Tower Bridge, London • 1929

Those Magnificent Men

9th May 2014

You may never have heard of Aerofilms, you will almost certainly have seen one of its spectacular aerial photographs, and its co-founders, Claude Graham-White and Francis Wills, can be rated as local heroes. As English Heritage release a new book 'Aerofilms: A History of Britain From Above', Jack Watkins offers an admiring assessment…

In May 1919 an excited crowd gathered at Hendon Aerodrome to take part in Harry Hawker Day, a special event at which, after the staging of a public auction, the winner would get the chance ‘to fly with Hawker’, the pioneer Australian aviator who had just attempted to make the first trans-Atlantic air crossing. Hawker had failed in his mission, engine trouble having forced him to land in the middle of the ocean after 1,000 miles, but that hadn’t made him any less of an attraction. Harry Hawker Day was so popular that tram and bus services had to be supplemented with specially laid-on trucks, which took spectators from Golders Green station along to the aerodrome. The winner of the flight was a blushing Miss Daisy King, though she’d had to cough up an eye-watering 60 guineas for the privilege.

Rubbing his hands in satisfaction must have been Claude Graham-White, the event organiser. Graham-White’s name is little recalled next to the most famous names of early flight, such as Tommy Sopwith, Louis Blériot and Amy Johnson, but he was another aviation celebrity in his day, typifying the wealthy playboy enthusiasts who took to the skies in those glamorous, pioneering times. He put his money to good use, however, and his name is preserved now at the excellent RAF Museum, on the site of the aerodrome he started at Hendon, where some of the original hangars and the watch office are still used to stage exhibitions.

Hendon’s connection with aviation went back as far as 1862, when an air balloon landed in a meadow between Mill Hill and Colindale, but it was Graham-White who set up the London Flying Club here in 1911, giving lessons for those wanting to learn to fly mono and biplanes. Special ‘Aerial Derbys’ were put on and became social occasions on the scale of Henley or Royal Ascot. There were spectacular demonstrations of looping the loop, inverted flying and parachuting, all activities fraught with peril, given the fragile craft and still evolving grasp of the challenges of powered flight.

In 1913, Graham-White himself set a new passenger carrying record by flying for nearly twenty minutes with nine people on board. The aircraft only had room for seven, but the ever-enterprising Graham-White got round this by placing two people on the wing. With the First World War on the horizon, he also saw the potential of the plane as a war machine, and put on demonstrations before parliamentary delegations of its ability to deliver accurate bombing of military targets, and the transport of munitions.

Requisitioned in 1914 by the Royal Naval Air Service, out of whose merger with the Royal Flying Corps in 1918 arose the RAF, Hendon was contracted to train something in the region of 500 pilots. Many of these men went on to become fighter aces, and Graham-White also set up factory units here which became one of the largest production facilities in British aviation at that time.

However, with the government rapidly scaling down support for air services after 1918, Graham-White was left scratching his head for a new business opportunity. Along with fellow navigator Francis Lewis Wills, he discovered it in the founding on 9 May 1919 (95 years ago this weekend) of Aerofilms, the first firm in Britain to offer aerial films and photographs for a range of uses.

Aerial photography had been exploited during the War; Graham-White and Wills spotted that the surplus of experienced but now unemployed airmen and redundant planes and cameras could serve their new venture. In Aerofilms’ first year of business alone they took over 2,300 photographs, each exposed on highly detailed yet extremely fragile 5 by 4 inch glass plates, and initially developed in a suite at the London Flying Club, with the bathroom serving as the darkroom.

The pilots, many of them veterans of the World War I dogfights, were no strangers to daredevil flying. Now, frequently flaunting the air regulations relating to low altitude flight (‘dangerous to public safety’), they enabled the photographers they carried to take some truly thrilling pictures. It’s worth remembering that taking to the skies was still a perilous affair. Emergency landings were frequent. One image in 'Aerofilms: A History of Britain From Above', co-authored by James Crawford, Katy Whitaker and Allan Williams, shows one of the company’s planes, six months after crashing in a boating lake at Southwark Park, having just made another forced-landing in Regent’s Park. The pilot and his passenger are shown standing aboard the fuselage while a vast crowd of curious onlookers gathers around them.

The images quickly became valuable tools for advertising and marketing, and London From Aloft, produced in association with Gordon Hotels, became the capital’s first ever aerial photographic guidebook. As Crawford, Whitaker and Williams explain, ‘London – often such a confusing and chaotic visual spectacle when experienced at street level – was renewed from above as a majestic imperial cityscape, full of iconic sights and structures.’ The guidebook proclaimed that there was ‘no better way in which to see and fully appreciate the real beauty of London’s layout and planning’.

Back at base, Graham-White was mired in a legal dispute with the Air Ministry which, as well as cancelling a vast number of construction contracts worth six-figure sums and refusing to pay compensation, also failed to release the airfield for civilian use. By the mid-1920s, he’d resigned from the company, shifting his attentions to other interests: yachting, speedboats, property. ‘It was the end of an era for Aerofilms’, write Crawford, Whitaker and Williams. ‘Their celebrity figurehead was gone, and the carefree eccentricity of the early days was replaced by a more practical prosaic commitment to building business.’
With old partner Wills now at the helm, Aerofilms went from strength to strength, however. In 1929, they had their most productive year, exposing over 5,000 aerial images. By the 1930s, they’d moved to bigger premises in Beresford Avenue, Wembley, and were developing increasingly advanced techniques of vertical aerial photography and photogrammetry which were much in demand for commercial mapping and surveying.

Wills served 40 years as managing director, finally retiring in 1958, although remaining on the board until the 1970s. In some ways, he emerges from the book as the real hero of Aerofilms. Like the more self-evidently dashing Graham-White, he was also a survivor from a more adventurous age, having served in 1917 as an observation officer, which required him to sit in a highly exposed position in the plane’s unarmoured fuselage. Yet equally, no-one did more to promote and professionalise aerial photography in Britain over the course of the twentieth century.

The selected images – from St Paul’s Cathedral, its Baroque majesty captured as never before, to the South Bank in 1950, still a building site – are everything you’d expect: exciting, nostalgic and informative. Aerofilms continued in business into the 21st century, after which their archive, now known as the Aerofilms Collection, was acquired by English Heritage in 2007. Many of the pictures can now be seen online via the dedicated website britainfromabove.org.uk – but I’d recommend reading this book too, for it really makes for a great story.

'Aerofilms: A History Of Britain From Above' is published by English Heritage £25

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