In the post-war period when London had a surplus of rubble and empty spaces, an airport was planned in the docklands area with SIX runways.
Just after the worst of the London blitz, the Royal Institute of British Architects commissioned a report into how to rebuild the city. They weren’t the only organisation thinking about this, as the City of London had started preparatory works even before the war, as they expected the new form of air war to be particularly devastating.
But in 1941, Lord Reith, the Minister for Works and Buildings commissioned RIBA to look at how London could be rebuilt when the war was finally over, and amongst the many proposals to improve transport in London, was a new airport.
Quite a few proposals had already been made for city-centre airports (of which more another day), but these were wisely dismissed by RIBA as impractical.
What they proposed was not as an idea, entirely unreasonable though. A new inner London airport would be sited just to the north of the Isle of Dogs. It would have had 6 runways — although at just 6,000 feet long, this was hardly a new “Heathrow” we are talking about.
It was more for the sort of small aircraft that dominated at the time, as the huge aircraft of today were barely considered possible. The aim was to improve inter-city transport, for both humans and cargo.
Its location next to the docks was considered essential for the joined-up transport that has long been a dream of city planners, although in this case for the cargo side rather than human transport.
Rail and possibly tube train links were also proposed — so the nascent Fleet Line could have come to Canary Wharf a full 50 years earlier than it eventually did.
Of course, the airport was never built. By the time it could have been, it would have already been out of date, as aircraft were increasing in size, and needing longer runways. The notion of lots of small planes was being superseded by the reality of fewer much larger planes.
Heathrow — or London Airport as it was then — was the preferred location for such giants of the sky.
Another part of the reason for the airport not being built was a dismissive attitude to the report within the government. The report being described as “seems a completely useless document that will get, perhaps, a lot of publicity. No doubt it would be very nice for architects”
Today, the east of London has City Airport, but possibly not for much longer. The airport is up for sale as I write, and there has been a campaign to have the land reused for housing instead. With the imminent arrival of Crossrail, all those city folk will have a much faster trip to Heathrow instead.
If only they can sort out that 3rd (and 4th) runway, then City Airport closing may be the price paid to secure permission for Heathrow’s expansion.
- Greater London: Towards a Master Plan. The Second Interim Report of the London Regional Reconstruction Committee of the Royal Institute of British Architects. May, 1943
- LSE (BEVERIDGE/9B/30/6)
- Gresham College, Replanning London after the Second World War
More from the Unbuilt London series here