In July 1911 the Editor of the Herald described ‘the first flying machines crossing the Wansbeck’, saying that: “The first of everything is always important and it most assuredly was an occasion of the first moment to embrace the chance of seeing for the first time a mechanical contrivance guided by man glide through the air like a bird with wings folded.”
This is a reminder of how air travel was such a wonder in the early days, but it is a bit misleading because thousands of people had seen local aviators in action since 1909.
The success of aviators such a Louis Blériot created huge interest and ‘Aero Clubs’ sprang up all over the country, one of the first being the Gosforth-based Northumberland Aero Club in 1909/1910.
From the start, the club organised ‘flying trials’ in places where there were flat, open fields and few obstructions, essential conditions for machines that flew only feet from the ground. Reading reports of the trials suggests that in most cases the owners were learning to fly simply by having a go, often damaging and repairing the planes between flights.
Gosforth Park racecourse became the favoured venue, but the earliest trial was probably at Wideopen when Mr Parkinson flew his facsimile Blériot monoplane. The Herald (1909) said he made: “some preliminary skims along the ground ... then rose gracefully into the air. At an altitude of ten feet he flew alongside the edge of the field for a distance of about 300 yards.”
Then: “Mr Parkinson was compelled to shut off his engine rather quickly owing to the presence of some trees and telephone wires ... he came to ground, swooping gracefully down amid the cheers of the assembled company.”
Mechanical failures were common – a typical one in 1912 forcing a Mr Astley to land at Morpeth, abandoning his Scotland to London flight.
The Herald reported that, as he neared the town in his Blériot: “the oil was running out ... and after skilfully negotiating the tall trees at Morpeth Parish Church and the Rectory he made a clever descent.”
Changes in the weather were one of the commonest, and most dangerous, of hazards, even when the pilots were trained professionals. In one case, five Royal Flying Corps planes on their way to Scotland couldn’t find Gosforth racecourse because of fog. One overshot as far as Morpeth, landed to ask where he was, and turned south again. Another landed on golf links and had trouble taking off because the members thought he wanted to stay and dragged the plane in the opposite direction.
Despite the problems and danger, more and more people took to the air and passenger flights became very popular.
In 1912 a Gosforth show included ‘cross country’ passenger flights piloted by Captain Sanders in a plane that he invented and made himself. It is not recorded how many passengers were daring enough to trust him, but, interestingly, Morpeth was reported as being one of the ‘landing stations’. It is not clear if it was for refuelling or if there were flights from the town.
The next mention of Morpeth came in 1913 when Mr Slack of Hendon, an aviator who had carried the mail from Paris to London, was invited to visit the town by Mr Farquhar Deuchar of Loansdean House.
Surprisingly, both Mr Slack and his plane arrived by train, then he “had the machine taken to a nearby field and trimmed by a mechanic”. When it was ready, he took off and made several circuits before landing at Loansdean. Next day he circled the town at 600 feet, thrilling the crowds. The Herald said Mr Slack provided the “sensation of the week”.
Gosforth Park aero shows were regular attractions until July 1914 when the last ominously included a demonstration of bomb dropping. Less than three weeks later, Britain was at war and aeroplanes became part of modern warfare. Within a year or so, a string of Royal Flying Corps airfields was established to defend the east coast and in 1915 and 1916 Zeppelins bombed towns such as Cramlington, Choppington, Wallsend and Ponteland.
The nearest airfield to Morpeth was called Ashington, but it was in fact located about 1.2km south of Longhirst railway station. There are few records of activity at the airfield and at the end of the war it was discontinued. The huts (sleeping quarters, messes, kitchen and medical room) and numerous sheds were auctioned at the Borough Hall, but the site is marked by a small, cross-shaped woodland that was planted to help the pilots find their way home.
The next nearest First World War airfield was at Cramlington and much more has been written about it because it was the HQ for defence of the NE coast and because of its post-war development.
The air field was more or less abandoned after the war, but in the early 1920s it started to grow into an important civil aerodrome. Businesses such as Cramlington Aircraft Ltd and the Airship Development Company were based there, the former being owned by Leslie Runciman, the 1st Director General of British Overseas Airways Corporation, and Constance Leathart, the first woman to fly over the Alps and a Spitfire ferry pilot in the Second World War.
However, the most important development was in 1925 when Newcastle Aero Club was formed and made Cramlington its base. Under the club’s lead, it became the North East centre for air shows, local and national races, training and passenger flights; it became, effectively, Newcastle airport until 1935.
During the 1920s and 30s there were few scheduled passenger flights, but small companies took travelling air shows to towns large and small, offering daring displays and passenger flights.
Morpeth was a popular venue in the early 1930s, the main landing ground being near Warrener’s Cottage at Northgate.
The Herald claimed that Captain Fresson, who used Northgate airfield in 1932, had carried 100,000 passengers, while in 1933 Sir Alan Cobham’s 14-plane Flying Circus’appeared at Barmoor. The Herald published a description of the town from the air.
At the peak of these local air shows, the Herald reported that Morpeth might play a more important role in air travel because the bus company. Scottish Motor Traction, had just been licensed to develop Northgate as a civil aerodrome, probably as one of a series of stops between Scotland and London.
However, it was only a dream because Cramlington closed shortly afterwards and Woolsington became Newcastle and the region’s airport. The days of local airfields and joy rides from Morpeth were over.
l Many thanks to Ian Hall for a photo of the Cross Wood from his book, Relics of War, (ISBN 978-0-9927324-0-0), Wanney Books (www.wildsofwanney.co.uk). Also, thanks to the North East Aircraft Museum for permission to use their photo of Cramlington Aerodrome (www.nelsam.org.uk/NEAM/NEAM.htm). Finally, thanks, as always, to the MacKay family.
If you have any information about RFC Ashington or Cramlington aerodrome after 1935 please email us at morpethhistory@ hotmail.co.uk