Tuesday, 02 March 2021

Wargrave Local History Society

AS Wargrave Local History Society’s experiment with the Zoom program had worked well, it was able to hold its October meeting using the same process.

Even more members were able to enjoy Joy Pibworth’s presentation on “The heroes of Woodley Airfield”, looking in particular at the aviation background to many of the present road names in the area.

Joy outlined the early history of aviation in and around Reading.

After the First World War, interest in private flying grew and local enthusiasts formed the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Flying Club.

In the area between Woodley and Hurst known as Hadleigh Heath there was a 100-acre field and in 1928 it was bought to become Reading Aerodrome.

A Reading garage, Phillips & Powis, set up a flying club and school and held open days on the field in 1929, aiming to attract ladies as well as gentlemen.

Phillips & Powis built a factory to make two-seater planes designed by F G Miles at Woodley. These were capable of 90mph and returned a consumption of 23 miles per gallon.

Activity on the airfield (a grass field) included displays by barnstormers and the chance to take cheap trips in a plane with Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus.

Sam Cody, an American showman, was another who landed there.

Women were seen as an important market for planes at that time as well as being a support to male aviators.

One of those was Maxine Miles, known as Blossom, who fell in love with her flying instructor, Frederick George Miles, as she qualified as a solo pilot. Blossom divorced her husband and then married Miles.

Despite being blind in one eye, she was an excellent draughtswoman and designer of planes.

The couple joined Phillips & Powis and the planes they designed were either named after birds or had names with an initial “M” for Miles (Phillips & Powis was later taken over by Miles Aircraft Ltd).

One of the present-day main roads across the area is called Miles Way.

Another of the main roads across the airfield is Bader Way, named after Douglas Bader. He joined the RAF in 1928 but had to be reprimanded for some of his flying stunts.

In December 1931, while performing one of these, he crashed at Woodley airfield and as a result had to have his legs amputated at the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

Bader recorded the occasion in his diary: “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”

Mollison Close, said the speaker, might be named after either Jim Mollison or his wife.

In 1932 he set a record of four days, 17 hours for the flight from England to South Africa.

Soon after he met an aviatrix, Amy Johnson, and they became known as the “flying sweethearts” before marrying.

They were both very competitive, each breaking the other’s flying records.

The marriage lasted only six years, however, and Amy took back her maiden name.

Joy told of the aviation personalities recalled by several other Woodley roads — Farman Close (after Henri Farman, pioneer aviator and plane maker), Harris Close (after Arthur “Bomber” Harris), Dowding Close (after Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command in the Second World War), Mitchell Way (after R J Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire), Rose Close (after Tommy Rose, who was a test pilot for Phillips & Powis) and Lindberg Way (after Charles Lindbergh, the American flying pioneer who visited the Mileses at Woodley).

Concorde Way recalls the passing overhead at 10.52am each day from 1976 to 2003 of the supersonic airliner, turning at the Woodley beacon. Early work on supersonic flight had been undertaken at Miles Aircraft, although that project was cancelled by the Government long before Concorde was developed.

Miles Aircraft continued to build aircraft at Woodley until 1948, when it faced bankruptcy.

In part, this was due to a ban on the use of fuel for private flying, to F G Miles’ paternalistic attitude and to the firm continuing to build wooden planes.

Miles and Blossom moved to Shoreham in West Sussex and in 1980 the site was sold to Bryant Homes, the road names ensuring that the site’s aviation heritage is not forgotten.

For information about the society’s planned programme, visit www.wargravehistory.org.uk or email info@wargrave
history.org.uk to confirm meeting details.

Peter Delaney, secretary

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