Ivor Novello in Chingford
I always include a reference to composer and actor Ivor Novello on my Royals, Rogues and Retreats Chingford walk – from a fact gleaned from Chingford Past by Barbara Ray. Novello was stationed at Chingford Aerodrome (now under the William Girling Reservoir) and sometimes played the piano at the King’s Head pub. However I had never managed to find out any more.
Then last week I discovered this book in the local library:
The book contains a wealth of information about life at the Aerodrome and in Chingford generally gleaned from the fortnightly station magazine The Chingflier. It was produced by the Chingford Historical Society and according to their website can be purchased or probably ordered by the Chingford Bookshop in Station Road and no doubt also by V & A Books in Highams Park where I have bought other local history books.*
Chingford Aerodrome officially opened in May 1915 and was used by the Royal Naval Air Service to train pilots. The RNAS were the air arm of the Royal Navy. The RAF wasn’t formed until April 1918 when the RNAS merged with the Royal Flying Corps – the air arm of the army.
RNAS Chingford was run like a ship, with a No 1 (First Lieutenant) assisting the CO, and a ‘ship’s company’, time was measured in ‘bells’ and the dining room was the ‘mess deck’.
The aerodrome really wasn’t in an ideal place with the King George V reservoir right next to it and in the midst of streams and swamps; in fact a boat was always on hand to fish pilots (or bodies) out of the reservoir. Ben Travers (flight instructor and later famous for his Aldwych farces) described the airfield as “a strip of fogbound and soggy meadowland at Ponders End between a reservoir and a sewage farm”.
This poem which appeared in one edition of The Chingflier rather sums it up:
“Surrounded by water, that’s caused by a flood,
With your throat full of fog and knee-deep in mud,
And with icy cold winds that just freeze your blood.
Tormented by flies and mosquitoes that bite.
With work from the dawn until quite late at night,
And each day, you try to wash cap covers white.
Thick fog before breakfast,
Then out comes the sun.
With snow at ten-thirty,
And rain before one,
And thunder and wind ‘ere the day’s work is done.
That’s now (March).”
One of Ben Travers’ pupils was 22 year old sub-lieutenant David Ivor Davies better known today as Ivor Novello. By the time Novello arrived in Chingford he had already written Keep the Home Fires Burning. Travers reported to The Chingflier that Novello sang whilst flying but after a few nerve-racking experiences it was decided that Ivor should remain on the ground and unfortunately he didn’t qualify as a pilot!
The aerodrome closed in 1919 and reverted to pasture and then in 1951 the site disappeared for ever under the William Girling Reservoir – named after the chairman of the Metropolitan Water Board.
So having discovered this book about the aerodrome and their monthly magazines I have solved the mystery and found some more fascinating history to include in my Chingford walk.
There is another Chingford story connected to the reservoir that I have still to solve. Barbara Ray reports in Chingford Past that when they were excavating for the Girling Reservoir a Bronze Age coffin was unearthed. It was hollowed out from a tree trunk, still contained human bones plus bronze axe-heads and other items. This was 1939 and war was imminent so the find was handed over to the London Museum then based at Lancaster House. The book then states that Lancaster House was bombed and the Bronze Age coffin lost for ever. However I am still looking for further information in relation to this so any help gratefully received!
If you would like to find out more about Chingford’s fascinating history I have put together a guided tour around North Chingford which covers much more than what I mention above. More details are here.
* Update: I now have my own copy bought from Jo’s Books, Station Road, Chingford