Those magnificent men test their flying machines for Hadley Page on Dagenham Marshes

Inside the Hadley Page assembly shed at Barking Creek, 1910

Inside the Hadley Page assembly shed at Barking Creek, 1910 - Credit: Hadley Page Association

Aviation experts gathered to recall the days a century ago when an old factory shed on the banks of Barking Creek was once at the centre of Britain’s pioneering air industry.

Hadley Page prototype, Type A, c1909

Hadley Page prototype, Type A, c1909 - Credit: Hadley Page Association

Members of the Hadley Page Association, some in their eighties, keep the spirit alive of the famous aircraft company that started experiments building prototype aeroplanes at Barking in 1909.

Hadley Page 'Type D' aeroplane made in Barking, being exhibited at Olympia, 1911

Hadley Page 'Type D' aeroplane made in Barking, being exhibited at Olympia, 1911 - Credit: Hadley Page Association

Their story unfolded on Monday in a special presentation to the Barking & District Historical Society at Barking’s Harp House centre.

Sir Fred Hadley Page in retirement in 1960, before he dies

Sir Fred Hadley Page in retirement in 1960, before he dies - Credit: Hadley Page Association

The early test pilots would try out their wooden-framed craft on Dagenham Marshes, where the Ford Motor Works and Dagenham Docks are today—and usually crashing back down to earth more often than not.

It was a young, eager aerodynamics enthusiast Frederick Hadley Page who brought aviation pioneering to the area—and all because he got the sack from his employers.

The 23-year-old from Cheltenham arrived in London for an electrical engineering course at Finsbury College, which he saw as the future.

That year, 1908, saw Wilber Wright in Europe displaying the machine that made the world’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk in America five years earlier.

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It impressed the young Hadley Page so much that he joined the Aeronautical Society to experiment in aviation.

He made model aeroplanes during his ‘spare time’ when he became chief designer for an electrical company in Charleton.

“The trouble was, he did his experimenting in company time,” explained retired Hadley Page engineer Brian Bowen.

“The company directors suspected he was up to no good—so they sacked him.

“He was determined to find the perfect design for a flying machine and set up a workshop in Woolwich as an aeronautical engineer.”

There wasn’t much open space in Woolwich to test his designs. He found it at Dagenham Marshes, the other side of the Thames. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“He managed to get commissions to build two flying craft,” Brian explained.

“He attempts to get one off ground. A second machine actually flies over the marshland for a few hops, then keeps crashing.

“But both machines, assembled at Woolwich, have to be transported by cart on the Woolwich Ferry and then down to Dagenham each time.”

The eager pioneer looked for a more suitable operating base. It was while on his frequent trips to the marshes that Hadley Page found a large factory shed at Creekmouth on the Barking Creek, a perfect location to assemble his flying machines.

He moved to Barking in June, 1909, and formed his own aeronautical engineering company, Hanley Page Ltd. Soon, the company was employing 20 people, designers, engineers and assembly workers.

Brian, now official Hadley Page archivist, revealed: “The first machine he designs is the ‘Type A’—but it is a flop and never really gets into the air.

“He doesn’t get the design right. Engineers aren’t that brilliant at aeronautics in 1909.

“The engines of the day have very little power for the weight of the aircraft they are supposed to lift.”

His second attempt, ‘Type B’, is a commission for a Lancashire designer which is assembled at Barking.

“The shed gets blown down in gale in 1909 and flattens the aircraft,” Brian added. “It is a disaster and they have to start all over again.”

The replacement is hurriedly transported to Lancashire and, this time, is successfully tested in flight.

Then comes ‘Type C’, a modification of the original ‘Type A’, but this proves a flop. So it is used as an instruction simulator at Northampton Square Polytechnic in the City, where Hadley Page by now is lecturing in aeronautics, using the machine to show air velocity and construction.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board. Hadley Page is not yet in the top league of aircraft builders in the days before the First World War, up against aviation giants such as Short’s in the Isle of Sheppey and Avro in Manchester, the big names of their day. There is even competition from Bleriot, the French aviator who makes the first cross-Channel flight in 1909, the year Hadley Page sets up in Barking.

Hadley Page realises Barking Creek and the Dagenham waterfront are too marshy and hazardous with draining ditches for the bigger, more powerful aircraft now coming off the drawing board.

So he rents playing fields at Fairlop Flats in Barkingside and successfully tests his ‘Type D’ built with a mahogany fuselage, which is then displayed at the 1911 Olympia Show and draws big crowds.

It is Hadley Page’s first success—but it crashed after several flights. It is still an imperfect aircraft. The test pilot doesn’t have much experience, but manages to scramble out unhurt.

Next is the even-more successful ‘Type E’, using a Gnome engine made in France which is lighter than other engines, yet has more power.

By then, the company has to find bigger factory premises and closes the assembly shed at Barking and moves to converted stables at Cricklewood in north London in 1912. It is close to the huge Welsh Harp reservoir where the company tests its first sea plane.

The Great War changes the company’s fortunes with orders from the War Office to build the BE2, its first biplane, tested at the nearby Hendon Aerodrome ready for the Western Front.

The company after 1918 turns to civilian fight. The civil aviation industry builds up in the years between the wars.

But by 1938, with war looming once again over Europe, it is back into military aircraft production—with the RAF’s famous Halifax bomber.

The company has now really taken off, with a staff of 3,000. It is a long haul from the days of the assembly shed at Barking Creek that could hardly stand a gale and the bumpy Dagenham marshland where those magnificent men tested their flying machines.