Heathrow's expansion mapped through time with Ordnance Survey maps. October 25 2016
Heath Row, as it was then known, was first mentioned by name in documents from around 1410. The parish mainly comprised flat fields that were irrigated, and at times flooded, by several waterways that drained into the River Colne. Two of these, the Duke of Northumberland’s River and the Longford River, were artificial. The former was constructed in the 1530s to provide additional power for Isleworth Mill, the latter in the 1630s to improve the water supply to Hampton Court.
On all maps, the blue area shows Heathrow's extents today, with the expansion plans in pink and runways in purple.
The Ordnance Survey maps pick up the story in the early 19th century. The British landscape in the early and mid 19th century was typified by small farms and small villages, interspersed with woods and open countryside and linked by a network of ancient roads and tracks. The area around Heath Row was no exception.
In the late 19th century, orchards and market gardens began to replace arable land and some new buildings were constructed, but in general the character of the area altered very little. This was about to change.
Heathrow's aviation history goes back to the First World War when the site was used as a military airfield, although little evidence remained by the time of the Popular Edition map of 1920. In this year the airport was closed for various logistical reasons including bad communication, the bumpy nature of the ground, its tendency to become boggy and muddy in winter and its frequent covering of mist. As the map showing the current expanse of the airport shows, these problems have since been overcome.
In the late 1920s the Colnbrook by-pass was opened which led to increased industrial development in the area. One result was the re-opening of the airfield, as the Great Western Aerodrome, by Fairey Aviation as a centre for aircraft assembly and testing.
It had become clear by the 1930s that civil aviation would increase and the government began to make provision for the capital’s air services. The plan was to expand the two existing aerodromes at Croydon and at Heston, to the east of modern-day Heathrow, and to add two new ones, at Fairlop in Essex and Lullingstone in Kent. Heathrow’s flat terrain, proximity to London, good communications and comparative lack of housing must already have made this an attractive candidate for expansion, despite its other disadvantages. Work was under way on all these projects when war was declared in September 1939.
In late 1942, there was increasing demand from the Air Ministry for a base for the new long-range heavy troop-carrying planes, existing facilities in the south of England being inadequate. After some debate, this slightly boggy area of market-garden farms was chosen as the site of a wholly new airfield. Construction work began in May 1944 on land originally acquired from the vicar of Harmondsworth. Although the location was ideal, the terrain was not. 100 million gallons of water had to be pumped out of the ponds and 14 miles of pipes were needed to drain rainwater into a nearby gravel pit. Another task was the clearance and demolition of the hamlet of Heath Row. Few other places have become so posthumously famous.
At the time, the Air Ministry’s case must have seemed unanswerable, but doubts exist as to whether there was ever any intention to use Heathrow for military purposes. The fortunes of war were shifting in the Allies’ favour, so making large-scale troop movements by air less likely; whilst the argument for a large new civil aerodrome was clear to those who were considering how post-war Britain might be shaped.
The 1930s plan of four small airports around the capital was now inadequate. Instead, the contemporary logic ran, one larger hub was needed which could be purpose-built for the new aircraft and would be capable of future expansion as the need arose.
The main problem was that any civil project on this scale would have led to protracted planning enquiries and divisive financial wrangles within Whitehall. Using wartime powers to requisition the land offered a more certain outcome. The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary Harold Balfour later admitted that he had misled the cabinet on this point in order to expedite the process. Were military use the only requirement, many existing RAF bases could have been converted with far less time and effort. Whatever the real motives, Heathrow was allowed to slip into being almost unnoticed.
The military origins of the project were quietly forgotten and work continued on building what was now unambiguously a civilian airport. This was officially opened in May 1946 with a flight to Buenos Aires via Lisbon, the departing passengers enjoying terminal facilities that consisted of little more than a large tent. At the time, Heathrow’s managers stated, with rare prescience, that it would eventually become the largest airport in the world.
© Cassini Publishing Ltd.
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