The Airport and Boulton Paul

Aviation was the growing thing in the 1930's and it was  a matter of civic pride for towns to have their own airport.  In June, 1933, as a result of a recommendation from no less an authority than Sir Alan Cobham, Wolverhampton Council considered a resolution that 178 acres of land at Barnhurst should be reserved for the establishment of a municipal aerodrome.  The land had formerly been used for sewerage disposal purposes and it was estimated that it would take two years to drain.  

Wolverhampton Airport.

Pendeford airfield opened in 1938 at a cost of £80,000.  It had hangars, a control tower and grass runways.  The field was to be managed by the Midland Aero Club.  Although it was used by private fliers and later by Boulton Paul, scheduled air services were not attracted until after the Second World War.

The opening, on 27th June, 1938, included car bombing and balloon bursting competitions and was attended by Amy Johnson who entertained the crowds with an aerobatic routine in a glider.

A Royal Air Force display involving an attack on a mock house specially constructed for the event and defended by a local anti-aircraft battery, turned into a sequence more reminiscent of the Keystone Cops with the petrol soaked house being set alight, before it was attacked, and burning to the ground before the fire brigade, who were scheduled to tackle the blaze, got there!  

In 1936 aircraft manufacturers Boulton Paul, originally of Norwich, opened a new factory at Pendeford.  They were attracted by the proximity of the new airfield, a workforce skilled in engineering,  ready access to communications and local parts suppliers.

The administrative offices at the airport.

During the Second World War Boulton Paul produced their famous Defiant aircraft at Pendeford.  It was designed as a fighter and was similar in size and shape to the Hurricane.  Instead of being armed with forward facing, wing mounted guns like the Hurricane and Spitfire, the Defiant was armed with a gun turret behind the pilot and operated by a gunner. The first prototype flew from Pendeford in August, 1937, and the first production model flew on 30th July, 1939.  After some initial success - on 29th May, 1940, Defiants from 264 Squadron shot down 37 German planes - the weakness of the aircraft was exposed and the enemy realised that the gun turret could only fire backwards and upwards.

A Boulton Paul Defiant.

Over a thousand were finally built with the plane changing its role from fighter to night fighter and finally as a tug for targets for anti-aircraft batteries and air-to air combat training.

In April, 1940, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Pendeford where they saw an aerobatic display by a Defiant over the airfield before touring the works.

In view of the danger of air attacks, a dummy factory was built further north along the Shropshire Union Canal, in the fields to the east of Hunting Bridge.

The works was attacked once, in September, 1940, when a Junkers Ju.88 dropped four or five bombs.  They missed the factory and airfield and exploded in the sewage beds at Barnhurst.  

At the beginning of the Second World War the airfield had been requisitioned by the Air Ministry and it remained as a training station for pilots for the duration of hostilities.  There were eventually 108 Tiger Moth trainers based at the airfield.  More hangars were built and a hutted camp was constructed. What with the trainers and the use of the field by Boulton Paul, it must have been a very busy place.

A rear view of the airport buildings.

The most famous post war Boulton Paul aircraft was the Balliol, a trainer powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which was built between 1950 and 1957.  Expectations of good sales were high but the Air Ministry altered its plans and decided that they required an advanced jet trainer and in the end only 132 Balliols were built at Pendeford.  

An advert from the mid 1950s.

The company later concentrated on developing flying controls and electronics rather than complete aircraft and in 1961 a merger with the Dowty Group of Companies took place.  The firm is now a part of Smith's Aerospace.

The airfield remained in use for a quarter century after the end of the war and in 1950 it was used for the prestigious King's Cup Air Race.

From the late 1950's onwards opposition against the airfield grew.  It was criticised for its lack of tarmac runways, customs facilities, all weather aids and night flying capacity.  The proximity of houses and factories was also a worry.  

Don Everall Ltd. promoted the airfield around this time.  Their fleet of Dakotas was based at Pendeford and they ran a busy flying club which put on displays for the public.  

Scheduled flights began in 1953 and included a service from Derby to Jersey which called at the airport and one from Wolverhampton to Ronaldsway in the Isle of Man. Everall also provided facilities for other operators.  The company also took over the hutted camp, raising rents from £670 to £18,000 per year by the time the Council regained control in 1965.

A feature film The Man in the Sky,  starring Jack Hawkins, was made at Pendeford in April, 1956 and in 1967 the cameras returned to film scenes for the ATV Crossroads series.

In the same year Wolverhampton Council's Public Works and Estates Committee recommended that the airport should be closed when Don Everall's agreement expired in 1971.  This was in spite of an increase in use from 640 flights to over 2000 between 1959 and 1966.  The main reason for closure was that the airport was losing money and taking up land which could be used for building but safety considerations also played a part.  In April 1970 an incoming plane struck a house in Redhurst Drive, Fordhouses, killing both pilots and an occupant of the house.

The Airport was closed on 31st December, 1970.

Some units of the former hutted camp continued in light industrial use until the development of Pendeford Business Park began in the late 1980's.

One of Wolverhampton's many small car manufacturing firms had premises at the airfield from 1952.  John H. Turner had founded Turner Sports Cars three years earlier to build racing and sports cars as well as racing engines.  In 1954 the first production Turner was built at Pendeford.  It had a reinforced glass fibre body and used an 803cc Austin A30 engine or a Coventry Climax in competition.  About 75 were built over two years.

A 950cc A35 engined version was introduced and another 75 were built up till 1959 with most being exported to the United States.

The open two seater Turner Sports became one of the most successful production racing cars in Britain for several years.

About 600 Turner Sports Cars were sold until 1966, when the firm went into liquidation, with most of the ones for the home market being produced in kit form.

A couple of links with Pendeford's aeronautical past remain, apart from the continued presence of Smith's Aerospace.  The airport sign was rescued by local historian and author Alec Brew in 1974 and is now preserved by the Boulton Paul Association in their visitor centre and workshops situated in part of the former works. Much work has been done since the Association was set up in 1991 and a fine collection of Boulton Paul related material and artefacts are under restoration and on display.  The centrepiece is a full scale replica Defiant.  Three further Defiants, albeit in the form of a brick relief sculpture along the Droveway, together with historical notes remind the passer by of Pendeford's links with the past and is dedicated to those who built and flew them.   The entrance to the Business Park echoes that of the airport though it has been rebuilt and an avenue of birch trees which led to the airport buildings still flourish at the time of writing.  There are also remains of air raid shelters or gun emplacements to be discovered on the hillside behind the old airfield.

The new Balliol Business Park,  developed behind Dowty's, has been named for obvious reasons.

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