It’s hard to imagine the North East’s international airport being anywhere other than Newcastle. It is, after all, the largest city in the region and has strong business, transport and financial links. But the location of the airport was not always a foregone conclusion.
As air travel increased in both viability and popularity throughout the 1920s, local authorities all over England were pondering whether they should build their own airports. Particular encouragement was given to the North region by the Air Ministry, who were adamant an international airport would contribute to their economic recovery in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926 and a decline in core industries like coal and heavy manufacturing. Spirited by this, a Municipal Airport Special Committee was set up in 1927 to mull over the possibility of an international airport somewhere in the North East. It was a rainbow committee, with representatives from Newcastle, Northumberland, Durham, Gateshead and South Shields and some of the small councils trying to argue to the case for their own.
By 1929 a location had been agreed on by the councils of Felling, Washington, Boldon, Jarrow and South Shields, and despite trepidation from the bigger councils of Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle, Felling was settled on as the best location. The plans show that the airport would be built over a 200 acre area, centred at Whitemare Pool and engulfing large swathes of land on what is now the Leam Lane Estate, including two farms and Heworth Golf Course. The plans also outlined the infrastructure that would need to be built to service an international airport, including a new bridge across the River Tyne at Pelaw and a ‘super highway’ to cope with growing traffic demand.
If these plans ever materialised, there’s a good chance the Leam Lane Estate and possibly even parts of Wardley Estate would never have been built. This invites some interesting counterfactual speculation as to how Felling might have developed if the Gateshead Airport went ahead—where, for example, would the huge council estate have been built? It also begs the question as to what, if anything, would happen to the rest of Felling. Might Gateshead have been a bigger commercial rival to Newcastle than it is now? Perhaps it would have been called Newcastle Airport anyway, a bit like London Stansted, which is actually 40 miles from central London.
Even after Felling was announced, infighting dogged as some of the larger councils started jockeying for their own airfields to be converted into airports. By 1939 there was little progress and very little had actualised. One thing that had become certain by then was that Felling would not be the right place for an international airport.
Joan Hewitt gives some of the crucial reasons the plan eventually fell through:
- Felling Urban District Council could scarcely afford the initial investment costs, never mind development and upkeep fees
- All of the land allotted for the airport was prone to mining subsidence. This would later also pose a problem to the developers of council estates in the area
- Headgear from the nearby Follingsby and Wardley collieries would pose a risk to low-flying aircraft
- The bulk of the business community who would be making use of international flights already lived in Newcastle
- Sunderland preferred to use Usworth Airfield in their own area. It had already been developed during the Great War and would pose less of a risk than a new development in Felling
The onslaught of the Second World War put an end to any hopes of a civilian airport, but following the end of the conflict the joint committee was resurrected and eventually agreed on Woolsington Aerodrome as the sensible candidate for development into an international airport.
Hewitt points out that one remnant of the Felling airport dream does still remain though.
When Felling Council built Fisherwell Road in Pelaw, the road was made very wide, in case it should still be needed as the approach road to the Pelaw High Level Bridge.
If you find Fisherwell Road on a map, you can plot roughly the route the new ‘Pelaw High Level’ bridge would have taken across the River Tyne and through to Whitemere Pool.
North East Regional Airport Committee minutes, held in Tyne and Wear Archives (MD.NC/298).
Joan Hewitt, File on Felling (year unknown).