Those magnificent men!


Image courtesy of National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library.

In August 1883, the Great Western Railway (GWR) was party to a flying experiment on the Staines West branch from West Drayton, 13 miles from London. An inventor, Mr H C Linfield of Margate, brought his “flying machine”, or more correctly a “steam sailing machine” for testing. Shaped like a four-wheel carriage with two large wheels at the front and two small wheels behind and fitted with sails, it was mounted on a wagon. Another wagon running behind was used for the inventor to operate his controls from. Under the supervision of GWR Assistant Locomotive Superintendent Mr F H Trevithick, a locomotive was connected to the machine to provide steam for a nine-bladed screw. The machine and two wagons were then propelled at 30 – 35 mph at which speed the machine was expected to lift into the air. It did, for a short period. Mr Linfield was happy with the result of the trial and later in the year was telling the press that passengers would soon be taking aerial voyages a mile in the air at 60 mph as regularly as any other form of transport. He wouldn’t be carrying heavy freight though. The following year, Mr Linfield was writing to the press to complain that he could not get a hearing about his flying machine at either the War Office or the Board of Trade, and that they had absolutely no-one there who understood aerial mechanics! The “Pall Mall Gazette” was sceptical, saying that the first air transit would be made by tethered or captive machines carrying gas for buoyancy or being driven by electricity carried up by their tether, the other end of which would run along an overhead cable.


Viscount Churchill (1864-1934) Victor Albert Charles Francis Spencer (Viscount Churchill) was Chairman of the GWR between 1908 and 1934. He guided the GWR through the First World War and the years afterwards. When he died in 1934 he was the longest serving Chairman of the GWR. Image: National Portrait Gallery

Fast forward to the GWR Annual General Meeting in 1929. Chairman Viscount Churchill was asked from the floor if the GWR was going to build a flat roof at Paddington Station so that (in the words of the enquirer) aircraft could alight. Viscount Churchill replied tactfully, “We hardly intend to go as far as that, but we are prepared for all emergencies when they come along.” Later that year, Royal Assent was given to a Bill to allow the “Big Four” railway companies to operate air services, but the implementation of the idea got off to a slow start. The GWR started flying in April 1933 with a Cardiff to Exeter and Plymouth air service. Using a chocolate and cream painted three-engined Westland Wessex aircraft built at Yeovil (G – AAGW), to congratulations from the Prime Minister, the GWR publicly inaugurated its air service with Captain Olley at the controls. Two flights in both directions operated daily with a flight time of 80 minutes.

The Cardiff to Plymouth return flight was £6 and a single ticket was £3.10s.0d. The aircraft and its pilots were supplied by Imperial Airways Ltd. Six weeks later in May 1933 the GWR’s service from Cardiff was extended to Birmingham. The plane landed at Castle Bromwich aerodrome with passengers using a connecting bus service to and from Snow Hill station. The aircraft was a six-seater but only carried four paying passengers with a 35lb luggage limit. The aircraft was allowed to carry mail for an additional threepenny fee on top of the ordinary penny halfpenny (1½d) stamp. At the end of September 1933, the GWR ended its six-seater aircraft service between Exeter, Cardiff and Birmingham because it was losing money – income of £1,664 and costs of £8,190 were reported in its first year. In five months of operation, 62,400 miles had been flown but only 714 passengers had been carried along with 104 lbs of freight and 454 lbs of mail. GWR General Manager Sir James Milne said it had been “experience cheaply bought”.


Despite the GWR’s loss-making experience, the Southern Railway and the London, Midland & Scottish Railway saw the potential in flying, so in 1934 Railway Air Services Limited (RAS) was formed as a partnership between the three railway companies and Imperial Airways Ltd. Four eight-seater (six passengers and two crew) De Havilland Dragon silver biplanes with a green and red striped livery flown by Imperial Airways pilots ran the earlier services. In time, RAS services linked London (Croydon), Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Belfast, the Isle of Man, Glasgow, Plymouth and Cardiff. The company’s assets were placed under government control during World War 2. Services resumed after the war but eventually in 1947, RAS was absorbed into British European Airways (BEA). Then in 1974 BEA was merged with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to form British Airways (BA) – a strange family history with steamy origins!

Mike Peart


Mike Peart is the co-author of Volumes 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles”and Trains of Hope” published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994.


Friends of the NRM is an independent charity, established in 1977 to support the National Railway Museum. We have raised £1.8m to date in support of the museum in funding, restorations, exhibits and acquisitions of new artefacts.

We also support and promote research and educational projects relating to the history and development of railways.


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