Situated just 20-miles from London in the county of Hertfordshire, Hatfield Aerodrome was open fields when aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland looked to expand his aircraft manufacturing business in the late 1920s.
The area had been in the ownership of the Sinclair family for around a decade when they received an offer to sell part of the land around Harpesford Farm to De Havilland in 1928. The site had been found by Clem Pike, a former RFC pilot and Flying Instructor at the DH Flying School and who’s initial interest had been to find a new home for the school and its aircraft. The relocation of the school was a matter of urgency as space at Stag Lane was at a premium due to the continued expansion of housing and the increasing industrial development of Edgware, a now bustling London suburb.
De Havilland Chairman Alan Butler negotiated the deal and after the construction of an elegant Club House and a small set of hangars, the Flying School (which by then had incorporated the RAF Reserve and Elementary Flying School) transferred to Hatfield in 1930.
The London Aeroplane Club, which had been formed to cover the private flying activities of DH employees, also joined the EFTS transfer and various types of DH aircraft soon became a familiar sight over Hertfordshire.
Backing onto the Barnett Bypass, the new aerodrome gave excellent access to those well-healed London customers who would travel out at weekends to enjoy their flying and some fairly elegant social occasions.
A DH ‘Policeman’ was appointed and stationed in a house directly outside the gates into what effectively became a ‘sheep-fenced’ aerodrome. The location comprised of a grass landing strip, Club House, 5 joined hangars and an ‘Island’ containing a small office building with fuel pumps at each end.
By 1933, the aerodrome was expanding fast, spurred on by the hosting of the Kings Cup Air Races which saw the hangars further extended and the addition of an open air lido and squash courts. Movie stars and show business celebrities frequented the club at weekends with many ‘parties’ going on well into the night.
Business was more on the minds of the Directors and they soon relocated the very profitable De Havilland Service Department to Hatfield at the end of 1933, offering routine and general maintenance. Operating along similar lines to the motor garages we know today, they offered a menu of services to owners of De Havilland machines who enjoyed the hospitality and atmosphere of the clubhouse whilst their aircraft were serviced or repaired.
The company quickly recognised the success of the Service Department and took the opportunity to purchase even more adjacent land which also included some pre-existing buildings which, after refurbishment, they offered as overnight accommodation complete with lockable hangars for their more wealthy clients.
The move of the Service Department also signalled the beginning of the end for flying at Stag Lane and on 1st January 1934 De Havilland Aircraft announced the aerodrome was to be sold for development.
(The history of Stag Lane can be found on an alternative page of the website).
Manufacturing capability at Stag Lane was being stifled by its location and Chairman Alan Butler announced on 31st December 1933 (at the Company New Year Party) that the aerodrome had been sold and the £105,000 paid for the land would be used for new factory buildings at Hatfield and for the relocation their 1,200 employees.
The steady industrialisation of the new Hatfield site was masterminded by James M. Monro & Sons, a Glasgow-based firm of architects who had a leaning towards Art Deco styling in their designs. This was very much reflected in the new Administration Buildings which still exist today.
The main factory buildings were initially built as single storey steel structures covering 190,000 square feet and with cost estimates of around £107,000.
In January 1935, the De Havilland Aeronautical Technical School was the first to be transferred to Hatfield and they took up residence in the new Assembly Shop which was the first of the new buildings to be completed. With work progressing well on the various new buildings, partly-completed aircraft started to arrive by road from Stag Lane. These included the DH88 Comet Racers which secured victory in the London – Melbourne Air Race during 1934.
In addition to the new found prosperity from the influx of tradesmen and aircraft workers, the surrounding area also saw huge growth. A number of ‘allied trades’ relocated to the surrounding areas such as Stevenage and St Albans, all gearing up to supply the new factory.
The road network was extended, especially along the A1000 and new signage and improved road junctions were created to handle the increased traffic loads.
At the factory, production of Leopard and Tiger Moths had begun alongside the DH Dragon and DH Dragon Rapides which were being supplied to various national and international operators.
Over the next 10 years and with the outbreak of war, Hatfield would pay a major part in the supply of aircraft to the RAF, including the iconic DH Mosquito, the fastest aircraft to see service during the conflict.
During the peak of war, Hatfield saw itself under attack when on 3rd October 1940 the factory was bombed by an enemy Junkers 88A-1.
The attack centred on the 94 Shop and the Airspeed Design Office. It took the lives of 26 employees, many of them being young apprentices and factory boys. Anti-aircraft guns set the Junkers on fire and it crashed at Eastend Green Farm near Hertingfordbury shortly after the raid.
Ironically, Hatfield had not been their intended target (which was Reading) and the crew had become disorientated by low cloud and drizzle they could not believe their luck when a large industrial complex and runway appeared in a gap in the clouds.
At its peak the factory had a workforce of over 7,500, making it one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the UK.
As war subsided, Hatfield turned its attention to the 'Jet Age' and under the guidance of its talented engineers such as RE (Ron) Bishop and Major Frank Halford, De Havilland developed a number of revolutionary jet aircraft for the Royal Air Force such as the DH Vampire and the DH Venom.
However, probably more significant than any other UK aircraft development, De Havilland and Hatfield are perhaps most famous for the design and manufacture of one unique commercial aircraft, the DH Comet.
Whilst the story of the Comet is tinged with tragedy, it must be acknowledged that the introduction of the first Trans-Atlantic, pressurised jet airliner ranks highly amongst the most significant British engineering achievements of the 20th century.
Aviation took a giant leap forward with its first flight in July 1949 and today the Comet is seen with both pride and sadness. It is however, fully acknowledged that there is often a ‘price to pay’ for such advancement in so many areas of life and the workforce at Hatfield were devastated by the series of accidents that befell the Comet 1's.
Once the causes of the tragedies were identified, Hatfield and De Havilland moved swiftly to remedy the problems but by then it was probably too late. Although Hatfield had produced over 70 Comets, the lead in the design of jet-powered aircraft was lost to the Boeing 707 and alike.
Nevertheless, it should also be acknowledged that Hatfield had pioneered passenger jet travel and it continued in its design and production of some of the most technically advanced aircraft in the world.
During the latter part of the 1950s, Hatfield concentrated on two designs: the DH125 small business executive jet and the three-engine jet airliner, the DH121 Trident.
However, before either could attain their first flight in 1962, their was a further twist in the Hatfield story when the UK government forced the rationalisation of the aircraft industry.
Initially, both aircraft retained their DH designations although as De Havilland was quickly absorbed into the Hawker Siddeley Aviation Group, they were subsequently referred to as Hawker products.
Hatfield still flourished under Hawker Siddeley during the 1960s, producing 177 Tridents in 5 different variants. Meanwhile the Design Team continued its innovative work on projects such as the HS146 feeder airliner and the HBN100 programme which eventually emerged as the Airbus A300.
During 1977, another change to affect Hatfield was the 'Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act' introduced by the then Labour Government. The Hawker signs came down and Hatfield changed names once more, this time to British Aerospace, Hatfield Division.
Most development and production activity concentrated purely on commercial aircraft such as the renamed BAe146 and the BAe125 although the inter-action with other sites increased as many British Aerospace aircraft seemed to become widely shared products.
By 1993, the aircraft industry needed greater rationalisation and with a fast declining commercial aircraft market, British Aerospace took the decision to close Hatfield as part of a major restructuring programme. Around 2,500 people were working at Hatfield when the site was sold for commercial development as a business park and for much needed residential housing.
Parts of the old site still exist such as the Administration Building which is currently the Headquarters of Hertfordshire Constabulary as well as the Flight Test Hangar which is currently a David Lloyd Leisure Centre.
Virtually all of the new roadways bear names taken from De Havilland and it is said that today more people work on the site of the former aircraft factory than did when it was finally closed.
We would doubt that any of them have the fantastic memories of working for one of the greatest names in aviation at De Havilland Hatfield.
|1930||De Havilland Aircraft Company|
|1963||Hawker Siddeley Aviation|