Stansted Airport

Generally considered as London’s third airport, after the much larger Heathrow and Gatwick, Stansted is located thirty miles northeast of Trafalgar Square as the crow flies, within the County of Essex. Whilst perhaps lacking the glamour of the latter two airports’ Transatlantic, Far Eastern, and Southern Hemisphere flights, major development at Stansted since the late 1980s has seen its facilities grow to handle 27 million passengers per year (pre-pandemic levels). A railway service between the airport and Liverpool Street, in the heart of the City of London, affords airline passengers a 48-minute journey over the 37-route-miles from the capital, whilst direct trains also link Stansted with the cities of Cambridge, Norwich, Leicester, Birmingham, and Bristol — some remarkably good connections.

The United States entered World War II in December 1941 and, in the following year, established an aerodrome at Stansted as an air force bomber base. In 1945, shortly before the end of the conflict, a pre-war plan was revived to develop a series of international passenger airports to serve London. Prior to 1939, this had focused on four airfields located at Croydon, Fairlop (Essex), Heston (Middlesex), and Lullingstone (Kent); by 1945, that number had increased to ten, bringing Bovingdon, Gatwick, Hatfield, Heathrow, Matching (Essex), and West Malling (Kent) into the fold. Stansted Aerodrome, whilst not part of the passenger plan, had been identified as a candidate for development into a dedicated international freight hub:

For Air Cargoes.— Stansted aerodrome — a U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber base during the war — is to be London's first freight airport. [Dundee Evening Telegraph, Wednesday 25th December 1946 ]

In May 1947, Stansted’s role of being an international cargo airport — or, as it was referred to at the time, “London’s Aerial Goods Yard” — became a reality when the first freight aircraft started to take off from there:

An aerial freighter leaves Britain’s first goods-only airport. The ex-Halifax bomber “Port of Sydney” taking off from Stansted Mountfitchet, near Bishop’s Stortford, Essex, en route to Canada (via Prestwick): this is the start of a world-wide aerial goods service pioneered by a London company which took over Stansted in 1946 and has converted it from its wartime function as an American big-bomber base. As a goods-yard of the sky, Stansted is conveniently sited only 30 miles along the Cambridge arterial road from London’s commercial side. The airport’s own transport will play their part in the distribution and collection of cargoes throughout Britain, and it has its own main-line railway siding. Pilots flying from any part of the world into Stansted will find an airport easy of approach over flat country, with runways 1,500 to 2,000 yards long. Runways are equipped with sodium flares and every modern aid for blind flying and landing. Dispersal points for at least sixty aircraft are arranged round the four-mile perimeter track. All the freight aircraft, which are painted in blue, are being named after prominent ports, Port of London, Port of Marseilles, Port of Oslo and Port of Naples being among those chosen. [The Sphere (London), 17th May 1947]

By 1959, speculation had been mounting about the permanent closure of Stansted Airport. The US Air Force continued to operate an airbase at Wethersfield, about 12-miles northeast of Stansted, and given the increase in military movements and the lack of air traffic control coordination with nearby civilian flights, it was considered a safety risk having two airfields so close to each other. A gradual run-down of Stansted was envisaged to end with complete closure in 1961. This was in spite of the fact that the airport had the longest civilian runway in Europe, at 10,000 feet in length, which had been completed by United States Army engineers in 1958.

Closely following the closure speculation, however, was the proposal to develop Stansted into a proper international passenger hub for the capital. Eventually, on Tuesday, 24th March 1964, it was announced at a press conference that the Government had approved a Ministry of Aviation committee’s recommendation that Stansted become London’s third international passenger airport; work on transforming the existing airfield was to begin two years later. In the 18th December 1965 edition of the Illustrated London News it was reported that, by 1961, four airlines had been regularly using Stansted, but the airport was still loss-making, and the development of the airfield would include extending the existing runway by 2,000-feet, commissioning a second parallel runway 6,000-feet away from the existing one, and levelling and clearing an area of nine square miles. The intention was to have the airport in full service by 1973, the year by which Heathrow and Gatwick would be unable to accommodate any more traffic.

Rail Link

A Government White Paper published in May 1967 priced a rail link between Stansted Airport and the capital at £5 million. This involved routing three trains per hour in each direction between Victoria and Stansted, a distance of about 45-miles, a scheme which quickly met with strong opposition. Rail users in the Bishop’s Stortford area argued that it would be impossible to maintain this service frequency over a circuitous and already busy route. In the Herts & Essex Observer on Friday, 24th November 1967, the Bishop’s Stortford Season Ticket Holders’ Association indicated that the Stortford to Tottenham section of the proposed rail link route was already fully occupied during rush hours with passenger services, and at other times by heavy freight traffic movements.

Victoria as a terminal for Stansted Airport services was quickly dropped, and British Rail’s (BR) focus changed to making the rail link with Kentish Town instead. The latter, however, was also soon abandoned. The crux of the issue, as reported in the Herts & Essex Observer on Friday, 23rd February 1968, was that Stansted Airport’s passenger usage figures initially provided by the Ministry of Civil Aviation — and on which BR’s cost and service estimates were based — were three times smaller than the latest numbers published by the British Airports Authority (BAA). BR subsequently announced that they intended to run the Stansted service to and from Kings Cross, but noted that the planned airport’s ultimate potential of up to 18 million passengers per year, based on two operational runways and 128 movements of planes per hour, was not expected to be reached until well into the 1980s.

In March 1969 the “Roskill Commission” — set-up by the Government to review possible sites for London’s third airport — announced that Stansted was not among the sites it was considering. Stansted was formally dropped as a third London airport and the proposed rail link disappeared with it. In December 1970, the Commission recommened to the Government a site at Cublington, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, for London's third airport.

Click the above for a larger version. © David Glasspool

19th March 1991

Looking towards the buffer stops, the station is seen on the first day of scheduled public services along the airport branch. The platforms are numbered 1 to 3 from right to left; platform 2 is by far the shortest and is typically used by cross country services to and from provincial cities. The glazed terminal building can just be seen on the left. © David Glasspool Collection

19th March 1991

Stansted Express-branded Class 322 No. 322481 is seen approaching platform 3 with a service from Liverpool Street. The service was operated by business sector "Network SouthEast" and had a duration of 40 minutes end-to-end. The "BS" letters on the signal post stood for "Bishop's Stortford". © David Glasspool Collection