RAF Hornchurch: Visit The Fascinating Museum Of This East London Airfield

Tony Philpot, chairman of the Hornchurch Aerodrome Historical Trust. Image: Londonist

In Hornchurch, east London, sits the site of an airfield that played a vital role in two world wars, and was still operating in the 1960s during the era of the jet plane. From the end of the 1970s, the late Ted Exall began salvaging objects and stories from the airfield, for what would become the RAF Hornchurch Heritage Centre. Tony Philpot now continues that legacy; he showed us around the fascinating RAF Hornchurch Heritage Centre, picking out some favourite pieces and stories.

It started on a farm

Pilots of No. 611 Squadron walk away from a Supermarine Spitfire Mk V at Hornchurch after a daylight sweep over France, 7 July 1941. Image: public domain

Like many airbases, RAF Hornchurch started out life not long after Britain entered the Great War. From 1915, fleets of German airships started raining down bombs on the east coast, and soon, on London itself. A defensive ring — London Air Defence Area — was formed around the capital with the creation of various airfields, and one of these was at Sutton’s Farm in Hornchurch. Indeed, for the duration of its time in the first world war, the base was known as Sutton’s Farm. “Biggin Hill was important — it just wasn’t as important as us!” says Philpot, “We were in that front line 12 miles from London.”

The three Zep Wreckers

A painting depicting William Leefe Robinson shooting down the Schütte-Lanz SL 11. Image: Londonist

This was a farm to be reckoned with though. Early on, German airships proved difficult to shoot down, but three fighter pilots at RAF Hornchurch became the first to get scalps. The first of all was William Leefe Robinson, who downed the Schütte-Lanz SL 11 over Cuffley on the night of 2/3 September 1916 (see the painting above). The news was met by the British public with unbridled joy; postcards were printed of the flaming airship, special trains were put on to go and see the wreckage, and souvenir items such as heart-shaped pendants (one of which is on display in the museum) were made from the downed craft.

A heart-shaped locket made from the wreckage of the first German airship to be downed. Image: Londonist

Robinson became the first Royal Flying Corps officer to get a Victoria Cross, but was uncomfortable with his sudden stardom. It didn’t help him in the long run either; he was later shot down by the Germans, and treated badly as a prisoner because of his standing. Soon after Robinson’s hit, Lieutenant Frederick Sowrey and Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest — both based at Sutton’s Farm — took out two more airships, and suddenly these beasts of the sky didn’t seem so invincible. Together, the three men became known as the Zep Wreckers.

A fireplace with stories to tell

“The stories it could tell…” Image: Londonist

Seemingly small from the outside, the museum contains a warren of rooms stuffed with fascinating artefacts, and you can easily spend a few hours here. One especially interesting room has been fitted with the fireplace from the old officer’s mess. Salvaged in the mid-1980s, and kept in various sheds and garages since, the fireplace is now restored to its former glory, scattered with various bits and pieces that speak to its former life: a pipe, a pint, a bus map: “If that could talk,” says Philpot, “the stories it could tell of those people that once stood up against it, and left their drinks there and may never have returned…”. When runways numbers two and three were added to the airfield, the Good Intent pub was inadvertently ‘trapped’ inside it — and though the boozer was technically out of bounds to pilots, Philpot reckons a few clandestine pints were sunk here during some of the country’s darkest hours. The pub, as it happens, was where Ted Exall later saved lots of old pieces from the airfield, which were being thrown into a skip.

The Great Escape link

Men involved in the real life ‘Great Escape’ served at RAF Hornchurch. Image: Londonist

Chances are you’ve seen The Great Escape, or at least part of it, on the telly on Boxing Day afternoon. Steve McQueen’s character is based on William Tex Ash, who served at Hornchurch, and had the brilliant book, Under the Wire, written about him. Richard Attenborough’s character in that film, Big X — who orchestrates the escape from a Nazi prison camp — is based on squadron leader, Roger Bushell, who served at RAF Hornchurch in the second world war. Bushell was also instrumental in another key moment in Hornchurch’s history. The Battle of Barking Creek — which saw the first incident of friendly fire in this country, and the first death of a British fighter pilot in the second world war — ended with the court martial of John Freeborn and Paddy Byrne, despite the fact they had been following orders. Bushell fought successfully to get them off the charge.

Creation of a cartoon character

Percy Prune was created at Hornchurch. Image: Londonist

Most fighter pilots, let’s not forget, were young and wet behind the ears. As part of their training, a hapless cartoon character, Percy Prune was illustrated by Bill Hooper, who was stationed at Hornchurch with 54 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. “It was ‘this is how you shouldn’t do it'”, says Tony Philpot, “Everything he did was wrong.” Original Percy Prune cartoons are on display in the museum.

Celebrating diversity

Image: public domain

Men from 17 different nationalities were in service at Hornchurch, and many are honoured in the displays — including the Jamaican-American Lincoln Lynch, who went to to become a prominent civil rights activist in the United States. The heroic efforts of women are well covered too; in particular there’s a great display on the ‘ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) girls’ who could single-handedly fly bombers usually crewed by seven men from point A to B using nothing but a map and a compass. They’d show up on an airfield, says Philpot, and people would want to know where the pilot was. It sometimes took some convincing to show that the only person behind the joystick had indeed been an ATA girl.

A heroic gesture

Hero Raimund Sanders Draper — pictured here on the left, with his mother and brother. Image: public domain

On 24 March 1943, the 29-year-old Raimund Sanders Draper was taking off from Hornchurch in his Spitfire, got up to about 300 feet then started suffering from engine trouble. “He is unable to turn back,” says Tony Philpot, “and the open space is in front of a school.” Draper sacrificed his own life to save those of the children of Suttons School, by plunging his plane into the ground before it could hit the school. His logbook is on display in the museum, and every 24 March, it’s opened up on ‘Sanders Day’, when a special service is still held in the pilot’s honour. The school is now called Sanders School. Recently, a 92-year-old lady visited the museum — she’d been one of the girls in that school on the day of the tragedy.

Famous Alumni

Members of the Guinea Pig club were at Hornchurch. Image: Londonist

A number of people who passed through Hornchurch went on to achieve fame of some sort. In the field of conflict, this included Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the man who’d go on to orchestrate the destruction of Dresden during the second world war — and Richard Hilary and Eric Lock, members of the Guinea Pig Club — created for those who were undergoing pioneering plastic surgery following life-changing disfigurement in the field of conflict. Others who served at Hornchurch include the comedians Max Bygraves and Ronnie Corbett. “He did look rather out of place with his long greatcoat almost touching the ground,” remembers one of Corbett’s peers.

Crockery from a blitz dumping ground

Rubble from the Blitz. Image: Londonist

Philpot used to find lots of broken ceramics near Dover’s Corner in Rainham, and began collecting some of it in a carrier bag. There are shards of plates, glass bottles, teaware — even the tiny porcelain likeness of a baby. Speaking to a former pilot from Upminster, Philpot realised why he was discovering so much of this stuff  on this particular spot— this was the site of one of the huge holes dug in east London, into which debris from the Blitz was shovelled. “Now suddenly it isn’t just pieces of broken crockery is it?” says Philpot.

The defences around the ground

One you’ve visited the museum, roam the surrounding countryside to discover more clues to the area’s past. Image: Londonist

The museum, of course, is just one small part of the old airfield. Take a wander outside, and there are plenty of other traces of it; in the grassy area immediately to the south of the museum, some old paving from the aerodrome, as well as slit trenches (often hidden in the long grass) can be seen. A little further afield, in Hornchurch Country Park, there’s a smattering of pill boxes, tett turrets and the remains of a first world war battleship gun — once used to defend RAF Hornchurch.

Other things to look out for

An area of the museum focuses on civilian life during the second world war, with Tony Philpot saying that the nostalgic aspect is particularly powerful for older visitors. Image: Londonist
A 90 gallon slipper tank, which would be fitted to the underside of a Spitfire, to give it an extra 90 minutes flying time. “Some guy came around, opened up the back of his van to reveal that,” says Philpot, “Oh God, what are we going to do with that?!” Image: Londonist
A space at the back of the museum holds more objects such as this searchlight. Image: Londonist
The Battle of Britain is another wartime film that gets a display in the museum. Image: Londonist
The old airfield is a veritable treasure trove. One of Philpot’s favourite finds is the old cardboard cigarette token (at the front), which he didn’t even realise was a thing until it was discovered. Image: Londonist
Philpot likes to show this gas mask to school groups. Before this, he says, you’d have to wee on a cloth and hold that over your mouth to protect yourself from mustard gas. “I ask them which they’d prefer and they have to think about it.” Image: Londonist
Even the staircases are covered in interesting artefacts. Image: Londonist
An old ejector seat — Hornchurch hosted jet planes in its later days, although one CO hated them, says Philpot, because the jets “burnt his grass”. Image: Londonist

RAF Hornchurch Heritage Centre is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday from 11am-6pm. Adult tickets cost £5, children £2.50 and family tickets are also available.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe Now and get 5% discount on your first Booking