NOSTALGIA: The magnificent 1930s aerodrome at Wilmington

The classic Art Deco clubhouse at Wilmington, which was converted into flats
The classic Art Deco clubhouse at Wilmington, which was converted into flats

The existence of the in between the wars airfield beside the bustling A27 trunk road near Wilmington is a matter largely overlooked, writes Peter Longstaff-Tyrrell.

The site alongside the Lewes and Polegate thoroughfare is passed daily by thousands of drivers within 500 yards of the entrance.

I first became intrigued in the airfield as a youngster in Brighton pouring over my parents’ Bartholomew linen map although I never saw aircraft there as the site closed in 1939.

I refer to the location as Milton Gate as titled on the 1930s period map when the airfield functioned. Also, Milton Gate refers directly to my turnpike studies from 1819 when John Loudon McAdam and Sussex county surveyor William Figg laid the new highway between Lewes county town and what became called Polegate with the last of the turnpike gates; albeit the road surface by the 1930s would have been basic ground flint or gravel, and the volume of traffic just a trickle compared to current pressures when the issue of dualling this part of the A27 is being revived.

The World War One airfield itself was a combination of a pair of fields named Ten Acres and Gate Field according to Arlington’s 1843 tithe survey. Today it part of Long Man parish.

In 1916 the fields had become a Royal Flying Corps Home Defence Landing ground – reserve, albeit little used.

At this time there were military airfields at St Anthony’s in Eastbourne, Newhaven, Polegate, Goring-by-Sea, Rustington, Shoreham, Southbourne, Tangmere and Telscombe Cliffs across Sussex – with varying levels of activity at these pioneering aircraft establishments at the time.

Records on the World War One period at Wilmington are virtually non-existent and the site was sometimes referred to as Arlington Airfield due to its parish location.

In reality there is little on record of aerial activity at the site, nor permanent buildings until the 1930s.

Micro-fiche print outs from the Eastbourne newspapers have provided coverage of events at the aerodrome and the ensuing material is mainly gleaned around these reports.

Today, the entrance to the old airfield is crossed along the Wealdway cross-country path.

The surviving 1930s property there is a former hangar that was converted in to a barn when the site became Milton Gate during the 1970s.

A wooden hangar there was blown down in the 1980s. A second wooden hangar was in the original featherboard with a corrugated iron sheet roof. Beyond south is Wilmington Hill.

The topic of civilian flying from urban Eastbourne made news from the early 1930s.

Frowd’s Field was one site likened for development by embryo aviators. Frowd’s Field has been identified as part of a dairy farm owned by the family of that name. It was situated approximately where Eastbourne District General Hospital and Sussex College now stand off Kings Drive.

In the Eastbourne Gazette of October 1933 a caption to a photo of cattle at Frowd’s Field reads that the area would no longer be available as a temporary aviation centre or for air rallies.

Another site discussed for a municipal aerodrome was the Crumbles waste single shoreland expanse to the east of the town close to where Frederick Fowler had established his Eastbourne Aviation Company and Flying School to furnish World War One naval contracts.

The Eastbourne Aviation Co was established by Major Bernard Fowler in 1909 on land beteween Eastbourne and Pevensey Bay.

His original airfield lies under the present day industrial estate near the residential area around St Anthony’s Mount.

In nearby Leeds Avenue, an original Royal Naval Air Service single storey guardhouse is extant from this enterprise and is converted to a private home named The Bungalow.

To be continued.

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