1921-24 Disposals; Painted Fabrics
1929 Housing, Flying & Eggs
By 1921, military activity at Coal Aston seemed to confine itself to an inter-services sports day between the RAF and Royal Engineers. Events ranged from 100, 220 and 400 yards, 1 mile, tug-of-war, sack race and pillow fight. A total of £4 17s was raised for St Dunstan's hospital. However in September, the more usual service activity had resumed when administrative changes within the RAF took place which saw Coal Aston moved to a restructured 3 Group, RAF and designated as having no more than a Care & Maintenance party present.
1922- 1924: Sale and Disposal of Equipment and Buildings; Painted Fabrics Exhibition
In June 1922, the government's Disposals Board, charged with auctioning off government and military surplus of all kinds, announced a sale at RAF Coal Aston from Camps 1 and 2. These largely consisted of living and domestic accommodation huts and minor workshops; Camp 2 is also where German prisoners of war had previously been held. Sheffield auctioneers Bush & Co handled the sale in which a total of 91 buildings of various sizes and building material types were on offer.
The buildings included stores buildings, two guardhouses and ablutions blocks. Alongside these, a range of items from the workshops were also auctioned. These included turret lathes, electric lighting sets and Austin 2-cylinder engines & dynamos. The sale drew around 300 interested browsers and buyers. At the auction accommodation huts sold for £60 each, one of the guardhouses £81, electric lighting sets £45 and ablutions (toilet blocks) for £10-£11 each.
At least one of the huts found a new lease of life when the officers' mess hut was acquired for use as a Catholic Club for Men. The hut was moved to Woodseats Road and was rebuilt with a view to opening for use in February 1923. Another was acquired by the local Scouts as their troop’s headquarters. Many of the smaller buildings became garden sheds and pigeon lofts.
1924: Painted Fabrics exhibited at Liberty’s of London
In November 1924, Painted Fabrics Ltd held an exhibition of its work at Liberty's, Regent Street in London. By then, it had moved premises into the former No 3 Camp at Coal Aston, with the injured ex-servicemen living in huts and new-build 'cottages' on-site. The exhibition contained examples of the work produced including gowns, cloaks, hangings, lamp shades and various fabrics.
In January 1926, the Air Ministry relinquished RAF Coal Aston.
1926/1927: The Air Ministry leaves; More Buildings Demolished and Further Plans Unveiled
In January 1926, the Air Ministry relinquished Coal Aston and returned it to private ownership. By the summer, the demolition and clearance of parts of the Aerodrome were well under way. This by now included the airfield buildings (not just the barrack huts), including the hangars. The contractor was William Hartill of Woodseats.
The demolition resulted in an estimated 1,000,000 bricks alone, with around 100,00 per week being removed off-site to be re-used. Each load removed was sent to new building projects at the new Manor Estate in Sheffield and further afield, including Baslow and Bakewell. Sliding doors were being removed for use as garage doors, with some destined got Nottingham. The large panes of glass, being valuable, were carefully removed and packed. Work foreman James Cole indicated the remains of a 250 ft- long building, stating it took three weeks to demolish but yielded 250,000 bricks alone. He also lamented pulling down such superbly built structures, some hardly used.
The closure and demolition ended years of speculation regarding RAF Coal Aston being used as a major centre for commercial aviation. Other rumours about its use before demolition included a bus garage, indoor tennis courts or simply industrial use; these were all proved wrong.
Plans to Build New Houses
The former German prisoner of war camp (centred around what is now Robert Road) had been earmarked by Sheffield Corporation for redevelopment into new housing. In the continuing efforts to improve Sheffield's post-war housing problems, in 1927, the Ministry of Health sanctioned the go-ahead for the building of 1,000 'artisan houses', covering 195 acres across the whole of the site. Most of the airfield site was under the jurisdiction of Norton Rural District Council (NRDC) who had drawn up a big town planning scheme the previous year. They had, however, refused to allow any development of industry and factories and the Ministry of Health upheld this decision. The government approved the plans by NRDC but work would not start for some time. It was thought it would be at least 20 years before any housing scheme reached its full total allocated and any progress relied wholly on private enterprise.
1928: Plans for Commercial Use and Establishing a Commercial Aerodrome
Commercial use of the site included the acquisition of part by J.G. Severn & Co. of Alfreton. The company specialised in vehicle auctions and as part of their expansion, moved into one of the remaining buildings at the former RAF Coal Aston (it is currently not clear exactly where). The roads surrounding the building were intended to be used for vehicle demonstrations and further plans included a driving school. The inaugural auction was advertised to take place on Thursday, 7 June at the new premises with 150 vehicles of varying sorts for sale. Meanwhile, the rumours for the future use of the rest of the site persisted, with calls to rid the site of the 'unsightly buildings' and opposition to dog racing, dirt-track racing, military tattoos and dancing. Letters in the columns of the Sheffield Independent stated that these activities ‘must not take place’!
The auction of buildings and their subsequent demolition, whilst largely comprehensive, had not seen the airfield completely obliterated. The 'unsightly buildings', referred to previously, included a number of technical buildings and workshops and one of the four hangars. Negotiations were started with the Air Ministry to create a flying club at the site with a view to creating enough interest for a commercial aerodrome to link Sheffield with Croydon; both centres being used for both passengers and goods.
It was a group of aviation enthusiasts behind the scheme, who wanted to reverse the backwardness of Sheffield's attitude to aviation. Sheffield was also losing out to Nottingham, Leeds and Newcastle, for example, who had already established commercial airfields. By proposing to form a limited company to run the venture, finance in part would come from the Air Ministry, who awarded grants for pilots’ training and qualifying, to fly. Two classes of club member were envisaged. The full-fee members, who owned their own aircraft and kept them at the airfield, or leased club aircraft. And for a reduced fee, non-flying members who could still take advantage of the club's social events and facilities and enjoy flights at a reduced cost.
In November 1928, Sheffield Corporation proposed to acquire the site, covering around 230 acres, as a municipal aerodrome. This was considerably larger than the previous post-war landing ground which was around 11 acres. The announcement again triggered a response in the letters column of the Sheffield Independent, calling on local residents to oppose the scheme on the grounds that property values would drop by 50%.
1929: Commercial Enterprise Develops and Opposition to the Airfield Grows
Private Flying Continue
On 4 May, Sheffield Speedway star George Wigfield attempted a first by riding at two speedway meetings in the same day in different locations. By hiring an aircraft he hoped to fly from Sheffield to Cardiff to make the afternoon fixture, then return by air in time to appear at the 7.00 p.m. meeting at Owlerton Stadium in Sheffield. Departing from Coal Aston Aerodrome, already dressed in his riding gear, he set off on time. However, the attempt did not go according to plan as the aircraft only went as far as Staffordshire. A mechanical problem resulted in the aircraft making an unscheduled landing at Nuneaton. Frantic telephone calls were made to ensure Wigfield could make it back to Sheffield, which he did so by train. He made the Owlerton meeting but sadly, missed his chance at Cardiff.
Later that month, on the 29th, Sir Alan Cobham landed at Coal Aston Aerodrome. He was due to give a speech to the Junior Chamber of Commerce that evening but he first took the Lord Mayor and Master Cutler for a quick flight from the aerodrome. The following day, he took small parties of school children flying around the local area.
Egg Sorting & Packing Plant
Described as being housed in 'one of the hangars', a new state of the art egg sorting and packing plant was opened in July 1929. It was supported by the Ministry of Agriculture and organised by the Sheffield and North Derbyshire Poultry Farmers' Association. Ten farmers started using the facility, sorting and packing around 10,000 eggs per week. It is noted that the eggs were transported to a small hut by a maintenance railway. This could possibly be the Decauville narrow gauge railway which served the repair depot in WW1).
Sheffield Corporation Decide to Purchase the Land
By September, the Corporation had reached a decision to use the powers it had acquired and went ahead with the purchase of land including the aerodrome. A lengthy council meeting on 5 September generated some heated debate surrounding the imminent purchase. Immediately before the full council meeting, the Finance Committee had approved the Corporation’s purchase from the executors of Colonel BA Firth, for the site east of Chesterfield Road for £26,500. At the full meeting, it was stressed that whilst the purchase would go ahead, it was by no means certain that an aerodrome was to be the only use considered for the site.
Discussion about the Aerodrome and Alternatives
Speakers for the idea of a commercial aerodrome pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce was generally very supportive of its development. This would put Sheffield on the aviation map enabling it to compete with other centres of business and industry.
A potentially conflicting use of the site, as some sort of health care facility, was also proposed. Advocates of this idea argued that an aerodrome close by would be detrimental to the facility and be inappropriate. However, the Corporation indicated that development of the aerodrome would not commence without further consultation.
It was also pointed out that Sir Alan Cobham, on his recent visit, had clearly indicated areas which could be declared as ‘no fly’, mitigating noise and disturbance. Alderman JG Graves was present at the meeting and was very opposed to the development of an aerodrome in any form. He was scathing in his comments. He spoke of the effect on the value of property and the nuisance the noise would bring to the locals. He also pointed out that a joy-riding flying club would make it impossible for the hospital authorities to operate and locals to live and declared he had ‘the utmost distrust of this aeroplane propaganda.’
The only area of general consensus was that the Corporation should purchase the land as a form of protection, as interest had already been shown by parties who had what were thought to be ‘unsuitable proposals’ which included the dirt-track racing.
1930: Discussion on a Commercial Aerodrome continues
On 3 April, an aircraft landed without ceremony at the airfield, with a single passenger, the Director of Civil Aviation, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Sefton Brackner. He arrived in modest fashion, spending the afternoon touring factories in the city before he gave an evening lecture at the Victoria Hall on the benefits of civil aviation to cities such as Sheffield. He stated ‘If the aerodrome at Sheffield is allowed to go, it will not only be a great pity, but will be a definite blow to the future prosperity of the city.’
He continued by stressing the airfield‘s ideal location, being at the centre of a large population and industry, both of which would benefit from links by air to the south. Emphasis was also placed on linking north and south and developing links between the North of England and the Continent. Sir Sefton also addressed the fears of the proposed Norton Hospital by saying the direction of take-off – usually the noisiest part – would almost always be in the opposite direction.
Repeating Cobham’s comment, he also said that rules could be applied which would limit flying to certain areas and away from sensitive spots. The Sheffield Flying Club, the group who were the principal lobbyists for the aerodrome, presented similar points to the Lord Mayor, again indicating that disturbance would be easy to control with respect to the hospital.
Sheffield Flying Club's Bluebird
A keen advocate of the aerodrome project was George Kenning, of car sales fame in Sheffield. In August, he presented a brand new Blackburn Bluebird II, G-AAVH to the Sheffield Flying Club. This was a welcome arrival as, despite its 150 members, Sheffield Flying Club did not have its own aircraft. Part of the gift included George Kenning funding running and maintenance costs until the end of the summer. Despite this arrival, the future of commercial aviation at the site was still in doubt.
Although the Norton Hospital scheme had been postponed (indefinitely), alternative proposals such as using the site for housing were now being seriously considered. This was alongside a ‘Norton Park’ proposal, adding 200 acres to complement the existing Graves Park. Indeed, J.G. Graves was still raising considerable objections to the airfield, indicating visitors from elsewhere, instead of arriving by air could arrive at established sites (such as Manchester) and then travel by other means to Sheffield, such as by rail. He also raised the housing issue again and concluded his remarks with ‘Why should it [Coal Aston] be handed over to a number of young men changing their motor cycles for aeroplanes and turning the site into some sort of dirt track.’