About the Project
The project aimed to unravel the mystery of Norton and Coal Aston’s lost airfield. Many are aware of the old barrage balloon site at Herdings, but few recall the much larger site between the present-day Graves Park and the village of Coal Aston. Working with keen volunteers the HLF-funded project ‘Norton’s Flying Legacy’ has been discovering the lost history of WW1 aviation at the Coal Aston airfield (sometimes called ‘Greenhill’) and subsequent uses of the site into the later twentieth century. This rich history includes WW1 aviation, training and events, and a rehabilitation centre for those invalided from the trenches - Painted Fabrics Ltd – the subject of separate research projects and a fascinating book by Malcolm Leary.
The project has included:
The final stage is producing a digital on-line archive and learning resource open to all – for the benefit of future generations
Since February 2017, the project has had an enthusiastic group of local volunteer residents, some of whom were associated with the original ‘Norton at War’ book`, produced in 1995 by the Norton Local History Group. This excellent little book has long been out of print and the Norton’s Flying Legacy is using some of this research as a baseline, to bring the information up-to-date, helped in no small part by the ease of research in today’s internet age!
Timeline of airfield and immediate vicinity
1916 Coal Aston opened as a Home defence landing Ground (33 (HD) Sqn)
1917 Northern Aircraft Repair Depot transfers to Coal Aston, becomes No. 2 (Norther) Aircraft Repair Depot, November 1917
1919 2 (N)ARD closes; site retained by RAF. Reopened as 16th Group HQ. Public Flying Weeks held.
1922 Airfield site sold but buildings left. Major auction buildings takes place.
1923 C Richardson, Newsagent, confectioner & library, tea room near Four Lane Ends , Meadowhead, Woodseats
1926 Site relinquished by Air Ministry and demolition and removal of buildings takes place - the site “looks like a shell shattered village of Flanders” (Sheffield Independent)
1928 Norton Hotel & some shops built - J G Severn & Co Automotive engineers of Alfreton.
Norton Church football club used land.
1929 Egg grading & packing station (when was Moore & Wright?)
A H Hobson, Filling Station 55 Aerodrome Norton
Mrs E Orton, Grocer, Tobacconist, 53 Little Norton Meadowhead
Newboult & Sons Automobile Engineers, Norton Garage, Four Lane Ends
H Harrison, Builder, 52 Little Norton Lane
1934 Norton becomes part of Sheffield
1935 Great Yorkshire Show held on airfield site
1936 Private house building commenced
1937 Flying officially ends at Coal Aston when Sheffield Corporation veto plans to allow Dutch airline KLM to use the airfield.
1938 Demolition of CAA buildings
1939 WW2 - Civil Defence on land near Jordanthorpe House and Admiralty use
1953 Rowlinson Technical School( Opened by Princess Margaret)
1954 Jordanthorpe Boys’ and Girls’ Schools opened
1967 Batemoor Estate completed
1967 Dr John Bingham Primary School opened
1969 Comprehensive education began
1971 Rowlinson Campus opened by RT Hon Harold Wilson
1973 Jordanthorpe Estate finished
? Jordanthorpe Boys & Girls merged. Ken Cook, Head
1987 Jordanthorpe School & Rowlinson merged as Meadowhead School Peter Dixon, Head
Rowlinson buildings became Norton College
1990 Graves Tennis Centre opened
2007 New building for Meadowhead School. Opened as specialist language college
2010 JCT600 opened
2015 Norton College closed
2016 Graves Tennis and Leisure Centre opened by Lord Coe
St George’s Football Academy opened
2017 6th form buildings started at Meadowhead School
2018 St James’ Retail park to open with road widening
A core group of around 12 have carried out various forms of research in both local and national collections and archives, exploring the written record of RAF Coal Aston (also known as RFC Greenhill). This was with a view, in the first instance, to developing a coherent time-line of events on the site. This runs from the site being surveyed for use as a Home Defence landing ground in 1916, through the creation of the Aircraft Repair Depot and then almost becoming a major civilian aviation site in the post-WW1 period. Could this have been Sheffield’s equivalent of ‘Manchester airport’!?
In order to reconstruct the wartime element, a team visited the National Archives at Kew. They uncovered information including the military requirements for siting a Home Defence airfield, documents relating to the Royal Flying Corps (and, after 1 April 1918, RAF), organisational structure – important as this informs further research avenues, a full inventory of buildings and staff complement (officers, NCO’s and other ranks) and a complete history of the 6th Air Brigade, the administrative group under which Coal Aston first operated. This includes a summary of German airship activity and action taken by Home Defence squadrons, including 33 Squadron at Coal Aston. A further file fully describes the remarkable and frightening airship raid on Sheffield on the night of 25/26 September 1916. Further information was uncovered about the nearby Prisoner of War camp which indicates working parties of German prisoners in the local area. It has been thought that they were also used as labourers in the construction of the subsequent Aircraft Repair Depot, which occupied the site from 1917.
Photographs and memorabilia
An interesting item which turned up from an internet search, is a personal photograph album, now in a private collection in America; it has around a dozen photos of various, sadly unidentified, service personnel in and around the repair depot. Dating from mid-1918 (or slightly later), we are shown a trio of cooks, military vehicles of various kinds, a group of airmen unloading a large sofa and a sentry outside the main entrance and guardroom. It is a shame that further details do not accompany the photographs.
Other photographs from several sources have been given for the project to use. These include items of personal significance, such as family photographs which include a crashed Hawker bi-plane and a slightly happier photograph of a group of civilians in an aircraft at Coal Aston – taken during an open day shortly after the Armistice in 1918. They also include more from those who lived and worked at Painted Fabrics.
Local Archives & National Collections
Other members of the group have been searching archives locally and have found records relating to the disposal of the airfield, along with inventories of buildings and items for sale. An extensive online newspaper search has resulted in an interesting, if sometimes depressing story of the ‘almost but not quite’ story of how Sheffield nearly had its own airport in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the research group has also uncovered a source of material at the South Yorkshire Emergency Services Museum linked to the later fire station.
Site Visit & Physical Evidence
A site visit was made in mid-May, based on the original 1918 RAF plan of the airfield. Remarkably, given the huge amount of development which has taken place, it is possible to walk part of the existing sections of the site boundary and find possible locations of buildings. Although this was hindered a little by the spring undergrowth, the group was able to follow parts of the boundary and the visit uncovered possible physical remains of this important site.
Work so far has in many ways raised as many questions as it has answered! There is much still to be done!
On Thursday, 20 July, the exhibition closing what has turned into 'Part 1' of the Norton's Flying Legacy project took place at the Sheffield Transport social Club, Meadowhead, Sheffield.
The exhibition consisted of a series of text-based posters along with images, newspaper, magazine & periodical extracts, maps and diagrams plus a number of items from personal collections donated both by group members and external sources.
In compiling the exhibition, it was necessary to clearly define a 'start and end' point, meaning the period covered was 1916-1939. Although a start has been made, further work on this period and post-WW2 to the present will be carried out in future.
Split into two parts, the exhibition ran as an afternoon, informal 'drop-in' session which allowed for browsing and chance to meet and talk to visitors. Many of those who attended had stories to tell, information to impart and items of interest to show with plenty to follow-up!
Both sessions were attended by most of the volunteers who have worked on the project, either helping set up, chatting with visitors and generally lending support throughout the day. The evening talk by Malcolm Leary on Painted Fabrics was especially well-attended, almost standing room only with over 60 registered attendees. Painted Fabrics, a major rehabilitation project for injured WW1 servicemen, is perhaps the most well-known legacy of the former airfield which was housed in the former WRAF quarters at the former airfield until the mid-1950s. Malcolm's recently-published book Painted with Pride, formed the basis of the talk which itself generated a great deal of discussion during the questions and answers session.
Norton's Flying Legacy Exhibition, Sheffield Transport Social Club, Meadowhead 20 July 2017 (Photos: John Birbeck & Christine Handley)
The Norton's Flying Legacy project was very much a group effort organised by the Landscapre Heritage Research Foundation with Heritage Lottery Fund support, with volunteers - either as individuals or in small groups - researching general history from the period, trawling newspaper archives, visits to both local and national archives, private collections and contacting various expert groups. We were also lucky to have the contributions from a number major sources and indivduals. The Norton's Flying Legacy project co-ordinators would like to extend their thanks to all the following:
Support & Contributions
Heritage Lottery Fund for support of the project
National Archives, Kew
RAF Museum, Hendon (Andrew Dennis & David O'Brien)
Cross & Cockade International
Royal Aeronautical Society
Derbyshire Records Office, Matlock
Sheffield Amature Radio Club
Sheffield Transport Social Club (group meetings & exhibition venue)
Sheffield City Archives
Airfield Research Group (Paul Francis)
Air of Authority (RAFweb.org Malcolm Barras)
HEC Associates (John Birbeck)
Sheffield Hallam University
Project Director - Professor Ian D Rotherham
Project Manager - Chris Percy
Project Support - Christine Handley & John Birbeck
Norton's Flying Legacy Research Volunteers
Val & Clive Aitchison
Ann & Roy Phipps