Whitfield’s Airfield played a part in the early development of aviation. Whitfield had one of the first airfields in the country – in fact it may well have been the very first international airport!
The airfield was in the area between Sandwich Road, Archers Court Road and Napchester Road with the gate being where the Archer Public House now stands. The site is now occupied by roads such as Mayfield Road, Alison Crescent, Cranleigh Drive, Joyes Road and Joyes Close.
By the time the 1914-18 War broke out the airfield was little used. The Royal Flying Corps had become established at Swingate, and the Royal Naval Air Service had a base at Guston, close to the Duke of York’s Royal School.
Early British Pathe newsreel footage of planes landing at Whitfield during the Circuit of Europe Air Race is available on line at News Footage of International Race
The first 2 minutes shows Whitfield Airfield with later clips showing landings at Brighton – Shoreham Airfield.
There is further footage of Harriet Quimby’s take-off from Whitfield for her flight across the Channel (from 7 minutes 35 seconds to 8 minutes 30)
Early on 16 April 1912, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. Harriet took off from Whitfield Aerodrome and landed some 59 minutes later on the beach at Hardelot, 25 miles from Calais. Her achievement went largely unreported and unnoticed at the time as the newspapers were full of reports of the tragic events of the previous day – the sinking of RMS Titanic.
Harriet Quimby’s aviation career was to be a short one. Just a few months later, on 1 July 1912, she was flying at the Annual Boston Aviation Meet when at an altitude of 1500ft, her brand new Bleriot monoplane unexpectedly pitched forward and she and her passenger, William Willard, the event organiser, were ejected from their seats and fell to their deaths while the plane glided down into thick mud.
The first flight from England to Germany took off from Whitfield on 18th April 1913. Flown by Gustav Hamel with a passenger in an 80hp Bleriot monoplane, he did the 245 mile journey non-stop, in 258 minutes, through rain and hail storms, landing in Cologne.
Like many early pioneering aviators, he died young: He disappeared over the English Channel flying from Paris on the 23rd May 1914.
Other famous aviators or that era also used Whitfield’s Airfield, such as Jules Nardini, seen here taking off in May 1912.
From Flight Magazine May 11th 1912.
“The Dover Aero Club is now associated with the Royal Aero Club. This Club has its own Flying Ground at Whitfield, about two miles outside Dover ; the ground affords an excellent alighting place for cross-Channel flights. There are already two excellent sheds erected, and full particulars as to rents, &c., can be obtained from the Secretary, Capt. W. P. Marley, II, Marine Parade, Dover”
From Flight magazine June 22nd 1912 – New Club House for Dover Aero Club.
“There was a large attendance of well-known people on Wednesday of last week at the Whitfield aerodrome, Dover, when the Marquis Camden, Lord Lieutenant of Kent and president of the Dover Aero Club, formally opened new headquarters for the club.
In inaugurating the proceedings, Commander Forster, R.N., chairman of the club, pointed out the importance of aviation from a national point of view, and the good work which could be done by aero clubs in stirring up enthusiasm among amateurs. He then handed the key to the Marquis Camden, who opened the door ; and this ceremony having been performed, and the band meanwhile playing the National Anthem, the president said that, although many of them at the present time had no wish to venture in an aeroplane, they should remember that it was only a little time since that they thought the same thing about motor cars. He believed that before many years the art of flying would be brought to such a pitch of perfection that everybody would be able to venture into the air.”
Whitfield Airfield, 24 Sept 2003 (Reference Dover Express feature story on flying at Dover, by Bob Hollingsbee, June 1960.)
This article was revived by Bob Hollingsbee, in his Dover Express “Memories” feature published in October, 2003, showing a Short Brothers’ S.45 tractor bi-plane taking off from the “flying meadow” in the summer of 1912 and also Italian flier Nardini’s monoplane at Whitfield airfield.
Then, in his “Memories” page inf January, 2004 he used a picture of the “first air station in England” near the site of the later Archer public house, near Whitfield roundabout, which was referred to Terry Sutton, in the “From our Files” section of the “Memories” pages regarding events in the year 1929.
“Forty years ago (in 1960) a Dover man who realised a childhood ambition to become a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps told how he got the bug for flying after watching some of the pioneers of flying in the UK at the Dover airfield at Whitfield.
Leslie Beaufoy, the son of a former Mayor and building contractor in Dover, was insistant that a commemorative plaque ought to be put up at the roadside alongside the site of the former village airfield, not far from the Archer public house. But he failed to persuade anyone to back the proposal. The result is that, in 2010, few if anyone know seems to know the exact position.
The meadow earned a name for itself as an airfield in the Circuit of Europe flying event of 1911, starting from Paris. The route was over 1,000 miles, via Belgium, Holland, France and the UK, for £18,000 prize money.
The pilots landed at Whitfield, before flying on to Shoreham and then returning to Calais via Dover.
I was reminded of the village “flying meadow” when I spoke to Ken Stoker, a former Dover roundsman who featured in my Dover Express “Memories” column some time ago and he told me of his interest in old pictures of the village, an interest he shared with a friend living near his home. I was able to show him a selection of pictures of aircraft taken at Whitfield and a photograph of the former air station clubhouse copied from a postcard lent by a “Memories” feature reader, as well as other village pictures.
In relating Mr Beaufoy’s reminiscences of those early flying days a newspaper reader said he believed the part played by Dover’s “aeroplane meadow” deserved much greater recognition, even if, to the Royal Aero Club, it was but a distant, hazy memory. Air bases which had a war role are much better remembered.
The former airfield, said Leslie, had remained almost unchanged until the late 1950s, when finally, a big tree which once “spread its great arms over the black painted hangar – long since demolished – was swept away.”
Modern building development had begun to spread over the plateau above Whitfield Hill and crept along the frontage of what was once the Dover airfield.
“What a magnificent site it was. Distant views of course remain. The Channel, with its shipping can be seen, from Deal round to the headland of Thanet.”
Mr Beaufoy once told a reporter “it was during the Circuit of Europe that I saw my first aeroplane.
“At 4.30 on a summer morning I stood in the empty High Street of Dover, a lone figure of a small boy waving and cheering, careless of the townsfolk who dared to be asleep at such a time, as a box kite of a bi-plane, with its pilot visibly perched on almost nothing, droned its way to the landing ground.
“Even then I sensed that history was being made. A year before, only five years after the Wright Brothers’ first-ever heavier-than-air flight, Bleriot had cocked a symbolic snook at England’s insularity, and now machine after machine was taking the Channel in its stride.
“I leapt on my bike and tore along the three miles of uphill road to Whitfield, arriving just as the French Commander Beaumont brought his bright red monoplane in to land.
“A year earlier, with schoolfellows, I had waited hours on Shakespeare Cliff peering into the sunny haze and hoping to see Latham cross the Channel. But he landed out of sight, in the sea!
“When later Bleriot arrived he was, alas, unheralded and, to my lasting grief, I was asleep!”
In 1911 the Beaufoy family moved to Whitfield, to a house built by Leslie’s father almost opposite the airfield and, from this vantage point he was in a key position to watch developments for a few years!
* ((The Dover Standard directory for 1910 gave C.E. Beaufoy as living at The Cottage, Whitfield, without giving a street name.))
“On windless summer evenings experimental flights were frequently made.”
The flier Gustav Hamel was a frequent visitor, he remembered, and many a kick-about game of football he played with local youngsters when weather was unfit for flying or he was waiting for spare parts for his fragile aircraft.
“It was with a personal sense of grief that we read of Hamel’s disappearance, later (in 1914,) said Leslie. That was on his 13th crossing of the Channel.
“It gave me quite a thrill when, over 40 years later, happening to mention Hamel’s name to a colleague, he replied, ‘Hamel? Why, I married his sister!’
Leslie went on to tell how in 1911 he and his friends got to know that an aeroplane was actually being built in the Whitfield hangar. He believed the flier’s name was Chalmers, who built his own plane. Then, as he waited for the first flight, said Leslie, there was drama – an air of crisis pervaded the meadow. It was rumoured Chalmers had fitted the top wing two or three inches higher than the doors of the hangar! But air was let out of the tyres “and I have a faint recollection of the wheels being removed and the machine slowly hauled out on wooden rollers. But finally it took off on its first flight! “It flew about a mile and half to Church Whitfield, where it descended involuntarily in a bean field, from which the intrepid bird-man was removed to hospital. The machine was later rebuilt, and flown. Can one ever gauge the courage of these early pioneers, persevering with their frail craft?” he asked.
Leslie was used to seeing expert joiners and cabinet makers busy in his father’s workshops and could appreciate in some degree, he said, the workmanship which went into the laminated wooden propellers used.
The lightness of the early planes came home to him when Mr W.H. Ewen, said to be well known at Hendon, crossed the Channel from Boulogne and landed at Whitfield in a Caudron monoplane powered by a 45hp radial Anzani engine – without a cowling and open, as was the pilot, to “all the winds of heaven” as rain fell that evening.
“The pilot landed the wrong side of a corrugated iron fence close to the hangar, and I was one of the village men and boys who lifted the machine bodily over the fence!”
Leslie also told of the day (April 15, 1912) the first woman flew an aircraft across the Channel, from Whitfield, for Calais in one of the latest Bleriot monoplanes. With a 50hp Gnome engine, its speed was given as about 70mph. Leslie Beaufoy thought her name was Miss Craig, but she was an American called Harriet Quimby.
By the time the 1914-18 War broke out, however, the little Whitfield airfield was little used. The Royal Flying Corps had become established not far away, at Swingate, and the Royal Naval Air Service had a base at Guston, close to the Duke of York’s Royal Military School.
Leslie hoped to join one of these services and one day he was watching a small crowd around a Sopwith “Strutter” in the “aeroplane meadow,” when a boy ran up to tell him “They’re looking for you.” He then saw that the pilot was a friend from the village, a year or two older than him, already in the “god-like” uniform of a Sub-Lieutenant in the RNAS.
“Contrary to all regulations he had landed to give me my first flight!
“I borrowed his mechanic’s helmet and goggles and we were off. We went to 4,000 feet and I sang aloud for joy. The whole Kent coast lay before me with Dover at my feet – how flat it looked, the hills ‘invisible.’
“A blimp moved fish-like towards its shed at Capel and a Nieuport aircraft wheeled underneath us in its homeward glide to Guston. That night I couldn’t sleep for hours.
“Nothing now would ever shake my determination to become a pilot, and indeed, I became, I think, a competent, but certainly never an heroic, scout pilot in the Royal Flying Corps,” said Leslie.
“Others can judge more objectively how far the importance of the Dover ground has become exaggerated in the mind of one small boy who, 50 years on, still retained a passion for the air. But may Dover’s ‘aeroplane meadow’ be allowed at least a small place in the annals of early flight,” Leslie pleaded.”