High Jinks Over Billesley
Richard Cobb dons his ear muffs and reflects on Billesley Common' s links with aviation
Most ex-Moseley students from the Yardley Wood and Billesley area will well know or remember Billesley Common which remains today a major stretch of public recreation space in that part of South Birmingham. Billesley is an Anglo-Saxon place name meaning Bill's clearing, although it is not thought that anyone was called Bill in that period and the word probably originates from a 'beak' or 'bile' (sword) shaped mound or hill.
Today as well as having numerous sports pitches it is also home to Moseley Rugby Football Club who moved there to lease part of the common from Birmingham City Council for their pitches and clubhouse. Their ground has a seating capacity of around 5,000, with a new stand and clubhouse. There is also an Indoor Tennis Centre and Gym on the Common.
But turn back the clock to before World War 1 and it seems that Billesley Farm on the western edge of the Common along with the Yardley Wood side of the Common were both used as a civil airfield for early general aviation.
In 1911 the Birmingham Aero Club used Billesley Farm mainly at weekends where they flew a glider and several models. A contemporary account from a club member published in Flight describes how, in order to launch the glider, a wind of about 30 mph was required. A group of six very fit men reportedly then towed the glider running at 6 to 7mph in order to keep it airborne at a height of about 25 feet.
The airfield, which was never more than a grass surface, was not used for any military purposes during WW1, but in November 1919 what was then called Billesley aerodrome was listed as suitable for use by Avro 504Ks and similar aircraft.
Stories suggest that it was then used by Berkshire Aviation Co for their 'Flying Circus' in October 1920. which might possibly have been the last use of the site at that time.
The moated Billesley Farm and fields around situated between where Billesley School is now and to the east of Yardley Wood Road had been bought by Birmingham City Council in 1919 and the farm buildings were demolished in 1923. The City Council went on to build over 3500 municipal houses on the land in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Nevertheless, despite housing being built around the edges, much of the Common to the west of Yardley Wood Road remained and some locals suggest that flying might well have continued there into the late 1920s.
Before Elmdon Airport opened in 1939, Castle Bromwich airfield was the focus for aviation in Birmingham, having first been used in 1909 and later by the Midland Aero Club. Castle Bromwich was requisitioned in 1914 for the Royal Flying Corps, and later RAF squadrons during WW1. Imperial Airways used it for flights from London and it was a staging post in the Kings Cup Air Races and held air displays, but Castle Bromwich has not considered suitable for scheduled passenger flights and hence along came Elmdon.
But flying from Billesley Common did not end in 1930. Although it was not turned into a fighter airfield in WW2, the Common has been used on several occasions from 1947 to 1970 for flying. It seems that in July 1970 the 'Blue Eagles' display team using Sioux helicopters performed there.
And in 1973 many may remember a much larger 'Meet the RAF' show held over a week in August. That sort of event had been held around the seaside resorts up to then – but it was amazing that it turned up inland that year.
Static displays alongside a Harrier jump jet and Whirlwind helicopters taking off and landing attracted vast crowds and it was free! With flypasts of the then Red Arrows in Jet Provosts, a Harrier jump jet, a Spitfire, roaring Vulcan bombers, and a Lightning fighter (none of which were quiet aircraft) and demonstrations on most days of the show, it was certainly designed as a recruiting event for the RAF. Noise regulations today might well have stopped the planes flying over the built-up suburbs of south Birmingham and stringent safety at air shows has come along since, but low-level flying over the crowds back then seems to be remembered by many.
We would love to see a copy of the Evening Mail Supplement printed at the time if anyone still has a copy in the attic.
Many from that era at Moseley Grammar and Moseley Mixed Schools will remember going to the show or more likely seeing the aircraft flying over their homes that August in south Birmingham. Please send us any memories or photos you have.