Today (March 30) in London History – the beginning of British commercial aviation

British commercial aviation got started on March 30, 1929. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


Let’s see, Today in London. 

I get off the 328 on Kensington Church Street. The stop before High Street Kensington Station. It’s also the stop for the Candella Tea Room. It always looks inviting. It looked doubly inviting today because the sidewalk tables were out. I was on my way to do my Kensington Walk. And I thought, you know afternoon tea – it’s not entirely owned by places like the Ritz which really put on the Ritz and charge a king’s ransom. There’s the homey, funky, old fashioned Candella Tea Room and their £9.95 Cream tea service. A pot of loose leaf tea and two homemade scones with Cornish clotted cream and jam and to tune-up for same, the great American novelist Henry James’ pronouncement in A Portrait of a Lady, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

To which I’d add, there are few thoughts in life more agreeable than the thought that Cream Tea at the Candella Tea Room in Kensington is £52 cheaper than tea at the Ritz. 

It’s all about perspective. And I’m going to double down on that in the rest of this podcast. Here we go. 

Today in London History.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Now where have we heard that before?

In March 1861 the Pony Express carried the inaugural address of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln from Nebraska to California in 7 days and 17 hours. That was the fastest time ever. Crossing that continent – or half a continent – by Pony Express normally took about ten days. And that was fast. That journey took 25 days by stagecoach. Months by sea voyage.

Communications-wise, what did for the Pony Express was the Western Union Transcontinental Telegraph line. It came along just months after that record-breaking Pony Express ride. Came along on October 24, 1861at Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City was where East met West, where Western Union forged the final link in its Transcontinental Telegraph Line. Two days later the Pony Express was history. Out of business. 

Hardly surprising given that the telegraph made communications between Washington DC and San Francisco instantaneous.

So there’s some perspective for you.

Now let’s do the same thing for what happened in London on March 30th, 1929.

A three-engine bi-plane – an Imperial Airways Armstrong-Siddeley Argosy Airliner – takes off from London’s Croydon airport at 10 am. Its passengers and cargo will arrive in Karachi a week later. It carried 12,000 letters and a handful of passengers. And that was the beginning of British commercial aviation. 

It was a 5,000-mile journey – a 5,000-mile journey that would be made in stages. London to Paris. And then Paris to Basle. From Basle the passengers and mails would travel by train to Genoa. In Genoa there’d be a transfer to an airboat for the flight to Alexandria. On the flight from Genoa to Alexandria, there were stops at Rome, Naples and Athens. At Alexandria the mails would be transferred to a 1500 horsepower De Haviland Hercules Empire aeroplane which would fly, by way of Baghdad and Basra down the Persian Gulf to Karachi. There were 20 landing grounds and re-fuelling stations along the line. Twenty landing grounds and re-fuelling stations manned by some 200 airway traffic experts and engineers to keep things ship-shape at each stage. 

The return airmail would leave Karachi on April 7th and arrive back in London on April 14th. 

And let’s be precise, the 1929 newspaper story I’m looking at doesn’t say the new London India airmail service would leave Karachi – would leave Pakistan – it says it would leave India. In 1929 Pakistan did not exist, Karachi was still part of India.

And what visions they had in their heads. The 5,000 mile London to Karachi trip was, at the time, the longest air service in the world. The biggest step yet taken in civil aviation.

But plans were afoot for bigger and better. A lot bigger. From Karachi they were already looking ahead to extending the service across India to Calcutta and then to Rangoon and Singapore and finally Australia. To Melbourne. London to Melbourne – 13,000 miles. Halfway round the world.

Alexandria was a pivotal point. Because a service from Alexandria to Cape Town would be coming on stream later in 1929.

Ok, so let’s get that into perspective. Today, you’re looking at approximately 12 hours, London to Karachi. That’s with one-stop. At the moment there are no non-stop direct flights.

Half a day in other words. As opposed to seven days at the beginning of British commercial aviation in 1929.

We wince at the idea of it taking a week to get from London to Karachi. 21 takeoffs and 21 landings – almost too many to keep track of – not to mention that several hours long railway journey from Basle to Genoa. We wince but those 1929ers must have been elated.

And why not? Think about where they were coming from. A century earlier it had been a six-month journey. Because you had to sail around Africa.

Then in 1830 the East India Company started a Red Sea service. That cut the journey to two months. 

The coming of the railway of course speeded things up.

By 1870 – thanks to steamships – the journey had been cut to about a month. The Suez Canal of course cut more time off the journey. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, they’d got it down to about two weeks. But halving that – one week – well that was a dramatic improvement. They must have wondered at it the way we did at Concorde. A seven and a half hour flight from London to New York being cut to less than three hours. Close enough to the time it takes to get from London to Paris via Eurostar. 

It’s all about perspective. The other way we can put that 1929 beginning of British commercial aviation moment into perspective is to timeline going forward. They had no idea on March 30th, 1929 that the great Wall Street crash was just ahead of them – just five months in the future. And it would of course usher in the Great Depression. They had no way of knowing in 1929 was Adolph Hitler was storing up for their world. They had no way of knowing that Indian independence was only 18 years in the future. Ditto the creation of Pakistan also in 1947, which meant that Karachi was no longer a city in India. Again and again you come back to that Shakespeare line about looking into the seeds of time and seeing which grain will grow and which will not. They couldn’t. Nor can we. And I’m not going to say we should be so lucky. Not going to say it given what’s going on 1300 miles east of us. Or for that matter that it’s the end of March and our weather is behaving like it’s late June. And that an unprecedented event has just happened in Antarctica – the collapse of the 450 square mile Conger ice shelf. I’m not sure I’m very much in favour of peering into the seeds of time…

But peering into the tea leaves of Candella’s Apricot and Peach blend, that I am in favour of. Especially at walk’s end.

So that’s two endnotes for you – one sobering and one very pleasing. You take your pick.

Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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