Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A GATEWAY TO THE WORLD ON BUCKINGHAM PALACE ROAD' page

By David Evans

What would today’s “no frills” air travellers think of the following lunch served on an Imperial Airways’ Empire long-distance flying boat service in the late 1930s? Iced melon, roast chicken, York ham, veal galantine with appropriate vegetables, fruit salad and cream, cheese and biscuits, crystallised fruits, coffee and liqueur brandy. The one-way fare, for this and much more, to say Australia was around £300 (several thousands in present values) but it did include overnight hotel stops en route during a ten-day journey…and by 1939 the gateway to all this speed, for the era, glamour and luxury was Imperial Airways’ impressive new terminal on Buckingham Palace Road.

Opened as the Imperial Airways Empire Terminal in mid-1939, this was one of the world’s first purpose-built city centre air terminals where passengers could check in for their flights and then take rail transportation to Hythe, near Southampton, Imperial’s flying boat base or road transportation to Croydon airport for its land-based aircraft. Imperial was particularly proud of the rail link and announced that “Empire passengers will leave for Southampton (Water) by special train from the company’s private station in the rear of the premises.” The “premises” were designed by Albert Lakeman in “deco-baroque” style centred around a massive clock tower and a canopy topped by a sculpture entitled “Speed Wings Across the World”, emphasising the part that air transportation was playing in shrinking the globe in terms of travel time. Its opening received scant publicity although the Westminster and Pimlico News described the building’s 175ft tower as symbolising “the reaching out of this great organisation.” Of course, the looming war probably accounted for the lack of general interest in the terminal. After all, it could all be bombed to smithereens once the war started. Happily, it wasn’t and with the coming of peace it was ready to serve the public again from 1946 – although it must be added that the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), successor to Imperial Airways, had carried on during the war years transporting over 20,000 “priority” passengers on its often arduous transatlantic flights for example.

By the early 1950s, those travelling to the new airport at Heathrow could board their coach at what was now called Airways Terminal and settle into seats which mimicked those in aircraft of the time. Then, it was off to Heathrow for, let’s say, one of the new Boeing Stratocruiser flights to New York which would carry you to Idlewild – later JFK - airport at 350mph in pressurised comfort at around 20,000ft. A refuelling stop was made at Gander, Newfoundland but it was now possible to reach the east coast of the USA about fifteen or sixteen hours after leaving Buckingham Palace Road. Dinner on the inaugural BOAC “Monarch” Stratocruiser flight to New York in March, 1951 consisted of caviar, turtle soup, salmon, chicken and strawberries and cream, all preceded by cocktails and accompanied by an abundance of champagne. Not bad when you consider that most of those on the ground in 1951 Britain would probably have tasted chicken only once a year, at Christmas, as post-war shortages and rationing continued in the country.

The gradual introduction of Tourist Class, at this time, supplanting the luxurious one class system which now became known as First Class alongside the new Tourist cabin, meant that many more customers were passing through the terminal during the 1950s. So much so that, by 1960, the building had been extended to accommodate some of this increase and the expanding number of BOAC staff based in it. However, by the late 1970s, with mass-market tourism and the extension of the Underground to Heathrow, the reason for having a city-centre terminal which had catered to a more “sedate” era was becoming untenable and the facility closed in 1980. Today, it houses the National Audit Office but if you stand outside this still impressive building it is easy to conjure up a vision of fairly relaxed people arriving to board the Imperial Airways’ special train for Hythe and their luxurious flying boat to Australia before you notice large numbers of backpackers scurrying along today’s Buckingham Palace Road to Victoria Station for Gatwick airport and what is probably a jam-packed, cramped “no frills” flight to an equally jam-packed, cramped and “no frills” destination. The Imperial Airways’ Empire Terminal is long-gone but if you pass by the National Audit Office, do stop and give a moment’s thought to the special place that this impressive building in the City of Westminster has in the proud history of British civil aviation.


This page was added by Adrian Autton on 19/07/2014.

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