Hooton Park Airfield. Kim Noonan Year 9 (2007). Contents. Introduction History of the Area First Military Use Conversion into non-military airport The return for military use for World War II Post-war After the closure of the airfield Inception of the Hooton Park Trust. Introduction.
Kim Noonan Year 9 (2007)
Hooton Park, Cheshire, is an airfield originally built for the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 as a training aerodrome for pilots in World War I. During the early/mid 1930’s , it was one of the two airfields (with Liverpool Speke) handling scheduled services for the Merseyside region. Hooton Park was home to 610 (County of Chester) Squadron and, post World War II, to 611 (West Lancashire) and 663 (AOP) Squadron.
The aerodrome closed in 1957 after the disbandment of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, but the three pairs of Belfast Truss hangers survived the closure.
The small remaining section of the airfield site is now owned and managed by the Hooton Park Trust. Hooton Park is also home to The Griffin Trust and The Aeroplane Collection
In 1070, William the Conqueror granted the lands of Hooton to Adam de Aldithly. Eventually they passed to the Stanley Family thorough a series of marriages. After the Battle of Bosworth, Hooton had a new hall and the first Lord Derby in Lancashire. A second half-timbered hall was built in 1488.
A third Italian-style hall was constructed circa 1778 but this later sold to cover the Stanley family’s gambling debts in 1850. The hall was bought by a Mr. Naylor, a wealthy Liverpool banker, for 82,000 guineas. He spent a further 50,000 guineas on the addition of a 100 foot tower, an art gallery, and a large dining hall. He also built a racecourse, polo ground, heronry, stud farm and a church in Childer Thornton in memory of his first wife. His yacht was moored on the Mersey but in the 1890's the construction of the Manchester Shi Canal cut off his access, so he moved to another of his properties in Nottinghamshire.
To avoid paying rates the hall was emptied of contents and staff but the estate continued to be farmed whilst the racecourse and polo ground remained in use.
War was declared on 4 August 1914 and Hooton Park’s racecourse was used for the last time some ten days later. The British War Department then requisitioned the estate for use as an army training ground. The hall became a headquarters, hospital, and officers’ mess. Lord Derby recruited the first Pals regiments and Hooton became the training ground for the 18th Battalion of the Kings Liverpool Rifles. They left for France and fought in the first battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.
Hooton Park then became the No.4 Training Depot Station. The Royal Flying Corps moved in to form the fighter squadrons so badly needed in France using Sopwith Scouts , Dolphins and Avro 504’s. Some of the pilots killed in training accidents were buried in the local churchyard at nearby Eastham. A large number of American and Canadian pilots were also trained at Hooton Park.
The War Department built one single and three double aircraft hangars which were completed in 1917. These hangars had a unique latticed roof construction – Belfast Trusses - which were originally used in the Belfast shipyards to cover large working areas and which provided strength at low cost.
First Military Use
On April 1, 1918, the Royal Flying Corps became the Royal Air Force. By the end of the First World War the 37 aircraft on charge were moved to RAF Sealand and RAF Hooton Park was closed. During the following years the
aerodrome reverted to farmland. The hangars were empty and the hall was so damaged by military use it was sold as a redevelopment opportunity and subsequently demolished (although the racecourse and polo ground remained).
The airfield site was purchased by a Mr. G. Dawson, an air enthusiast. In the summer of 1927, the Liverpool Corporation held an air pageant at Hooton as part of its civic week. This show was such a success that the Liverpool and District Aero Club was formed. Dawson allowed the new club to use his aerodrome for a fee. The club became one of the most successful in the country in only twelve months and was the centre for aviation in the north. For three years the aerodrome served as Liverpool’s airport.
Dawson persuaded two RAF engineering officers to resign and set up companies at Hooton – Nicholas Comper, who designed and built the Comper Swift single engined sporting monoplane; and Douglas Pobjoy, who supplied the Pobjoy radial engines. Dawson ran into financial trouble and died in 1933. In the same year, Liverpool Corporation opened Speke Airfield as its airport. The flying club subsequently moved there for cheaper hangarage and clubhouse facilities. Comper moved to Heston and closed his company. He died as the result of a practical joke in 1939. Pobjoy went to work for Short Brothers at Rochester, but was killed in a mid air collision in 1946. Despite these setbacks Hooton was still an important aerodrome with many private owners and several small airlines continuing to operate out of it.
In 1935, Martin Hearn, an ex-pilot and -ground engineer and who had previously worked for Cobham’s Flying Circus as a wing walker and aerial trapeze artist, created Martin Hearn Ltd., employing a few mechanics to service the aircraft using the aerodrome. In, 1936 number 610 (County of Chester) Squadron Auxiliary Air Force was formed at Hooton Park. Most of the pilots took private flying lessons to qualify. One person said, "Never have I seen so many Rolls Royce cars in one spot at the same time’ – an indication of the pilots' typical social status. The squad was initially a bomber squadron with Avro Tutor trainers, Hawker Hind and Hart bombers. In 1939 it took charge of a flight of
Hurricanes that were quickly replaced by Mark 1 Spitfires. At the outbreak of the Second World War on 3rd Sept 1939 the squadron was mobilised and sent to Wittering for final training. At the same time, Martin Hearn obtained a contract from the Ministry of Aircraft Production to repair large numbers of Avro Ansons as well as de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers. As No. 7 Aircraft Assembly Unit, the work also included the assembly of various types of American aircraft that used to arrive at the Mersey docks. Aircraft such as Mustang, Lightning and Thunderbolt fighters as well as Boston Havoc and Canadian built Handley Page Hampden bombers and Harvard trainers.
The first helicopters used by the Allies were also assembled and tested at Hooton towards the end of the war. During the war years, Hooton assembled and repaired thousands of aircraft. The RAF operated a flight of Coastal Command Avro Ansons, Tiger Moths and Hornet Moths on anti submarine patrols during 1939 and 1940. No. 11 Radio School and No. 3 General Reconnaissance School flew from the airfield.
In 1941 the grass airfield was transformed to include a 6000 foot concrete runway – one of the longest in Europe at that time. As aircraft became redundant they were sent from all over the country to No. 100 Sub Storage Site at Hooton to be scrapped. The end of the Second World War brought a decline in work to Martin Hearn. The company then had to seek peacetime work. To this end, buses were repaired, armoured cars overhauled and Slingsby gliders manufactured.
In 1947 Martin Hearn’s company was re-named Aero-Engineering and Marine (Merseyside) and Martin Hearn was no longer connected to it. Martin Hearn went into partnership with Lily Belcher and ran the Glider Club , adjacent to the airfield at its north western corner , as a successful and popular hotel for some 25 years. The engineering company survived until 1955, latterly servicing Canadair Sabre jet fighters for the RCAF. Wing Commander "Wilbur" Wright opened a flying school at Hooton and later a gliding club was operated from the northern end of the airfield. The gliding club survived as a local wining and dining venue until 1986.
In 1946 No. 610 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force returned to Hooton Park after valiant war service flying Spitfires in the European theatre. No. 663 (AOP) Squadron was reformed at Hooton Park in 1949 using Auster spotting aircraft. In 1951 No. 610 Squadron received Meteor twin jet fighters and No. 611 Squadron (West Lancashire) relocated from Woodvale to use the longer Hooton runway required for this type of aircraft. Both squadrons operated as R.Aux.AF units from the airfield until all Auxiliary flying squadrons were disbanded in March 1957. At this point the station was closed and all flying ceased at RAF Hooton Park.
The closure of the aerodrome was not the end of the story for Hooton Park – it became the site of the north’s biggest agricultural show (The Cheshire Show) until 1977 and the runways continued to be used by Shell Research for testing cars at high speed. In 1960 the site was purchased by Vauxhall Motors for the construction of a vehicle production plant at Ellesmere Port – the first car to roll off the production line being the Vauxhall Viva.
In the summer of 1986 Hooton opened its gates for two days to host the ’Wheels 86 Transport Extravaganza’. This event was so successful that four other ‘Wheels Shows (’88,’92, ’94 and ’96) were held. Over 80,000 people attended these events and many thousands of pounds were donated to charities from the proceeds. For the first time since 1957 the runways were used. Harrier Jump jets thrilled the crowd and for a few precious hours, cutting edge aviation technology paid homage to this pioneering aviation site.
Early in the 1980s the group of four people organising these events successfully approached the local authority to obtain a preservation order on the three historic World War One hangars. English Heritage bestowed on the three hangars a grade II listing in 1985 because of their rarity as a group of three double bay hangars utilising the Belfast truss form of construction.
In the late 1980s this group of four people formed themselves into an alliance called The Griffin Trust and Vauxhall Motors granted them a peppercorn lease on two of the hangars. The third hangar continued to be used to service Vauxhall motor cars.
After a great deal of work, the buildings were brought into some semblance of order. Despite many attempts to raise capital for the repair and maintenance of the buildings The Griffin Trust were unable to secure any substantial grant funding.
On the 9th October 2000, The Hooton Park Trust obtained the freehold of the three WWI aircraft hangars, with associated ancillary accommodation and land at Hooton Park. The sale of the freehold concluded twelve months of intensive negotiations between The Hooton Park Trust and Vauxhall Motors. These were entered into in response to Vauxhall Motor’s application in September 1998 to the local planning authority (Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council), for Listed Building Consent to demolish the hangars.
This created an enormous protest from aircraft enthusiasts and local people who were determined that the buildings should be saved in recognition of their role in the development of military and civilian aviation. The campaign was also supported by people concerned with the architectural value contained within the site’s buildings.
Vauxhall Motors and their parent company General Motors, met with representatives of The Hooton Park Trust. The Trust managed to persuade the car giant of the value of the heritage asset they owned and as a gesture in recognition of this the freehold was passed to The Hooton Park Trust. The motor giant provided substantial financial support to supplement planned applications for public sector funding as well as support expenses to aid the Trust in the first three years of operation.
English Heritage commissioned a thematic review of military aviation sites throughout the United Kingdom. In that review Hooton Park was recommended for upgrade to grade II* (two star) listing. Belfast truss hangars were now exceedingly rare and Hooton Park were in the lucky position of having three double bay examples set in context with their original ancillary buildings.
In March 2003 the two star listing was achieved and a scheme of emergency repairs was devised by consultant engineers working on behalf of the Trust. Unfortunately, the very substantial funds needed have not yet (late 2006) been raised and the hangars regrettably therefore continue their steady deterioration, with one having suffered a large roof collapse.
The primary aim of The Hooton Park Trust remains to work towards the survival of the remaining historic site and buildings at Hooton Park and to operate the site to the benefit of the local and regional communities.
Birdseye view of Hooton Park
Hangers in Hooton Park
The Hornet Moth
The Tiger Moth
Mosquito fighter bomber