Former Miles Aircraft Factory, Woodley

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.

Woodley Airfield in 1931, courtesy English Heritage.

FG Miles

Receiving congratulations after a successful test flight, F G Miles is the one on the tarmac with the rather large grin on his face.

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.

An advert for the Miles Hawk Major

An advert for the Miles Hawk Major

Pilot Malcolm Lawry stops at Woodley on Tuesday the 26th September 1933.

Pilot Malcolm Lawry stops at Woodley, at Reading’s ‘Aero Garage’ on Tuesday the 26th September 1933. In those days it was fashionable to fly from airfield to airfield stopping for brandy and cocktails.

Miles Factory 1938

Woodley Airfield and the Miles Factory (top left) in 1938

Miles Factory 1945

The Miles Factory in 1945. Note the camouflage paint on the main buildings. Woodley Scout hut is in the foreground, behind the sewage works.

A Miles Riveter at work in 1944

A Miles Riveter at work in 1944

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.

Miles M.39B Libellula

Miles M.39B Libellula

miles_m-52

Miles M.52 Airframe.

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.

Woodley Shelter

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.

Shelter Tunnel

Miles Demo 2

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.

Miles Demo 4

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.

Miles Demo 3

Miles Demo 1

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.

Factory Space Night

Warehouse 2

Rooftops

More Offices

Warehouse
Office

Theatre Stores

Retro Blue

Factory Space

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.

Linpak Loading Bay

Cash Book

Cupboards

Aerosol Shop

Linpac Remains

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.

Cash Office

Note Bands

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.

Office Corridor

Wages Office

Machinery

Corridors

Canteen

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.

Paintball Zone

Exterior 4

Exterior 2


Thanks for the corrections on Bader’s crash, guys.

39 Comments on “Former Miles Aircraft Factory, Woodley

  1. What a well put together site with plenty of information and excellent photos which have been captured just in time by the looks of it. Living not very far away I’d always wondered about the site and associated airfield.

    Well Done
    GeoffW

  2. I too have driven past the old buildings many times, often stopping to take a look from the road and trying to imagine the bye gone days. Thank you very much for your interesting article and photographs. Sadly less and less remains, last Sunday I saw huge piles of rubble and very little of some of the original buildings.
    Richard

    • As a boy I remember the aerodrome. Many learnt to drive there after it ceased to operate. My mother worked in the Serpells factory at the bottom of Liverpool Road down in Reading and machines were moved ( secretly I imagine ) to the aerodrome not far way to be tested. This would have been in the early 40s as my mother died at aged 42 in 1946 when I was 6. I did live in Woodley for awhile but am still not far away in Earley so often past along Bader Way and through what is now the Woodley estate.

      • Re Serpell’s factory in Liverpool Rd, it was one of many Miles Aircraft subsidiary factories scattered around the area. Most of the work there was on components such as cockpit canopies. There was also a ‘training school’ there for draughtswomen organised by Blossom Miles. There were one or two instances when aircraft were designed and built there away from the prying eyes of Inspectors of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Most notably were the prototype M 39 and the Aerovan.

  3. We totally agree, it is such a shame that nothing is done to preserve the local history. Even the pillbox, close to the museum is overgrown and almost hidden. Not exactly a priceless relic but still part of our heritage and something that can be visually explained to local children.

  4. Not quite correct. Douglas Bader was flying a Bristol Bulldog when he crashed at Woodley on 14th December 1931. He was performing low level aerobatics (possibly for a dare) when his left wingtip caught the ground during a slow roll.

    • Douglas Bader did not attempt his low-level slow-roll as a ‘dare’. He was already a vastly experienced aerobatic pilot and had no need to ‘prove’ anything. Yes he made a mistake and afterwards admitted that he was angry at something said by someone in the Reading Aero Club before he took off.

  5. hi ave looked quickly at what you have done will return later when i have more time.i live in Woodley and pass the site every day for work my interest is in old tractors i currently own a 1951 tractor which i have been told may have been sold through a dealership based on Woodley airfield they may of been called Gardners. do you know anything about them?

  6. Douglas Bader did not lose his legs after crashing a Hurricane. He was flying a Bristol Bulldog out of Reading Aerodrome in December 1931 when he turned back to perform a low-level slow roll and crashed. He was taken to the Royal Berkshire Hospital where his legs were amputated. The hospital currently has a small memorial display about Douglas Bader, including my own painting ‘Bader’s Bad Show’.

  7. I stumbled over your site whilst looking for old aerial photo imagery of Woodley. I’ve lived in Woodley less than 20 years, so a newcomer really, but am fascinated by the history of the area.
    You have done a great job of documenting the end of the era of Miles’ factory and it will prove a valuable resource for the future. Many thanks.

    • Any relation to the one-time dwellers in Eleven Elms Cottage?

    • Hi, I was looking through this site and saw your post. I was wondering if you found any good aerial photos. I am interested to see high level strategic photos of the airfield and wider Woodley as well as photos around the airfield from lower level, to be able to see the growth and progress of the area.
      Thanks

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  9. The caption to the photograph with”FG Miles in the foreground with a big grin having carried out a test flight” is totally wrong. For a start, the gentleman in question is certainly not FG Miles. The photograph, which is included in my book, ‘Brushes with Aviation’, shows Sir Alan Cobham in the cockpit of his de Havilland biplane talking to passengers about to enjoy a 5-shilling flight during a visit of the ‘Cobham Flying Circus’ , which came to Woodley three times between 1929 and 1932.

  10. Pingback: The fascinating hidden history of Woodley | Liberal Burblings

  11. I am moving into a new house on Messenger Rd on Addington estate. Both of us are ex airforce so I was keen to research the new road name. I assume we will be living on the actual factory site??

    I’d like to see a map of old airfield along side a contemporary map.

  12. The story of Douglas Bader, including his crash at Woodley, is told in the 1957 film “Reach for the Sky”

  13. Fascinating! I lived next to the airfield from 1970 – 1984, it was my playground. As a young lad the Second World War was one of my favourite interests. Nostalgic site, thank you for the excellent info, site and research!

  14. My mum and her family lived in Woodley during the Second World War and she worked at the Miles Aircraft factory. She has fond memories of Mr. miles and his wife Blossom.

  15. I did a flying instructors course whilst I was in the RAF. I was twenty-two at the time. Now I am ninety-four and living in Auckland, New Zealand. Doug. Sidwell.

  16. I have got a lot of personal memories of the old Woodley airfield having moved too woodley in 1966. Spent what must amount to hundreds of hours over the years as a boy searching round the old builders even climbed the old water tower next to one of the T2 hangers for a view of the entire site well worth the climb, when I was old enough spent many an evening in the old Falcon pub though sadly never got too look round the rest of the building.

    Over the years I have visited many old war time airfields its a shame that Google Earth & Controltowers.com were not about in my early days of researching and finding old airfields would of made life a lot easier,my interest in Aviation started with Spitfire TE476 as a gate guard ar the former A40 entrance to RAF Northolt & PK624 before which is now awaiting restoration at Duxford.

    I intend in the not so far distant future making an effort to start drawing again and see if I can do a number of detailed drawings of how I remember seeing the old airfield as I saw it as a kid.

  17. Hi, I live close to ‘the Airfield’ and I am interested in the history of it as a training school for RAF pilots during WW2.
    I have been reading ‘Spitfire’ by Jeffrey Quill and he describes an accident in April 1942, on page 244, where Johnnie Wakefield a FAA pilot was being used by Supermarine to test Spitfire 1v’s produced in the Reading area, and while taking off from ‘a small grass airfield near Henley’ crashed to avoid a collision with a Magister, which was taking off at the same time.
    If anyone can confirm that this was Woodley, or put forward an alternative field I would be very interested.
    Thanks

  18. Hi
    I run the 2nd Woodley Scout Group which is on the old airfield site

    We would be interested to know what our Scout Hall was used for in its original state

    Can anybody help please?

  19. Hi, I just found your site whilst I was researching family history. I was born in Woodley in the 1950s and lived there for ten years. My Dad worked for Miles in the 30s/40s as an aircraft engineer superintendant and knew Miles quite well. He also had a sideline doing joyrides. He helped Bader with some adaptations to his plane after he crashed it. All documented in his memoir. I know we have to let go of the past and progress has to happen but it’s very sad to see Miles Aircraft buildings were demolished without any fanfare. Very sad indeed.

    Thank you for detailing this, your work is brilliant and much appreciated.

  20. Fantastic article, well done. Love the photos and historical background. Terrible that we are losing one of these historic airfields to developers every couple of months in the UK. There doesn’t seem to be any appetite to save and preserve our aviation history in the UK. Very sad.

  21. I came across this page by chance while I was looking for something else, and it brought memories of my youth.
    I started work in 1942 at the age o4 14 at Phillips an Powis. It was changed to Miles Aircraft later that year. I worked in the maintenance department as an electrician’s mate. This was a marvellous opportunity to be working in every part of the factory including the experimental department. At Christmas there was a big party for all the employees,
    held in the flight shed on Christmas eve, with music from the works dance band .

    At Christmas there was a big party for all the employees,
    held in the flight shed on Christmas eve, with music from the works dance band .

    I volunteered for the company’s civil defence group as a messenger. This was in case the telephone system failed in an invasion of the country, we would take messages to different parts of the factory.
    When the maiden flight of a new plane was due, people would leave their jobs to come out to watch. I saw the first flights of the Marathon, aero van and the libellula. It was a shock seeing a panel fall off the Marathon.

    The first Biro ball pens were made at Woodley. These were made in the air raid shelters. I was involved installing light and power.
    These were sold in Reading for 55 shillings which was double my weakly pay.
    I left Miles in 1946 when I was Conscripted in the army.

    • I too left School at 14 at started at Woodley on August 14th in the Apprentice School
      Then it’s Fitting Shop then Repair And Service working on Spitfires
      Left in 1946 when I volunteered for the RAF at eighteen
      I too remember the Christmas Parties in the Flight Shed.
      I also was in the Civil Defence Corp and remember we slept in ARP HQ once a month on the Saturday night with a Film show in the Canteen after supper
      It was Philip and Powis when I started and they used to put on a show at the Palace Theatre in Cheap called the Pep and Personality show wth talent from the Factory including Felix Bowness who worked in Experimental Shop what great days they were!

  22. I moved to Woodley about 1961, ideal for my Dad as he worked for HP at Woodley, and previously for both Miles and Biro. HP promptly closed so off Dad went to work at Bracknell.
    I was an apprentice at H B & S in Southampton Street and at the end of my time I got a job at Marrick, later Blewis & Shaw, the plastic bottle company on the airfield. Marrick was a joint venture by ICI, Metal Closures of West Brom, and the Mar bit came from entrepeneur Fred Marzillier. The design office was upstairs in the flying school, which I oddly recall had a cork floor.
    There was an associated engineering company next door making the moulding machines and tooling, called C Adams. They also serviced turbine blade grinding machines of their own design. When Adams closed some of the staff set up a workshop in the old windtunnel by the perimeter road.
    I finally left in ’71.
    I recall drinking & playing darts in the Falcon, chasing rabbits on the airfield with an old car at night.
    I wonder what

    • Has any one any information on the Wind Tunnel – it was the very first supersonic wind tunnel (and in private hands).
      I have heard it was demolished in the 70s by a local builder and took weeks – it was very solidly built.

  23. I was looking at a road map and noticed the words ‘Berkshire Aviation’ next to Woodley. It got me wondering if there was anything left of the old airfield as I remembered that a lot of it had been built on. I can remember driving past LinPac and Adwest Engineering in my younger days. I used to live in Maidenhead and my greatest memories of aviation (apart from being directly under Concorde’s flight path) were those of witnessing the sights and sounds of the Fairey Rotodyne undergoing flight tests at White Waltham. Although we lived miles away from the airfield, I could hear it even when they were doing static tests.
    It was while doing a search for Woodley Airfield that I found your site and stopped to take a look. Thank you for creating such an informative website with some wonderful pictures.

  24. I was born in Woodley in 1941 and remember the Miles factory very well. My aunt, May Hogg worked on the production line. Memories included playing in a downed German bomber that sat on the outfield, seeing the Aerovan take off and later in the late fifties cutting the airfield for hay and dodge ing the HP Herald Shan it occasionally took off. We flew a whit flag from the tractor to make ourselves visible.

  25. My mother worked at Miles Aircraft in the early 1940’s. (Joan (Betty) Isaac). She had no experience of assembley work (she wanted to have a job helping with the war effort) but from day one was sat down at a factory work bench, given a diagram and told just to get on with it! She made the components for the trainer planes, as she termed it, for the trainee pilots for WWII. She said that their Foreman at that time was quite harsh. When the war was over the factory became the Biro Factory where she carried on working for a short while. Another lady I befriended in the 1970’s also worked at Miles Aircraft, where she met her husband. Eileen and Jim East.

    June Pockett

  26. My father, Bill McNab, may have been a draughtsman at one time at HP and/or Adwest. It all sounds familiar. Such an interesting site.

  27. Thank you for this really informative and interesting article. I was born in Woodley and in my youth drove past these buildings innumerable times. It’s sad to see buildings such as these (given their history) fall into such disrepair and eventually make way for housing estates – I guess they call this progress. However your fantastic article provides a permanent record of what was once an important feature in this area.

    Kevin

  28. Further to my comment on Miles Aircraft on May 17 2016.

    The Company had a brass band, which practiced Thursday evening. A request appeared on the notice boards asking for employees if they would like
    to join the band. Four people applied including me. I was the youngest volunteer at 16.
    I was hoping to learn to play a cornet, because it was easy to carry, but my lips were not considered suitable. I was offered the Euphonium.
    After a couple of months practice, I was invited to join the band.

    The busiest was in the summer. We played on Sunday afternoons and evenings at various locations around Reading, including Forbury Gardens. We were always available for church parades and services.

    I am not sure which year it was, probably 1945 that Miles held a summer fete. Families were invited to come. There were sideshows, athletic events and the band playing all the afternoon.

    I will always remember that day.

  29. My father Reg Newport worked for Miles Aircraft during the war. His occupation on my birth certificate 1946 stated “pipe fitter at aircraft factory”. What that job entailed, I’ve no idea!