A new Airport for Jersey in 1937

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The first architects' plans for the airport

This article is based on the text of the official 50th anniversary book on Jersey Airport - Jersey Airport the first 50 years, by Chris Lake

Just as they had been the driving force behind the construction of a harbour in St Helier to meet the island's trading needs over a century earlier, it was the Jersey Chamber of Commerce which was pressing for the building of a proper airport even before Jersey Airways started developing routes from the beach in St Aubin's Bay to England in the mid-1930s:

Chamber pressure

The president, W G Bellingham, and secretary, E F Guiton, took an early interest in developments in aviation and as early as 1919 foresaw the potential to bring post, newspapers, passengers and freight to the island, and to export produce to the UK markets. They wrote constantly to the UK Government and fledgling airlines trying to get them to instigate a service to the island and petitioned the Postmaster General to send mail to the island by air.

His reply in 1921 was lukewarm - if a private company would provide regular flights, he would consider entrusting them with carrying mail.

The main UK airline at the time, Imperial Airways, announced in 1928 that they would introduce flights between Jersey and Southampton, but nothing happened because the airline found that they could make more money by restricting their aircraft to longer routes.

By 1930 the Chamber was convinced that the only answer to persuading airlines to fly to Jersey was to build an airport for them. In October 1932 L M J Balfour, a representative of Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Company, visited Jersey and looked at potential sites, including Les Quennevais, Blanches Banques, Les Landes, Les Platons, Mont de La Mare and a site near St Peter's Barracks.

The choice was eventually narrowed down to the final two and Balfour and the Chamber jointly approached the Parish of St Peter for their thoughts, and the reaction of the owners of the land which would be needed. Talks progressed, and the suggestion that landowners would be compensated at £80 a vergée - almost enough to buy a small cottage at the time - was enough to tempt all but four of 39 landowners.

It was clear that only the States could initiate a project involving the acquisition of large tracts of land and the first proposals were put to them on 23 March 1933 and referred to the Piers and Harbours Committee.

The original design for the airport terminal and two hangars

Cost

"When the Jersey Chamber of Commerce submitted their airport plans to the Piers and Harbours Committee, one of the most important factors that had to be taken into account was cost. It had been reckoned that the area needed for the Airport was about 70 fields (145 vergées; 64 acres). After every landowner had been contacted, for a second time, it was reckoned that land could be bought at between £80 and £140 a vergée. In all the Chamber were told the 145 vergées would cost £12,987 5s."

Total costs of £19,000 were summarised as £14,000 for land, £3,000 for surfacing and £2,000 for a hangar, soon revised upwards to £30,000. Even at that level, as the States and Chamber discussed ways of getting their money back, perhaps by leasing it to an existing aviation company, no account had been taken of a terminal building, customs facilities, ambulance services, fire engines, warning lights and approach roads. Perhaps it was because the beach service had been operated with a couple of old coaches used as ticket office and waiting room, and there was no danger of these being washed out to sea from the St Peter airport site.

Even before plans were drawn up, the success of Jersey Airways' beach airfield was directing thoughts to what would happen if the airport being planned turned out not to be big enough?

"On 3 April 1934 the joint committee's proposals were placed before the States and accepted. In presenting the Bill, Jurat Guy de Gruchy, president of the Piers and Harbours Committee, told the island government that if they wanted an Airport, they must act quickly and, to their credit, most States Members, realising how important air travel had become, agreed."

"Bottomless pit of financial worries"

But Deputy Edward Le Quesne sounded a cautionary note. He wanted the States to buy the land but leave the Airport development to private enterprise. He feared that the island was "stumbling into a horrendous, bottomless pit of financial worries" and as time went by, these fears seemed justified.

In February 1935 £2,200 was voted for the purchase of more land; in October £700 was voted for a wireless service; and later that month a £17,000 loan was approved so that building work could continue. Nobody would tender for the contract based on the estimates already put forward. The following month £27,000 was voted to continue the work and provide floodlighting and the following year another £7,000 was requested.

Opposition was growing to the project, and the Evening Post was particularly critical.

By February 1936 another loan of £30,000 was requested for items which "had not been contemplated", bringing the total voted so far to £127,000.

"de Gruchy felt that this would be sufficient to complete the Airport (which was true) althoughhe had to return a few months later to ask for more money for a direction finder and another 21 vergees of land to put it on."

It seems remarkable that those given responsibility for producing an Airport for the island were so naive about what was involved, and everything that was needed, but these were times when the States did not summon outside consultants to manage every project that was slightly beyond their collective experience.

By now the Airport was nearly finished and ready to take air traffic, although the eventual cost of in the region of £127,000 had to be put in context against total expenditure for all States projects and salaries in 1936 of £391,829.

Even as the wife of Bailiff Alexander Coutanche performed the official opening ceremony on 10 March 1937, the Evening Post was attacking "this costly albatross" and asking why only a few carefully-chosen guests had been permitted to attend the opening ceremony of an airport which had been paid for by all islanders.

Statistics

"When the airport was first built, in 1937, it was based on 218 vergées of land (97 acres), the landing area alone being 77 acres. There were four flightways which provided potential landings in eight directions:
North-South (258 yeards)
Northeast-Southwest (720 yards)
Southeast-Northwest (720 yards)
East-west (980 yards with a white concrete centre line)
"The building work had cost £98,000 and the initial modest plans for one hangar (220 feet by 100 ft) had been altered to allow a second hangar to be built. The terminal building had been designed by architect Graham Dawbarn. The fourth floor housed the control and wireless rooms, the third floor was for the meteorological men, the second floor contained a restaurant and terraces. Access to the 'ample space of the first floor promenade' was obtained direct from the forecourt where deck chairs 'together with the services of a snack counter' were provided.
"The main space in the building, however, was at ground level, and extended to either side of the main control block 'in the same manner as the wings of a swallow in flight' so that in the future, if necessary, extensions could be added."
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