Burnley in talks for aerodrome in the 1930s

Aerodrome plans
Aerodrome plans
Share this article

Many locals will be familiar with the decoy aerodromes which existed in the Burnley area at the time of the Second World War.

The ones at Crown Point and Worsthorne are the best known and there was another in the Loveclough area to the south of Burnley. They were constructed not to protect Burnley but the great engineering works of Howard and Bullough in Accrington.

However, I wonder how many of you know about Burnley Corporation’s plans to build an aerodrome in the town in the years just before the Second World War? That I can tell the story, at least in part, is the consequence of Mr David Farrar, the Mayor’s Officer at Burnley Council. He approached me, a few weeks ago, and presented me with three documents, two of which were related to the subject. The third was about aeronautical matters, but was not about Burnley.

The first of the relevant documents is a detailed map of one of the proposed sites for the aerodrome. It is based on the six inch to the mile OS map of the Burnley area, which was revised in 1929. Part of it has been reproduced for you. Mr Farrar also gave me a file which contains the correspondence on the proposed aerodrome between Burnley Council, the Air Ministry, landowner Sir George Thursby and a number of private consultants.

The correspondence covers the years 1938-9 and, to understand what was going on, let me take you back to 1935-36. This was the year in which George Parkinson was Mayor of Burnley. He has been described as “the saviour of our town” and, along, it must be said, with a few others, the words ring as true today as when they were first written.

Coun. George Parkinson, a member for Fulledge Ward, used his mayoralty to commence the transformation of Burnley from a dying cotton town into a thriving multi-industrial centre. As Mayor he said: “To me I feel that, paramount above everything else, is to endeavour to get all those people who are walking the streets unemployed back to work again”.

He was true to his word and, along with Aldermen Richard Broadley and John Lynch, Burnley made the first giant steps towards the modern world. The three men formed a special “action” sub-committee of the Council whose task it was to buy up, for the Council, redundant mills for conversion for new industry. They also aimed to attract completely new firms and industries to Burnley. With 10,000+ unemployed in 1936 they had a huge task ahead of them.

Their most notable achievement was the building of the Prestige factory on Colne Road which they did without Government permission. They, and other members of the Council, were even threatened with being surcharged but they ploughed on until the factory was built, an American manufacturer signed up and the building opened by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The Prestige building was the world’s first factory built by local ratepayers, something of a landmark in commercial history.

Coun. Parkinson had played his part in the “invention” of modern industrial regeneration but he did not stop there. He recognised that, in the future, air communication was going to become much more important than it was at the time. There had already been intimations that this would be the case in the south of England where a number of airports had been opened in the 25 or so years before. These facilities not only attracted passengers but new industries of which the making of aeroplanes and the electrical equipment that went with them were only a few.

An idea was conceived that Burnley should have its own aerodrome. After all, Burnley, in those days, had about 100,000 citizens. It was a big enough town to support an aerodrome, the American experience had shown that. Burnley Council was not going to sit back and allow other towns to prosper because they had better communications. The Council had learned that places which had been by-passed by the railways had failed to grow. From its point of view this was not going to happen to Burnley with regard to air transport.

First a site, within Burnley, had to be found. It appears the initial site to be considered was the “Towneley Estate”. It consisted of what we now know as Towneley Park and had the advantage of already being in the ownership of the Council.

In September 1938 the Park was largely open space and playing fields. The land was quite, but not entirely, flat. However, the shape of the land in the Council’s ownership did not conform to the Air Ministry’s ideal. A guide, published by the Ministry, in May, 1938, outlined the “principles governing the planning and zoning of land aerodromes” and, according to this, to build a facility at Towneley would have been almost impossible.

The site of the Greyhound Racecourse, on Olympia Street, which had been demolished, could be used for airport buildings after it had been properly levelled. However, the chimney at the Co-operative Laundry (100ft in height); the mill chimneys near Handbridge Castle, on Todmorden Road (some of which were about 50 ft); the seven chimneys near the Towneley Colliery and Brickworks (also about 150ft) and the massive 240ft chimney on Aqueduct Street were all regarded as insurmountable problems. There were other chimneys at Park Shed and Central Mill, both of which were by the canal, and the chimney of the Beehole Colliery, near Turf Moor, would also be in the flight path of planes approaching and leaving an aerodrome should one have been built at Towneley.

In October other sites were being considered. Towneley was still included in a list but the others comprised: Crow Wood Farm; land to the west and south of Heckenhurst Reservoir and a fourth site on the Gorple Road above Worsthorne. A fifth possibility was a second site further up the Gorple Road but all these potential sites had problems.

At Crow Wood, the main difficulty was the Gas Works. The site near Heckenhurst was dismissed because, though there were good areas of level land, it was far too restricted and the necessary length of runways could not be achieved. The first Gorple site was said to be too steep, the second too uneven.

Officers from the Air Ministry concluded that they felt Burnley could not hope that any of the sites considered so far could be made suitable. They commented on the rising ground, the smoky atmosphere, the general obstructions to approaching all of the sites and the lack of one extremely good approach of long length.

Dispiriting as this would have been to Burnley Council, members and officers now played what they hoped was going to be their ace card. Another site had been identified, this time at Eastern Avenue in Burnley. Again, some of the land was already in the ownership of the Council, principally as playing fields, and more was on a rental from the Thursby Estate. The remainder appears to have been in the ownership of Sir George Thursby, the owner of the Hargreaves Colliery Co., Burnley’s biggest employer.

According to a letter of September 29th, 1938, to Burnley Council from his agent, Sir George had given his “consent to consider the proposal to devote the area shown on your plan to the purpose of an aerodrome or landing ground”. A plan of the site, not unlike the one which accompanies this article, had been included with a letter from Burnley Council to Sir George’s agents who were based in Manchester.

A letter written on behalf of Sir George by T. Algernon Earle, his agent, says the following “but it is realised your Corporation are endeavouring to open up new industries and to provide for probable public demand for quick future traffic, which Sir George would not wish to discourage”.

However, the Council and Thursby Estate were soon at loggerheads about how much the former was prepared to pay for the land needed for the aerodrome. At one stage it looked as if the Air Ministry would allow the construction of a facility on the site though they indicated that, if it went ahead, there would restrictions placed upon the use of the aerodrome.

It could not be used for passenger services or air training but it might be used in connection with the manufacture of aircraft or aircraft parts. The Council, possibly because of the success of the Prestige factory, had received expressions of interest from such a firm. Unfortunately, the firm is not named and we do not know whether it was British or foreign owned.

As you will know, the aerodrome was never built. It failed, like the other sites, to meet the basic criteria for a commercially successful venture. A study of the extensive site at Eastern Avenue indicated that part of it had been mined, that it was crossed by a deep dyke, that the mill chimneys of Harle Syke and Burnley Lane were in the way and there was not enough flat land to build the three runways the Ministry regulations demanded.

It is worth mentioning that the plans that accompany this article are drawn to Ministry specifications. They show the sites where the runways would have been built, the flight ways and the locations of the various mill chimneys that would have been in the flightpaths of aircraft using the aerodrome. Had the latter been built the sites of Widow Hill, Widow Green and Walshaw Farms, now all under the Heasandford Industrial Estate, would have been lost and a number of other properties would have been dangerously close to the facility.

That the Burnley Aerodrome was not constructed may have been a good thing. I do not think I would have liked a succession of low-flying, and noisy, aircraft over my Harle Syke house. Coun. Parkinson, and his colleagues were, however, right. Burnley needed to keep abreast of technological developments and the town’s failure to do so meant those 100,000 inhabitants in 1937 have been reduced to about half that figure today.

No one can fault Mr Parkinson’s vision, or that of the Council. It is just unfortunate that a really good idea could not become a reality and, sadly, it was the monuments of Burnley’s Victorian past – its mill chimneys, its mining heritage, and its gas works, once at the forefront of Burnley’s development as an industrial town – that got in the way.

Coun. Parkinson could not change these and neither could he change Burnley’s weather or its smoky atmosphere. Both of these came into the equation and, at one time, Burnley blamed Blackburn for its smoke rather than that which was generated closer to home, a sign, if ever there was one, of the town’s desperation for new industry.

The unemployment that preceded the Second World War was the reason why the Burnley aerodrome scheme was promoted and, ironically, it was the war which finally brought to the town the new technologies, and new industries, Burnley had so craved. As for a local airport, that is a thing of the past but that Burnley ever planned such a facility is of great interest.