I’d been trying to visit the Croydon Airport Museum for months now, but because it’s only open on the first Sunday of the month, it seemed like something always came up to stop me. Fortunately, at the start of January, I’d just come back from America, I was too jet-lagged for anything more ambitious, and the weather was terrible, so there was nothing better to do than sit in traffic for an hour on our way out to Croydon.
The museum is free to visit, and there’s free parking out front, although spaces were hard to come by on the day we were there, apparently because there was an airplane enthusiasts’ convention taking place in the hotel next door, which was also part of the airport complex at one time (you had to pay to visit that, so I can’t report on the enthusiasts). But, we managed to squeeze into a spot, and ran through the driving rain into the museum. A tour was starting up right when we got there, which we joined because I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to view the upper levels of the museum without it (and judging by the signs on the door leading upstairs, that appears to be the case). The “tour” mainly consisted of a man pointing out photos on the ground floor, and explaining a bit about the airport’s history, but once we got to the upper galleries, we were mercifully free to explore them at our leisure.
Croydon Airport started life back in the 1910s as the Beddington Aerodrome and Waddon Aerodrome, which merged at the end of WWI to become Croydon Aerodrome (why do Brits say “aeroplane,” and “aerodrome,” but it’s still called an “airport?” I seriously keep checking to make sure I’m spelling it right, and it’s definitely “airport.”) In the 1920s, it became the first international airport in the world, serving as a base for Imperial Airways (they flew all over the Empire, as it then was, though it seemed rather pricey, with flights to Africa running 100+ pounds in 1940s money (which is apparently the equivalent of £5000 today. That can’t be right. Well, maybe for first class…)). The airport played a major role in any number of historic events, including sheltering The Spirit of St Louis after Lindbergh’s famous flight, serving as the launching point for Amy Johnson’s flight to Australia (the first female solo flight there), developing the concept of air traffic control, and serving as a fighter station during the Battle of Britain. However, by the 1950s, it couldn’t compete anymore with the other airfields that had popped up around London, and it closed in 1959, when much of it was re-purposed, and the rest destroyed. Today, all that remains is the museum building, and the aforementioned hotel next door.
There was a large model of the airport in its prime on the ground floor, but that was probably the highlight in this area. Otherwise, it consisted of posters about Amy Johnson, and walls covered in pictures (and the Cloud 9 Cafe). There were more pictures in the long hallway leading upstairs (we also passed a room where some women were busy chopping lots of onions, presumably for the bar at the back of the museum, which doesn’t actually appear to have anything to do with the museum, unlike the cafe), but save for the one of a young George VI after he completed his flight training, my interest wasn’t really piqued until we got to the caricatures on the stairs.
I love a good caricature, and these were hilariously excellent, featuring various pilots and other airline staff, and usually some sort of pun on their surname. The upstairs gallery was just two small rooms (which were rather packed when the whole tour group arrived up there), but the outer room had loads of dressing-up boxes I was itching to get my hands on (you all know I also love an aviator jacket), though I couldn’t really because I was embarrassed to act like a four year old in front of so many people.
So I settled for looking around the room next door, which contained mementos from the early days of aviation. How comfy does that whimsically upholstered chair look? That was an actual plane seat, an upgrade from the wicker chair next to it, which was used in even earlier passenger planes (I’d imagine you’d be sliding around, unless they bolted them to the floor).
There was also a scale where you could weigh yourself and calculate which flight you would have made it on (they used to have to weigh each passenger to make sure the plane could carry them all, and then arrange the seating so the plane was properly balanced. I don’t think they’d get away with that nowadays). The funniest part was probably the helpful booklets directed at first time fliers back in the day; among other things, like on-board fashion advice, they were instructed that there was no need to lean when the plane was turning, as the plane could make it without their help!
We also had the opportunity to go up in the old control tower, where there were a number of delightful activities. I had fun calculating where a plane was coming from based on the degree of its approach to various airports (having fun with something involving math! Imagine!), and quickly identifying planes based on their outlines. There was a computer game flight simulator, but children were hogging that, so I didn’t get to try it.
I did enjoy all the fabulous old airline posters (wish we still had those today, instead of obnoxious commercials with Jennifer Aniston advertising first class flights I’ll never be able to afford in my life). I’d certainly head to the Channel Islands for a tenner, but that would be about 200 quid in modern money, so maybe not. Damn inflation. You could probably get Easyjet for less than that, if they even fly to Jersey.
They had more Amy Johnson memorabilia up here as well, including the flight bag that was all that was recovered from her last flight, due to the unpleasant nature of her death. Basically, she joined the ATA when war broke out, and she was flying over the Thames Estuary in 1941 when she was forced to bail out of her plane. Her parachute came down over the water, which was extremely cold, and a nearby ship tried to save her, but they were unable to pull her aboard and she accidentally got sucked into the ship’s propeller when it got too close (not sure if she was still alive when she got sucked in, but I hope not!), which explains why they couldn’t recover her body. But that felt (?) rendering of her is all kinds of adorable!
Though we weren’t allowed in the actual control room part of the tower, which is behind glass, we could peer in through the windows and get a pretty good view. It looks like it was still a fairly low-tech operation in the 1950s, with controllers having to make actual calculations by hand. Pretty cool though.
Though the museum didn’t quite live up to its potential, given all that happened here, I still enjoyed myself, and for a free museum, I can’t really complain. I do definitely think they could do more with the gallery space downstairs, and maybe display some of the items in a manner that would make them easier to look at (not everything had a caption, and sometimes there was too much stuff in the cases), but it is volunteer run, and they’re dependent on donations, so I recognise they probably don’t have the kind of money to do everything they’d like. It is a beautiful old building; the ground floor bears a distinct resemblance to an old-fashioned train station, and I would have loved to have been able to catch an actual flight here back in the day (though obviously that would never fly now (pun intended) with security regulations and all). All in all, it was a nice little reminder of a more civilised time in aviation (when one wasn’t forced to sit behind an obnoxious man who insisted on reclining his seat all the way for the duration of the flight including meals and LANDING! And then bouncing around in his seat so it kept bashing into my (short) legs all the while. All while the man next to me incessantly cracked his knuckles. Ugh, sorry, the memory of that hellacious flight is still far too recent), and a good way to kill an hour. 3/5.