S&C regular Andrew Larder launches the first in a series of hidden histories exploring Portsmouth’s industrial estates, starting at Airport Industrial Estate, in the north east of the city.
In 1979 punk band The Fall released a song entitled Industrial Estate, the chorus cried ‘Yeah, Yeah Industrial Estate.’ The lyrics paint a bleak picture of a low pay, perk free, unhealthy existence. As far as I am aware this is the closest industrial estates have come to being glamorous or cool. Often set on the outskirts of residential areas, these identikit grey units of commerce, are seemingly indistinguishable from one town to the next. Until recently I would have agreed with this statement but following a spell of letter-delivering into the heart of this greyness, I found myself consistently surprised at the hidden treasures of Portsmouth’s industrial estates.
The first UK industrial estate sprung up in Manchester in 1896. Land not swallowed up by the cotton trade was sold off by the Trafford family in the face of increased industrialisation of the area. Canals provided access from the sea inland for companies using imported materials. Within a decade oil, steel, cars and biscuits were being produced.
Diversification and specialisation was key to the spread of industrial estates. Small enterprises grew supporting larger businesses. Portsmouth’s industrial areas are spread across Portsea Island, but it was work generated by the Dockyard that led to their growth.
Basic factory lines gave way to more specialist production. Precision tools, precision tool making, and industrial processes involving chemicals evolved as the new occupiers of industrial estates during the 20th century. The bricks and mortar of the first industrial estates were replaced by plastic cladding and kit-like units.
Now a new phase in the industrial estate history has begun with the arrival of the ‘business park’. Compact office units, accountants and graphic designers now sit across the road from scrapyards. Will these areas become dominated by commercial interests? Be absorbed by local housing needs? Or play host to the hot desks and coffee machines of the contemporary ‘innovation space’ or ‘centre’: that increasingly familiar stepping stone between the workplace and working from home that signals the growth of the ‘gig’ economy and ‘portfolio careers’?
Back in Manchester, Salford Quays – originally part of the British industrial estate as the Manchester Docks and later Enterprise Zone – has now been regenerated into quality private dwellings, alongside cultural, retail and leisure facilities, and creative industries, including MediaCity.Such redevelopments are not without controversy, including accusations of gentrification, and as S&C’s fellow independent hyperlocal The Salford Star highlight, creating ‘a tale of two cities.’
In the hands of an administration that prides itself on its ‘business-minded approach to the running of the council‘, Portsmouth may be set to take a similar approach to redeveloping its industrial estates as our friends in the north. But however the industrial estates in Portsmouth develop in the future, this hidden history series aims to answer one question: are there hidden treasures and forgotten histories to be discovered deep within Portsmouth’s industrial estates?
AIRPORT INDUSTRIAL ESTATE
The Airport Industrial Estate is named after Portsmouth Airfield which existed from 1931 – 1973.
The original plan for Portsmouth Airfield was for the site to be a base for flying boats or sea planes using Langstone Harbour. Passengers could fly in from other airfields to catch flights to India, Singapore and Australia. However, the waters proved too shallow and dredging too expensive.
On 2nd July 1931, 50,000 people attended the opening air show. Commercial flights could soon be taken to Isle of Wight, Jersey and further afield. Not only did Portsmouth once have an airport but the city had one with grass runways.
September 1936 saw Portsmouth Airfield as the starting point for nine aircraft to take part in the England to Johannesburg Air Race. During the Second World War small courier planes along with gliders were built nearby. As aeroplanes became larger and more powerful, grass runways became less suitable.
There are several companies with connections to the original Airfield on the Airport Industrial Estate. Major players in the aircraft industry used Portsmouth Airfield, including Airspeed, De Havilland and Hawker Siddeley. Local companies also prospered. Proptech – which recently relocated to Solent Airfield – continue to service and repair aeroplane propellers, including ones used on acrobatic aircraft. Portsmouth Aviation still exist but have moved away from aircraft work.
H&S Aviation are still trading and provide turbine engines to aircraft. Three generations of the Hawes family have worked at H&S Aviation, and this family were real pioneers of the aviation industry as well as major employers in the city, having five factories at one point on the Airport Industrial Estate. In 1953 they built the H&S Herald aeroplane.
Jimmy Hawes, christened Albert Hawes, moved to Portsmouth in 1933. Jimmy’s Grandson, Nick Hawes, told me that Jimmy had been trained by the Blackburn Aircraft Company and was one of the first ever Licensed Aircraft Engineers. This enabled him to work on, repair and salvage aircraft. Salvage work included decommissioning Bombers and Fleet Arm military aircraft. Jimmy initially worked for Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation, or PSIOWA. This company ferried people by plane from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, Southampton and Bournemouth. Ten shillings, around 50p in today’s money, would buy a return fare from Portsmouth to Ryde.
In 1946 Jimmy founded the Hants and Sussex Aviation company (H&S Aviation) with workshops in Felpham, Sussex and Fratton. During the early days, the workshop in Fratton was beneath a flat in Walmer Road. Sometimes airplanes had to be walked from there to the airfield in the north of the city, which would have been an amazing sight. Eventually the company moved to Portsmouth Airfield and the workshops closed. His sons, Bill and Ted, later took over the running of the company from Jimmy, and Ted’s son Nick Hawes still works at H&S today.
In the 1960s H&S were approached by 20th Century Fox film studios to build three planes that were used in the movie ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.’ The hero of the film, played by James Fox, is seen winning the air race in a replica of a 1909 Antoinette which was built by H&S Aviation.
In 1967 two crashes at the airfield took place on the same day within hours of each other. Miraculously, despite one of the planes skidding onto the Eastern Road, no one was hurt. Eyewitness reports from workers cycling to work report people were amazed to find a plane blocking their route.The grass runway and wet weather were among the suspected causes of the accidents.
As aircraft became more powerful, the days of grass runways were numbered and the Airfield shut in 1972. Portsmouth City Council reports from the time show some discussions to develop the airfield into a heliport. Indeed, H&S had their own helicopter pad for delivery of engine parts. Later the disused airfield was discussed in the press as a potential site for a new Fratton Park.
Today Portsmouth Airfield is familiar to us as home to housing and a supermarket. Years ago, my sister flew to Jersey from Portsmouth Airfield and I think about how the landscape has changed. I doubt anything other than a helicopter could land here now. I imagine planes landing and taking off in Morrisons car park; it would be more glamorous than the seagulls and shopping trollies that currently inhabit the space.
So, if you find me dreaming by the biscuits, I am not stunned by the price of Hobnobs, but listening to the distant drone of an old plane coming in to land in aisle eight.
Main image from Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust, using GoogleMaps.