Today (August 25) in London History – the first commercial, passenger flight to Paris

It’s August 25, 1919. The first ever commercial London to Paris passenger flight takes off from West London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

How would you like to fly to Paris for just under sixteen pounds?

Sound good?

How about if it cost £13,000? Not quite so inviting is it?

And that’s what happens when you act on that good old advice: follow the money.

It’s August 25th, 1919. The first commercial, London to Paris passenger air service took off this morning at 8.40 am. The flight – it was the first of three on the inaugural day of the air service – took two and a half hours. The aeroplane was a twin-engine Handley-Page, adapted from the famous bombing machine. The 275 horsepower engines were – a more lastingly famous name – Rolls Royce’s finest.

It carried 11 passengers, all of them journalists. That wasn’t full capacity. Full capacity was sixteen passengers, fourteen inside and two outside. But in the words of the carrier, in order to have a big margin for carrying in any kind of weather the actual load will normally be ten passengers and 500 to 600 lbs of freight per machine.

Every creature comfort for those fourteen inside passengers. Wicker chairs, curtained windows and a silk-lined cabin. There was even a clock and a looking glass.

We know what the first consignment of passengers was – Fleet Street’s finest, all those journalists. What about the goods and chattels that first day?

Well, there were a number of daily newspapers, a consignment of leather from a London firm to a firm in Paris, a considerable number of jars of Devonshire cream and several brace of grouse. For their final flight, a trip abroad for that most English of birds.

Those magnificent flying machines streaked along at about 120 miles an hour.  

That first day there were three flights. Daily flights were planned but the carrier – the Aircraft Transport and Travel Company – stressed that “the journey cannot be guaranteed every day, owing to the bad climate, and at present engine failure cannot be entirely eliminated, and forced landings and delay may occur.”

Hmmm. Reading that I’m not sure – big Jesse that I am – not sure I’d be rushing to get a ticket.

Speaking of which, yes, let’s cut to the chase. How much did it cost. 15 guineas one way. Sounds cheap. A guinea was 21 shillings. A pound and five pence in today’s money. So, 15 pounds and 75 pence. 

But – wait for it – an ordinary labourers’ wage – not that I’ve ever done an honest day’s work in my life – an ordinary labourer’s wage in 1919 was 14 to 22 shillings a week. So if you were at the low end of that  – the 1919 equivalent of maybe a barista it’d be nearly six months’ wages to pay for that flight to Paris. 

I dunno, maybe one of the outside seats was a little cheaper – maybe five months of Starbucking away would get you there.

But if you were at the top end of the average weekly wage for a labourer in 1919 – well, you’d only have to set aside four months pay for your one-way flight to Paris.

Another way of putting that, the average annual wage in this country is £26,000 a year. So in today’s money your flight to Paris would set you back about £13,000 if you were a low-end average Joe Schmo.

Work hard though – acquire a skill –  and that flight becomes a possible once-in-a-lifetime trip. Especially if you walk home from Paris. A bricklayer would have had to save about eight weeks of pay to treat himself to a flight to Paris in 1919. 

A couple of final points. Those 1919 flights were faster than an international telephone call. Apparently it took several hours to patch through a London to Paris phone call. 

The Handley-Page aeroplane would get you there in two and a half hours. We pip that by about fifteen minutes with Eurostar today – and that is city centre to city centre – but still, that’s a century and change later. 

Perhaps a better measuring stick is pre-Eurostar. Sure, flight times got faster. But getting to Paris by train pre-Eurostar. It’d be take the train from Victoria to Dover. At Dover we had to get out and get onto the ferry. And then it was however long it took for the ferry to cross the channel. Other side of the sleeve we had to be processed through immigration. And finally, it was onto the train for the three, three and a half hours, whatever it was – run into Paris. Basically it was a 12-hour journey. Even the advent of hovercrafts only lopped a couple of hours or so off that duration. Looked at that way, eye-wateringly expensive though it was, it was a pretty impressive achievement for those pioneers of commercial passenger flights.

And incidentally, a London to Brussels route was in the pipeline. It was just a few days in the future. My eye was caught by a 1919 newspaper story about being able to fly to Brussels and that same day visit a battlefield an hour or two later. There you go, air travel-enabled tourism pecking its way out of the shell.

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, look, those first London to Paris commercial passenger flights took off from Hounslow. Let’s stay in Hounslow but go back a whole lot further in time. It’s still a story of men and magnificent machines – it’s just that the machines are a whole lot older, a whole lot earlier – but no less important – than 1919 flying machines.

Can you guess? I’m sending you off to the London Museum of Water and Steam. Afterward you steam over Kew Bridge and spend the rest of the day in Kew Gardens. How do you go wrong with that plan of action.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.  See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *