £20,724 for the erection of a hangar and workshop.

It was originally intended that the Chat Moss aerodrome would be opened by October 1929, but delays to the workshops and hangars meant that the date of opening needed to be extended.

Sir Sefton Brancker Director of Civil Aviation visited and inspected the ground on 19th October 1929.

An insurance policy was taken out by the Manchester Corporation on 16th January 1930 which protected against fire and explosion risks in the sum of £13,150.

The Town Clerk reported that he had received a communication from the Air Ministry on 24 February 1930 intimating that the airport of Manchester had been approved as a customs aerodrome (withdrawn from Wythenshawe).

The aerodrome consisted of 124 acres of land and the corporation also acquired Fox Hill Farm owned by Mr J Scott; the farmhouse being altered create offices and an Aeronautical Inspection Directorate.  A hotel would later be built adjoining the airport.  The specifically prepared grass landing area was 1,590ft north to south; 1566ft north east to south west; 2,214 ft east to west and 1,566ft north west to south east.  Unfortunately the ground consisted of peat soil and soft spots occurred in the south east corner after heavy rain.  Also provided at Barton was a 200 x 100ft hangar [with two furnaces for heating], a small power station, workshops, a control tower containing met offices, wireless control room and offices and another building that housed the customs, pilots room and the booking hall.  A sculptor was employed to work on a carved coat of arms on the front of the new hanger building which faced Liverpool Road.

When it first opened, the airport was controlled by the city of Manchester but was under the management of Northern Air Lines (Manchester) a company formed by John Leeming (man who formed the Lancashire Aero Club) and F J V Holmes of Berkshire Aviation Tours Limited who aimed to bring the benefits of air travel to Manchester businesses.  A large fleet of Avro 504 aircraft were purchased as well as an Airco DH 9.

The first plane to touch down at the airport was Captain A N Kingwill, at the controls of an AVRO Avian belonging to Northern Air Lines. A few months later the prime minister Ramsey Macdonald landed at the airport on his way to Scotland – he inspected it and its associated workshops and had lunch with the staff (his pilot was Captain O P Jones).

In January 1930, the local journal reported that it was the only airport in the country constructed on the American principle with runways or tracks [cinders laid for here runways raised above unprepared ground] on which the aircraft could take off and land and that aerodromes had been until then large open spaces of available ground.

In June 1930, the airport had its first scheduled airline service as part of the Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester-Liverpool run with Captain Caspar John, being one of the first pilots.  This service was run by Imperial Airways Ltd [predecessor of British Airways] as a subsidised service.

On 16 June 1930, Captain Jones came again to Barton this time in an Argosy of Imperial Airways with Sir Sefton Brancker to inaugurate a regular London to Manchester service and a month later the aerodrome was first used as the control point in the King’s Cup air race [5th July]; over 20,000 people paid for admission that day and twice that number were reported as watching outside the boundary.

The first Royal Visitor to Barton was the Duke of Gloucester who arrived in a Royal Air Force Wapiti on the 8th July, ironically to visit an agricultural show at Hough End Fields – the site of the former Alexandra Park Aerodrome.  Other important visitors included Henry, Prince of Wales who flew into    in 1931 and Sir Alan Cobham’s air circus brought excitement to a large crowd in the following year.  Other famous visitors during this period (1931-1932) included: Jim and Amy Mollison fresh from record breaking flights across the world, Captain Bert Hinkler, Flight-Lieutenant Webster, Flight-Lieutenant Atcherley, Captain C D Bernard and Lady Bailey. 

Another famous visitor in 1932 was the great Imperial Airways Hercules Airliner one of the largest aircraft to ever use the field which took the Lord Mayor on a sightseeing tour.

The airport was also licensed as a customs airport and The Aeronautical Inspection Directorate for the North West of England were also stationed at the airport.

The first airport manager was Captain William (Bill) Ledlie who lived on the site and was paid £500 per year.  He was responsible for the proper keeping of all the books, returns, accounts, for instructing the staff and for the maintenance of the airport.  He also dealt with matters such as the weather reports, storage, visiting aircraft, petrol, oil, signals etc and ensured that all air navigation regulations were properly carried out

From the start the public were encouraged to visit the airport and to watch flying exhibitions.  Joyrides in the sky for the public were also an early feature of activities at the airport, for five shillings they got a trip around the Peel Green cemetery in an open three-seater.  John Leeming’s business ran an air taxi business as well as an aerial advertising one their planes contributing to the phenomena of banner towing.

A letter from the Ministry of Health was received on 24th February 1930 which sanctioned the corporation to the borrowing of £5,300 for alterations and additions to Foxhill Farm, Chat Moss for the provision of airport facilities and the town clerk reported on the 11th March that the application for permission to apply for an excise licence in connection with the airport hotel had been granted.

Arrivals and Departures of Aircraft from the Airport April – June 1930

Month

Arrivals

Departures

April

14

14 (including 3 RAF machines)

May

24

24 (including 6 RAF machines)

June

136

138 (including 38 RAF machines)

 

 

Landings and Departures at the Airport during the first year 1 January to 31st December 1930

Month

Northern Tuition Tests

 

Air Lines Air Taxis

Royal Air Force

Imperial Airways Service

Resident Aircraft

Visitors

January

L:26 D:26

 

L:2 D:5

L:3 D:3

-

L:6 D:6

L:9 D:9

February

L:37 D:37

L:1 D:2

L:2 D:2

-

 

L:5 D:5

L:3 D:3

March

L:60 D:60

L:7 D:8

 

-

-

L:6 D:7

L:6 D:6

April

L:61 D:61

L:11 D:14

L:3 D:3

-

L:12 D: 11

L:3 D:3

 

May

L:52 D: 52

L:20 D:19

L:7 D:7

-

L:10 D:9

L:6 D: 7

 

June

L:17 D:17

L:19 D:19

L:38 D:38

L:13 D:13

L:36 D:37

L:33 D:33

 

July

L:20 D:20

L:8 D:8

L:9 D:9

L:26 D:26

L:34 D: 34

L:95 D:95

 

August

L:22 D:22

L:2 D:2

L:23 D:23

L:27 D:27

L:29 D:29

L:16 D:16

 

September

L:13 D:13

 

L:7 D:9

-

L:12 D:12

L:7 D:7

L:27 D:27

October

L:18 D:18

L:21 D:20

L:1 D:1

-

L:8 D:8

L:5 D:5

 

November

L:31 D:31

L:8 D:6

L:9 D:9

-

L:8 D:8

 

L:4 D:4

December

L:16 D:16

L:2 D:2

L:1 D:1

-

L:1 D:1

L:1 D:1

 

Totals

L:373 D:373

L:108 D:113

L:113 D:96

L:78 D:78

L:162 D:162

L:208 D:209

 

 

Total landings during the year (excluding short pleasure flights) 1,025

Total departures during the year (excluding short pleasure flights) 1,031

In 1932, the then airport manager, (Flight Sergeant Eric ‘Jock’ Watt-Bonar of the Royal Air Force Voluntary reserve) received the Empire Gallantry Medal (super seeded by the George Cross) on 24th May 1932 [other article states 5 August 1932] when he dragged a pilot out of a burning RAF Siskin.

Management of the aerodrome for Manchester Corporation passed to Airworks Limited in 1933.  One of the first wireless stations for the guidance of aircraft commenced operations and during the next few years Railway-Air Services, Hillman Airways and Manx Airways were amongst the companies which flew from the airport.  Dragons, Rapides and DH 86’s were the dominant types although a wide variety of light passenger aircraft visited Barton.  Displays and demonstrations frequently took place and participants included Sir Alan Cobham and Clem Sohn.

A control tower and meteorological office was built in 1933 and a direction-finding station was also opened.

At a meeting of the aerodrome subcommittee on 19th July 1933, the town clerk reminded the committee that in the early part of that year an agreement had been entered into with the Manchester Aero Club for the use of certain premises as a club-house and facilities for the use of the airport for instruction in the art of flying. He had received a couple of weeks before this a suggestion from Mr Goodfellow of the Lancashire Aero Club as to the establishment of a branch of the Lancashire Aero Club at the airport and subject to suitable arrangements with the Manchester Aero Club that their club should be absorbed into the Lancashire Aero Club.  Going forward the Lancashire Aero Club would be licensed to use the club premises, the private enclosure and the landing ground from the 29th July 1933 to the 24th June 1940.

Also in 1933, the committee in conjunction with Airworks Limited agreed that landing charges should only be made by commercial aircraft arriving at Manchester and that private aircraft not on commercial use should be allowed free landing.  Free landing was also offered to private aircraft at Speke Aerodrome, Liverpool, Hooton near Liverpool and also at Woodford.

Traffic return for month of September 1933

Type of Aircraft

Aircraft

Passengers

Commercial

L:32 D:32

L:22 D:24

Private

L:40 D:40

L:13 D:15

Light Aero Club

L:17 D:17

L:11 D:10

Totals

L:89 D:89

L:46 D:49

For the corresponding month of 1932 the figures were: L:69 D:68

Traffic Return for the month February 1934

Type of Aircraft

Aircraft

Passengers

Commercial

L:16 D:14

L:13 D:18

Private

L:6 D:8

L:3 D:2

Light Aero Club

L:9 D:9

L:4 D:4

Royal Air Force

L:4 D:4

N/A

Totals

L:35 D:35

L:20 D:24

 

Traffic Returns for the months March to April 1934

Type of Aircraft

Aircraft

 

Passengers

 

 

March

April

March

April

Commercial

L:17 D:15

L:15 D:15

L:11 D:12

L:16 D:18

Private

L:19 D:19

L:46 D:42

L:7 D:12

L:21 D:23

Light Aero Club

L:15 D:15

L:7 D:7

L:6 D:7

L:6 D:6

Royal Airforce

L:8 D:8

L:1 D:1

N/A

N/A

Totals

L:59 D:57

L:68 D:65

L:21 D:31

L:43 D:47

 

In 1934, the beginning of the end arrived for Barton as Manchester’s main airfield arrived.  In that year KLM announced that they wished to commence a Manchester to Amsterdam Service but on inspecting Barton pronounced it unfit for regular services. 

In 1934, a visit by famous Dutch pilots Plesmen and Smirnoff led the corporation to look for another site for the heavier aircraft coming into use internationally.  Smirnoff’s letter to the Mayor of Manchester stated:

“The present dimensions are very small.  It therefore becomes without great discussions, definitely too small for the KLM services.  After much discussion with various local authorities our director decided not to fly to Manchester without the necessary extension of the ground.  The situation is so thoroughly unsuitable that the eventual extensions are bound up with very high costs.  Even with the maximum extensions this ground will never fulfil the conditions necessary for commercial flying. Taken from a meteorological standpoint this is the worse flying ground of any known to me in Europe.  The number of days of bad weather and bad visibility are very great.  The surrounding obstructions such as high-tension pylons, high factory chimneys and high radio masts make the approaches to the ground very dangerous.  Our advice to the local authorities is not to spend any more money on this ground but to try and find a more open ground in the neighbourhood of Manchester.  A definite reply on this proposal has not been given to us.  A sum of £500 has been placed at the disposal of the Committee of Inquiry.  It is unfortunate that our proposal for a joint airport for Manchester and Liverpool was turned down, for it is clear that for such as industrial area with Manchester as a centre and with the great port of Liverpool, the creation of a joint large modern airport would be easy and could be made to pay”.

Estimates of the costs of converting Barton to KLM standards ran as high as £300,000 and this led to the airport committee to consider building an entirely new airport.  At a meeting on 25th July 1934 the ringway plan was approved and the first piece of turf was cut on 28 November 1935 by the Lord Mayor Alderman TS Williams.  Ringway officially opened on 25 June 1938.

Military aircraft from Sealand and other stations still continued to visit Barton on training and communications flights and on the 7th April 1934, nine Hawker Audaxes of 26 Squadron arrived from Catterick for the Royal Air Force’s first official squadron visit to the city.  The squadron flew in formation over the Manchester area and on the following day lunched with the Lord Mayor at the Airport Hotel

The loss of the KLM service to Barton was largely made up when on the 17th June 1935, Hillman Airways Ltd commenced to fly the route Hull, Manchester, Liverpool, Belfast.  Barton continued to attract large crowds for the annual Empire Air Day displays and Sir Alan Cobham continued to visit the Manchester area with his air displays.

Barton continued to receive a varied selection of aircraft as private flying boomed and the service visits increased.  A peek into the tower log revealed visits by an RAF Valencia, K2344, the Lockheed 10, OK-CTA of the Bata Shoe Company and Sir Kenneth Crossley’s Hornet Moth.

By 1st October 1937, RAF expansion had started and Airwork Ltd had obtained the contract for the operation of No 17 elementary and reserve flying and training school and this commenced operation at Barton with six Gypsy 1 Moth aircraft.  An Air Ministry control centre was established at the aerodrome on 21st October 1937 and when the Civil Air Guard was set up in July 1938 to train men and women at cheap subsidised rates the Norther Aviation School and Club soon adopted the scheme.

At this time the airport manager was Mr Hessey, Squadron Leader S J Carr was Chief Flying Instructor and Mr J H Hopkins was chief engineer.  The school expanded in 1938 and the Gypsy 1 Moths were changed to Tiger Moths and Anson aircraft were used for navigation training.  As Barton airport was very small the school expanded to include an element at Ringway Airport.  The school was closed at the outbreak of war.

Barton continued to serve as the city’s main airport until 1938 and was used by such aircraft as the De Havilland Rapide and Express on scheduled services.  Fairey Hendon night bombers built at Heaton Chapel were tested there and the aerodrome became the base for the Northern Aviation School and Club.  This club used the Hillson Pruaga aircraft built at Trafford Park by F Hills and Sons who later produced hundreds of Proctor Trainers and communications aircraft which were also tested at Barton.  Wartime saw regular DC3 services to Dublin and for a while a large number of Anson’s, Hurricanes, Battles, Fulmars and Corsairs were repaired in the hangers at the aerodrome in return for flying services.  Despite the small size of the field such types (large aircraft) such as Whitley, Wellington, Mosquito and Lockheed Lightning all arrived and departed successfully.  Even a Lancaster flew safely in and out of Barton.  After the war the development of Ringway took away the major airline services.  However Barton remained active, helped by the Lancashire Aero Club, numerous RAF pilots who undertook their training post war years and the rapid growth of private flying.

After the outbreak of war, Barton was requisitioned for National Air Communications and was taken over by Air-Taxis Ltd, Personal Airways Limited and Wrightways Ltd.  Civil flying without special permit was prohibited and the airport became a base for the repair and the test flying of damaged warplanes.  Hurricanes of Fighter command and Corsairs of the Fleet Air Arm emerged rejuvenated from new hangers on the side of the field and large numbers of Proctors from the RAF were built and tested by F H Hills & Son Limited.

In 1940 scheduled services (civil air transport) returned to Barton when regular flights to and from Dublin were initiated by West Coast Air Services and Aer Lingus (until 1942).  In spite of enemy activity over Britain these flights continued, the only casualty being a De Havilland 86 which was damaged by fire from a friendly convoy.  The Ministry of Aircraft production took over control of Barton from National Air Communications and throughout the war years the supervision of the activities at the aerodrome were in the hands of Mr J B Lee who had been employed by the Manchester Corporation before the war and returned to their employ at Barton in 1946.  Four new hangers were built during the war and one of those was taken over by Hills for the erection of Percival Proctors.  Another hanger was occupied by David Rosenfield Ltd, well-known Manchester motor dealers and a subsidiary of Henlys Ltd.  When the war broke out the sale of motor cars for civilian use was heavily curtailed and the company undertook sub-contract work on Fairey Battles.  As the work expanded the hangar at Barton was used for assembly and air testing.

A year after the end of the war the aerodrome was de-requisitioned and the Lancashire Aero Club previously at Woodford arrived at Barton.

During this time the airport hotel was taken over by the military and remained in their control until the end of the war.  The main hangar was known affectionately as the Pemby after a late resident and was used for the construction of aircraft including the Percival Proctor. A letter from 1939 described the precautionary measures against air raids and contained information on the costs associated with camouflaging the airport and hangers.

In 1939, the number of personal on war service duty at the airport was:

  • Manchester Corporation – 7 people
  • Messrs Air Taxis Ltd – 18 people
  • Wrightways Limited – 18 people
  • Personal Airways Limited – 8 people
  • Air Ministry Signals Department – 6 people
  • Air Ministry Radio Department – 6 people
  • Air Ministry Telex Department – 3 people
  • Air ministry met. Department – 5 people
  • Air ministry control department – 1 person
  • Military guard – 30 people
  • Police – 2 people
  • Petrol pool board – 1 person

Total 105 people in total not including the people residing in the aerodrome at airport house (5 people) and airport hotel (25 people).

A year after the end of the war the aerodrome was de-requisitioned and the Lancashire Aero Club previously at Woodford arrived at Barton.

A woman flying instructor was so rare in 1951 that when Gabrielle Patterson was engaged as chief flying instructor with Lancashire Flying Club at Barton her appointment made newspaper headlines.

The reserve flying school at Barton closed on 31st March 1953.  The principal users at this time if the aerodrome were the Reserve Flying School, the University Air Squadron which was attached to the Reserve Flying School and the Lancashire Aero Club.

The Narrow-Gauge Railway at the Airport

Manchester’s Narrow Gage Railways article - At the end of 1928 negotiations started between the Cleansing Department and the Air Ministry over the siting of a new airport.  The department was willing to co-operate, and a large area of Barton Moss was leased to the Corporation’s Airport Committee.  The department was asked to assist in construction using the light railway and estimated that they could supply 300 tons of clinkers per week, 300 tons of dust every fortnight and an unspecified quantity of ash box refuse for consolidating the site of the runway.  Eight additional men were employed for a time, an extra barge at a cost of £900; another locomotive for £1000 and 450 yards of track for £250.  The cost of these items was to be charged to the Airport committee as part of the site rental.  In February 1929, the contractor for the airport enquired whether they could lay their own railway to Boysnope Wharf using their large stock of 2ft gauge track and several electric locomotives.  At the height of the operation two locomotives were in use and the normal up and down working of the wharf line was suspended.  An additional siding was constructed at the new termination close to the airport buildings and the line to the airport was used again in 1933 when the airport was extended.