Kenley Airfield is the best preserved RAF airfield of its period; 10 of its 12 'fighter pens' or Blast Bays remain in the Croydon section of the site. The land was part of Kenley Common, preserved in 1883 through acquisition by the Corporation of London. It was taken for the airfield in 1917 under the Defence of the Realm Act. After WWI the airfield was upgraded for the new RAF and later became an important facility during WWII. It remained an operational airfield until 1978. Although the core remains in Ministry of Defence ownership, substantial areas on the perimeter were transferred back to the Corporation and public access restored to the outer areas of the airfield.
The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/12/2008
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The site straddles the boundary of Croydon and Tandridge District Council and is a historic RAF airfield with associated buildings. In an English Heritage report of April 2000 the site is described as 'the most complete fighter airfield associated with the Battle of Britain to have survived'. The aerodrome is on land once part of Kenley Common, probably cleared of forest in prehistoric times and then likely to have been cultivated for crops and later used for grazing. In medieval times Kenley Common and Riddlesdown (q.v.) formed part of the waste land of the Manor of Watendone; the lord of the manor did not have exclusive use of this commonland, the Statute of Merton having guaranteed the rights of commoners in 1235 to the products of the soil, pasture for livestock, and gathering material for fuel, livestock bedding and roofing. However when the value of the land increased following the coming of the railway in the C19th, the then Lord of the Manor of Coulsdon, Edmund Byron, began enclosing and appropriating some 150 acres of land at Hartley Down. One neighbouring landowner, William Hall, refused to sell to Byron and eventually approached the Corporation of London with an offer to sell his land and commoners rights in the hopes that the Corporation would protect the land from further encroachment as it had done in Epping. As a result the Corporation negotiated with Byron for ownership of Kenley Common and in 1883 purchased 347 acres, which excluded the commonland already enclosed and sold to others. Riddlesdown and Kenley Common were acquired under the powers of the Corporation of London (Open Spaces) Act 1878 'for public recreation and enjoyment' and 'to preserve the natural aspect'.
In 1883 Kenley Common consisted of 70 acres, surrounded by land owned by George Cutt of Welcomes Farm and John Young who owned Kenley House (q.v.), both of whom had appropriated areas of the common. In the late C19th the common was used for grazing sheep by various landowners with or without grazing rights; the Common Keeper impounded sheep whose owners were without grazing rights. In 1891 an area was turned into a golf course, recalled in the name of Golf Road.
Land for an airfield was taken under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1917 and men of the Canadian Forestry Corps began felling trees and clearing scrub, after which the Royal Flying Corps took over the central area of Kenley Common as an 'aircraft acceptance park' where machines were made ready for service in France. Bylaws eventually restricted access by the public. By the end of the war, work had begun on a large hangar for Handley Page and Vickers Vimmy long-range bombers, completed in 1919. After the war the land was not handed back but the airfield was upgraded for the new Royal Air Force and Number 1 Squadron moved in, flying shuttle services for the Versailles peace conference. In return for the appropriation of 51 acres of commonland, the Corporation of London was given 61 acres of farmland to the east overlooking Whyteleafe; this land was adapted for public use in 1923-5, paid for by the Air Ministry and became part of the public open space in 1925 when it was officially handed over. No building was allowed on former commonland, which was to revert to the Corporation if no longer needed for military purposes; the airfield would not be used for civil aircraft and would be opened on public holidays: these arrangements were made official under the Air Ministry (Kenley Common Acquisition) Act 1922. In 1924 the airfield was upgraded to become an independent Station with its own commander, housing two squadrons. Further land acquisition took place in 1928 and the Corporation of London still has the option to purchase the land back at the market value for agricultural land when the airfield is no longer required for military purposes. Extensive rebuilding took place in 1932-4 when the Royal Air Force underwent major expansion, and the listed HQ and Officers' Mess buildings survive from this period. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding designated Kenley as one of the sector stations of Fighter Common's 11 group, and it was in the front line of national defence when war broke out in 1939. The airfield was further enlarged taking more public open space by Act of Parliament and by December 1939 the runways were extended to 800 yards and the perimeter track laid out to its present configuration. Woodland at the northern end of the runway was grubbed up or coppiced in 1939-40 to create more space for take off and landing; small trees overlooking the valley were coppiced and Local Defence volunteers dug trenches in 1940 and gun positions were established. All entrances to the Common were closed in 1940, remaining so until 1947/8 when the process of derequisitioning and restoration of the Common took place.
As a means of defending aircraft on the ground from air attack Dowding established the principle that fighter command stations should have dispersal zones for 3 squadrons of 12 aircraft each on which 'fighter pens' were built. The 'fighter pens' at Kenley were completed by 1940, when Kenley had become home to 3 fighter squadrons. During the Battle of Britain Kenley and its squadrons were continuously in the front line and suffered a number of raids. The airfield continued to be important up to VE Day and after WWII it was an operational airfield until 1978. The core of the airfield remains in Ministry of Defence ownership, as a detachment of RAF Uxbridge, attached to the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association in Greater London. No longer able to be used for powered flight, it is still used for gliding training by the RAF's 615 Squadron Volunteer Gliding School and by a private gliding club, the Surrey Hills Gliding Club.
Once it was closed for powered flight substantial areas on the perimeter were transferred to the Corporation of London and public access was restored to the outer areas of the airfield. Although it is regarded as the best reserved airfield of its period, Kenley has lost its WWI and WWII hangers, most of the barracks and residential buildings and other operational buildings. However it retains 11 of its 12 original fighter pens, 10 of which are within Croydon. The listed Officers Mess and NAAFI buildings are within Tandridge. Within the Croydon section are the following historic features: Fuel Dump, Firing Butts, 2 Pickett-Hamilton forts, a Pill-box and a guard-post. Most of the perimeter pillboxes were demolished by c.1984, although the runways and perimeter road remain as they were laid out in 1939 and 1943. The RAF Association has erected a memorial in Portland Stone to those who served at Kenley in one of the Fighter Pens, which is the focus of annual ceremonies such as Remembrance Day. The airfield was used in filming for two war films 'Angels One Five' and 'Reach for the Sky'.
In 2003 the need for a heritage trust was mooted by the RAF Association Portcullis Club, which led to the establishment of the Friends of Kenley Airfield. It is now constituted as the Kenley Airfield Friends Group.
Kenley Aerodrome Conservation Area Proposals Statement (draft), LB Croydon, 2005 + see booklist in appendix. See Kenley Airfield Friends Group website for further history; LB Croydon, 'Local List of Historic Parks & Gardens', December 2008