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Review: Flying Up the Edgware Road: The Birth of North-West London’s Aviation Industry by Mark Amies.

flyingThe cover photo of this book features an aerial picture from 1919 of the enormous Airco factory, surrounded by the Middlesex countryside to the North West of London. Inside its covers another – this time Hendon Aerodrome in 1912 – makes the same point. Today the sites of both have long-ago been swallowed up, overtaken by urban sprawl, buried in the midst of a high-density urban landscape. They represent a story almost forgotten. Until now.

At the beginning of the last century, within a decade of the Wright brothers, dozens of pioneering aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers sprang up around London to satisfy the new craze of the wealthy set: flying. In no time, thousands of Londoners were heading out – by bus, tram, Tube and limo – to Hendon Aerodrome for a day out at the air show. The countryside location of these businesses was obvious: the need for proximity of a runway.

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Advertisement. Stag Lane was one of three aerodromes in the area.

Flying Up the Edgware Road tells the story of several significant firms based from Cricklewood and northwards along that eponymous ancient thoroughfare. Their explosive expansion was driven by craze, entrepreneurship, vision… and war. Four big personalities loom large. Claude Grahame-White, founder and owner of London Aerodrome (later Hendon Aerodrome), who also built French-designed planes under licence; Frederick Handley Page, the hands-on entrepreneur whose Cricklewood works turned out increasingly large and lethal bombers; George Holt Thomas, head of the enormous Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco) conglomerate who found aircraft manufacturing more to his taste than his family’s successful publishing business; and Geoffrey de Havilland, Airco’s chief designer (and sometime test pilot) who later struck out on his own to create the Mosquito, Comet and other classics.

There were other, smaller, firms too – British Cauldron, Nieuport, Kingsbury – who for a time, particularly the war years – turned out a good quantity of craft, often under licence.


Cauldron G3 biplane at the RAF Museum, Hendon. 2021.

But the big companies, under their charismatic leaders, produced many thousands of aircraft and employed many thousands of workers in their vast, sprawling plants. They were the epitome of the enlightened modern employer, creating homes for their workers, running sports and social clubs and so on – unimaginable today! Unfortunately, with the end of the war and the economy exhausted, depleted order books and high overheads spelled the end for most of London’s aircraft makers (West London manufacturers such as Sopwith and Fairey encountered the precise same problems).

The Hendon Aerodrome continued as the major RAF base in the inter-war years just as its civil aviation equivalent in Croydon. But the imperative for new housing in their immediate vicinity saw them eclipsed by Northolt and Heathrow respectively after WW2.

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Reconstructed Grahame-White factory building and gates, 2021.

Today there remain tantalising ghosts of the Edgware Road’s brief and glorious aviation story: street signs, an old building here, a plaque there, a row of houses. Mark Amies has kept this story alive with a lively, well-researched narrative, touching on the nostalgic: a genuinely absorbing read. The book is richly illustrated with plenty of archive photos of planes (of course), factories and staff along with recent colour photos to help the reader contextualise what once existed in this fascinating brief period in London’s industrial history.
Flying Up the Edgware Road: The Birth of North-West London’s Aviation Industry (96pp) by Mark Amies is published in paperback by Amberley Publishing with a cover price of £15.99.

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