Looking Back: The early days of aviation on a Godmanchester Meadow

The early days of flight on Portholme Meadow in Godmanchester.

The early days of flight on Portholme Meadow in Godmanchester. - Credit: CAMBS ARCHIVES

As unlikely as it may seem now, the town of Godmanchester was at the centre of the aviation fever which was gripping the country in the early part of the 20th Century.

In 1910, the relatively new concept of flying aircraft began to gather momentum and excitement and people from far and wide flocked to the town to witness history being made on their doorstep.

Portholme, the big island meadow that sits between Huntingdon and Godmanchester, was the site of Huntingdon Racecourse until 1896 when the course moved to its present site near Brampton.

Portholme’s 300 acres of flat land with no hedges or ditches made it an ideal airfield and in March 1910. an ambitious plan was launched to build a landing strip for aircraft on Portholme Meadow.

While the plan was never realised in full, aircraft did continue to use it as a makeshift airfield and local people often watched the comings and goings with fascination, and probably some trepidation.

In April, 1910, Bedford man James Radley flew in his three-cylinder Anzami-engined Bleriot monoplane, and circled around the Meadow. He completed 16 miles in 23 minutes.

Hundreds of local people turned out to watch and cheer him on. Radley and another pilot called William Rhodes-Moorhouse, later built an aircraft factory in St John’s Street, in Huntingdon, and flew their aircraft from Portholme Meadow.

Portholme Aerodrome Ltd in St John's Street was used as aircraft factory in WW1.

Portholme Aerodrome Ltd in St John's Street was used as aircraft factory in WW1. - Credit: CAMBS ARCHIVES

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The first locally designed and built aircraft flew from Portholme on July, 27, 1911. Unfortunately Radley and Moorhouse had much  greater enthusiasm for flying than commercial business sense.

They also started a flying school, which ended badly for them as the result was all their aircraft were damaged in crashes.

In 1912 they had to sell the business to Handley Page to cover their debts.

Handleys struggled with the business until 1915 when, to support the war effort, the Admiralty ordered 20 Wight seaplanes to made under licence. Things briefly perked up, but the contract was withdrawn in 1916 with only four aircraft completed because they didn't fly very well.

Portholme Aerodrome Limited battled on until finally going into receivership on July 11,1922.

The St John’s Street factory later switched to making bodywork for cars and that was the end of Huntingdonshire's brief flirtation with civil aviation.