Before the early 1930’s Woodley was little more than a rural village on the outskirts of Reading, until Sandford Farm leased a 100 acre field to become the site of Woodley Aerodrome. The grass runways then became the site of an aircraft factory when a Reading based company, Philips and Powys moved across to the airfield. In 1932 a Frederick George Miles started working for the company as a technical manager and their chief designer. Miles and his wife eventually bought the business, and stamped the name of Miles aircraft Ltd upon it.
Miles had already designed some of P+P’s most successful airframes and his aircraft were mostly used as trainers by the Royal Air Force, such as the Master. Although his designs were never fully adopted by the military, he was famous for his alternative approaches to aircraft design. The RAF used Woodley airfield and it’s facilities as a training base and repair workshops. Despite this, it is not the military presence here that is significant, but the low key research and development which Miles and his team engaged in over the years. Many different materials were experimented with, the research of which was used by other designers in later projects, such as Mitchell’s use of a stressed aluminium skin on the famous Spitfire.
My favourite design has to be the M39B Libellula. A prototype developed after the Air Ministry issued the B.11/41 call for a fast bomber. Ultimately the design would have housed a pressurised cockpit and three turbojet engines but the experiments were made using either Rolls Royce Merlins or Bristol Hercules taking it up to an estimated 400 mph. Armed with twin 20mm cannon and a bomb bay in the fuselage it would have been quite a fearsome machine. Miles was granted a contract and continued to test the aircraft up until 1944 when the only prototype was taken in by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. It was badly damaged after two accidents and later scrapped with the cancellation of the full size bomber project which seems such a wasteful way to end the years of research that this unique aircraft had shared with the aviation world .
Miles’ research also included rockets and missiles including a remotely piloted bomber, the ‘Hoop-La’, which would carry it’s 1000lb payload over the enemy before dropping it and returning to base. Later research into supersonic aircraft at Woodley, saw the development of the M.52 which would have been the world’s first supersonic jet aircraft, travelling at 1000 mph.
The M.52 was near completion when the British Air Ministry ordered the cancellation of the project. Miles was forced to hand the data and prototypes over the Bell Corporation, which later resulted in the rocket powered Bell X-1. This sad twist of fate allowed America to be the first to claim they had broken the sound barrier although to be fair their aircraft had already undergone significant development by the time they received Miles’ research. The M.52’s key contribution to the X-1 and supersonic flight as a whole was the design of the variable-incidence tail, where the whole tailplane moves to control the pitch of the aircraft. This design, or a delta wing would be present on all supersonic aircraft thereafter. A prototype model of the M.52 still exists at Woodley Airfield Museum which makes for an interesting afternoon if you take an interest, it’s very surprising to realise how much world class development went on here, in rural Berkshire, making Miles appear quite the genius.
Miles’ research and production was not just restricted to aviation. A ‘copy cat’ photo copying machine was produced at Woodley, towards the end of the company’s life, this proved one of it’s greatest successes. Miles also gained sole manufacturing and distribution rights of the ball point pen outside of the US. The profits of the biro were 50% up on the profits of Miles’ aircraft production in 1946 at £150,000, growing to over three million pounds per year past 1947. This extra income undoubtedly helped finance much of the post war research at the site, but the company found it difficult to adjust to the production of civil aircraft. Payments for many orders were outstanding, the government’s ‘excess profit tax’ prevented arms dealers from profiteering in weapons sales and the company eventually went under in 1948. Handley Page purchased the business and continued to produce their own aircraft in Woodley right up until spring 1963 when the land lease expired. The site was then developed into a housing estate.
Very little remains of the airfield today but it’s presence is engrained in the area. The estate is mostly enclosed by the original perimeter track which is now Mohawk way. The other roads on the estate all have aviation inspired names such as Hurricane Way, Catalina Close, The Bader Way, Sunderland Close etc. The control tower became the Falcon night club on Headley Road and by this time the building had plenty of stories to tell. This later burned down in the 70’s and was bulldozed to the ground.
Woodley Airfield is known for being the site of a tragic accident during world war two, when the fighter ace Douglas Bader lost his legs during a forced landing in a Bristol Bulldog.* Bader famously went on to fly again, claiming the lives of more Luftwaffe aircrew in retribution.
Of the buildings built during the war, very little exists. The local scout hut is the only example and although built as a temporary structure, it is maintained well. Several of the airfield’s defence structures are extant, with three pillboxes on the eastern perimeter of the field. These are of standard Air Ministry design, now used to house bats. The Battle Headquarters lies sealed under a mound of earth on Hurricane Way, it’s current condition unknown. This was apparently only ever a converted air raid shelter, of which one sole example does remain. This is a more substantial structure than most shelters in the area and a design I have not seen before. It is of a brick construction and in very good condition. It lies hidden in the bushes, next to a well used country lane. There is a ruined blast wall outside, and inside are the rotted remains of wooden seating on the floor with a very good escape tunnel to the rear. The ground above the tunnel has sunk about a metre, crushing the corrugated steel and wooden lining but it’s course is still just visible.
Despite being such a well known area in Reading’s history as a whole, many are unaware that although the airfield itself was demolished in the 1960’s, the main Miles factory still stands… Just about. Post war aerial imagery shows the huge warehouses very much as they are on more recent imagery and back then the Eastern building had the giant white lettering ‘Reading – Miles Aircraft’ across it’s roof. Part of the vast building appears to have it’s wartime olive green paint on the side but other parts show a bitumen coating to the asbestos cladding. Near the gatehouse, tucked behind a small hut and thus out of sight is the loophole for a machine gun emplacement, intended to fire on the entrance in the event of attack.
Unfortunately the demolition team have quite literally moved in. A small village of porta-cabins contains 24 hour security and the team have already cleared most of the buildings. The large Eastern factory unit has lost it’s roof and part of a side wall, two weeks into the process.
It’s a great shame to see the once proud factory in it’s dying days, especially when the local newspapers only refer to the demolition in their articles as the ‘Linpac buildings’, as if to let it go without giving anyone the opportunity to make a fuss. I’m not about to to sit back and let something this historically significant slide away without giving it a good try though so I made sure I got to see the factory quite a few times, long before the demolition team moved in.
Some of the factory buildings, after the departure of Handley Page, were bought by Adwest, an engineering company who still operate from the western side of the site. My father remembers working on the production lines in his youth when the factory was filled with lathes and other machinery.
Other parts of the site was then used by Linpac, a metal sheeting company that produces all manners of metal boxes. After this the large site was used by many different businesses and now houses the remains of all sorts, from pet food suppliers to distribution companies and even a theatre. it has areas with secure vaults containing piles of money bags (of course they’re empty) and some dusty electronic note counters.
The final days of the ageing factory saw much of it used as a paintball site which means it is only heading in one direction, down. The many holes in the walls suggested the Demolition teams had conducted their surveys of the buildings and were readying to pull them to the ground, to fulfil the encroachment of the surrounding housing estate once and for all.
I agree the factory was a bit far gone but it really is sad to see it abandoned with such disregard to it’s fascinating history, especially with so few realising that it was even still there. It is this that makes me very pleased to have finally had the opportunity to explore and document the site in it’s final dying days. I have spent the last thirty years driving past thinking about what happened under it’s huge asbestos roofs. The paintballers had their way and so did the vandals it would seem. There was still plenty to occupy the eyes inside, but very little remained from it’s aviation days. Despite this, it is easy to imagine scores of aircraft lined up on the assembly lines inside the massive halls. It isn’t original but the duck egg blue paint on the walls helps evoke a nineteen thirties, aeronautical feel if you can ignore the luminous splatters across it.
Thanks for the corrections on Bader’s crash, guys.