New book recalls when Ilkeston nearly got its own airport

CIRCUS IN THE SKY -- one of the stunts tried by Cobhams Flying Circus that led to the airport idea for Ilkeston.
CIRCUS IN THE SKY -- one of the stunts tried by Cobhams Flying Circus that led to the airport idea for Ilkeston.

Residents and commuters of Ilkeston are about to get a railway station after a wait of 40 years. But did you know that the town nearly had an airport once as well?

Local councillors came up with the idea in 1930 while what is now known as East Midlands Airport was a military base and Heathrow could boast nothing more posh than a grass airstrip.

Foreign trips were the privilege of the wealthy, but the council was undaunted and got in touch with Sir Alan Cobham, a dashing middle-aged man known for his bravery at the controls of flying machines. Sir Alan had piloted a plane from the UK to Australia after serving in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War.

At the time of the council approach, he had been knighted and was director of Cobham’s Flying Circus. Sadly, the Ilkeston scheme never got off the ground, and its existence was long forgotten. But now it has been unearthed by local historians Ann Featherstone, 62, and Beverley Kilby, 54, in a fascinating, new book that shines an often bizarre light on Ilkeston.

Ann says: “It seems inconceivable now but, at the time, Sir Alan said that every town needed an airport and this seems to have been taken up by an alderman on Ilkeston Borough Council, Amos Henshaw.

“Cobham’s Flying Circus had recently performed over Derby and, clearly, Alderman Henshaw was very forward-thinking and thought about an airport for Ilkeston.”

Beverley adds: “Other towns were also considering the same thing. Matlock was looking at it, and that’s a town surrounded by hills. Bakewell was also interested.”

The pair have trekked the area to discover the location suggested by Alderman Henshaw. He clearly thought the perfect site would be near the town centre.

His first choice was land close to Ilkeston’s former hospital on Heanor Road, a 40-acre hill-top site stretching from Shipley View housing estate to the former Manners Colliery, whose headstocks could be seen from West Hallam.

As an alternative, he suggested the site near the Stanton Works and now subject to grand plans to create a village with shops, light industry and even a tram link to Nottingham.

The airport scheme appears to have bitten the dust because of one of local government’s oldest snags -- a lack of cash.

Sir Alan quickly wrote back, listing his charges for sizing up the prospects and writing a report. It was read out at a council meeting and the project faded from memory.

“It was resolved that no further action would be taken,” adds Ann. “Perhaps Sir Alan’s fees were too steep, or perhaps no-one, except Alderman Henshaw, was really committed to the idea anyway.”

The authors have written ‘Ilkeston As It Was’, the town’s history in 50 chapters to mark the 50th anniversary of Ilkeston and District Local History Society, of which they are well-known members.

The book, which costs £10, will be officially launched at the Smoothie Bar on Bath Street on Saturday (10 am to 1 pm). Members of the public are invited to go along to meet them. To support the launch, Ann and Beverley also gave a talk at Ilkeston Library on Monday.