The local museum built on historic groundThe Royal Air Force Museum has always been a marvel to me
I first visited the Royal Air Force Museum (RAF museum) in the summer of 1976, as a seven-year-old, taken by my father, who had joined the Royal Air Force in 1962. He had told me that for a period of time in the 1960s serving personnel contributed a small amount of their pay each month towards the museum’s costs, which really made it a personal thing.
Back then the museum was a smaller affair compared to the present, although, none the less impressive, especially to a child like me. I was totally enthralled, walking around the exhibits, whilst getting an exclusive tour from my father, who really knew his aviation history. It's a special place for me, which I have known throughout my life, and have visited countless times. I've decided to dig into the history of the space to find out more about why the museum is located in Colindale.
Opened in November 1972, the Royal Air Force Museum gave a permanent, purpose-built home to significant examples of RAF aircraft, vehicles, uniforms, artefacts, and a large archive of photographs, books and documents. Over the course of the following 50 years the museum has grown. There are now new aircrafts, exhibition halls, as well as rebuilt historic structures. It also developed a second site in the West Midlands, complete with its own conservation centre.
The RAF Museum has returned to its original Colindale site - seemingly an odd choice to some.
So why here? The answer lies in the site’s history and the birth of British aviation. Up until 1910 the area was rough grazing land found at the end of Colindale Avenue which was by that time lined with rather nice, small Victorian homes. The arrival of Kenelm Edgcumbe, joint owner of the electrical engineering company, Everett & Edgecumbe, based at nearby Colindeep Lane, was to change all this. Edgecumbe had been inspired to build a monoplane aircraft and had a large wooden shed built on the land to house it. The enterprise was never to amount to more than a few hops across the fields, and the aircraft was nicknamed ‘The Grasshopper’ to underline the point. This rudimentary flying ground was then developed into a proper airfield by the entrepreneur and pioneer aviator, Claude Grahame-White, becoming The London Aerodrome, Hendon.
At this time, Colindale was not a noteworthy area, and the aerodrome became associated with the more well-known Hendon. These few years before the First World War were a time of joyful, and innocent early flying. Grahame-White turned the aerodrome into a successful visitor attraction, with display days, races and competitions. People came from far and wide, most arriving in chauffeur-driven cars, from Central London along the Edgware Road.
In August 1914 the war in Europe saw the aerodrome taken over by the Royal Naval Air Service, as a training station for new pilots, as well as a proving and acceptance park for new types of military aircraft. With the war’s end, the newly-formed Royal Air Force eventually took full control of the aerodrome and it became known as RAF Hendon. The inter-war years saw the revival of display days, or as they were often called, ‘pageants’, evoking medieval knights in armour, however, this time these were the knights of the air, their steeds being ever-evolving military aircraft. The display days would attract enormous numbers of visitors, most arriving this time, not in posh motor cars, but by London Underground trains arriving at the new Hampstead Tube station on Colindale Avenue.
The Second World War brought an end to the jolliness, and RAF Hendon was briefly a Battle of Britain fighter station, but then continued the war as an airfield for communications flights and military logistics. The post-war years saw the aerodrome’s future in doubt. The area around it had been developing since the 1920s, and many questioned how practical it was to have a large military airfield in such a densely populated part of London.
By 1957 the last active RAF squadron made its last flight, and Hendon sat barely used for the next decade. In 1962 the Royal Air Force decided that a site for a museum to house its history should be found and given Hendon’s long history and its availability as a space, it was chosen. By the late 1960s, the old airfield had been ripped up and the large housing estate of Grahame Park was begun. Over on the eastern side of the site, a decision had been made to keep an area for RAF logistics, whilst a sizeable area that had two large WW1 aircraft hangars was set aside for the new museum. The two buildings were joined together, and a set of new structures was built around them to give a modern look, and house offices, the archives, a lecture hall, galleries and a shop.
On November 15th, 1972, Her Majesty the Queen opened the Royal Air Force Museum, and once again the general public made a trip along Colindale Avenue to gaze upon the winged wonders, just as they had in the 1920s and 30s, except this time the aircraft were firmly on the ground in two vast exhibition hangars.
If you haven’t been to the Royal Air Force Museum, or haven’t been for years, isn’t about time you paid it a visit? It is one of only a small number of museums in the borough, and after all, it is free to enter!
Visit: Grahame Park Way, London NW9 5LL, United Kingdom