Imagine a world in which we could drive onto the top of a multistorey car park, hop into a helicopter and be in the centre of Paris inside two hours.
That was the dream in the late 1940s, when the Olympia helipad opened for trial flights.
Aviation history was made beside the west London exhibition centre on 15 July 1948. Here, on top of the Metropolitan Garages car park, a helicopter landed on a London rooftop for the first time ever.
The 'rotor station' received a Sikorsky helicopter, which had flown in from Croydon Airport.
A brochure produced by the garage looked forward to an airborne future: "Believing that the rapid development of rotary-wing aircraft would create a need for town and city air stations, we decided... to test flight possibilities from the roof of our multi-storeyed garage at Olympia."
Nine months later, the garage arranged a more ambitious flight — the first passenger-carrying helicopter trip between London and Paris. The photos above show crowds watching the outgoing flight, speeding passengers over to France. The helicopter arrived at Les Invalides half an hour ahead of schedule, before the French dignitaries had assembled. It seemed like the future had arrived, early.
And yet, like the Sikorsky, that future swiftly departed. Despite grand schemes to build heliports on top of train stations and hotels, and other experimental pads around town, helicopter travel never did become economical for the masses. Even today, London contains just a handful of helipads, and only one geared up for public flights.
The Olympia helipad is now a forgotten footnote in aviation history. Indeed, we think this is the first time the story has appeared anywhere on the freely searchable web. For that, we can thank a rather special archive...
The Olympia Archives
We discovered the photographs in the archives of Olympia and Earl's Court. This treasure trove of cultural history is held at London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell, which is owned and managed by the City of London Corporation. It transferred to the centre in 2014, after the demolition of Earl's Court Exhibition Centre.
The archive stretches over 200 metres of shelving, including 11,000 photographs and 5,000 show catalogues or programmes. It includes administrative records, building plans, posters and videos. There's even a collection of Christmas cards, put out by the exhibition venues over the decades.
Olympia and Earl's Court have hosted countless events since they opened in 1886 and 1937, respectively; from cycle races to political rallies to a Take That concert. It's all recorded in the archive. Here, for example, are mementos from the 1933 Radiolympia exhibition, which examined the future of telecommunications:
The photographs include a giant model of the BBC's Broadcasting House (bottom left), an art deco masterpiece then just four years old. The image to the right appears to show a giant radio set, with all the majesty of a grand Renaissance altarpiece.
The archive contains many other incidental treasures. We were shown a communist pamphlet from 1948 railing against — of all things — the Ideal Homes Show, organised by the Daily Mail. "How ironical!" it declares. "The owner of the 'Daily Mail' has never queued on a housing list in his life. Yet he parades in front of London's homeless this Exhibition of smart gadgets and ideal homes for the few who can afford a house."
Elsewhere we chance across a cache of Royal memorabilia. There's a photo of the Queen accepting a bouquet of flowers from a clown. Another image shows the Royal Suite at Olympia which, in 1956, looked like an under-furnished Travelodge bedroom. (The venue still maintains rooms for the blue of blood, but we suspect they are now much plusher.)
The wealth of material demonstrates how business archives need not be dry and boring. The material here attracts a diverse audience, including family historians, Ideal Home Show enthusiasts and architectural historians. But its breadth is such that it should not be overlooked by anyone researching London's past — who'd think to look in the archives of an exhibition centre for an aviation first?
The Earl's Court and Olympia archive (LMA/4684) is funded by Olympia Management Services Limited and Capital & Counties Properties plc (CapCo). It can be freely inspected by appointment, preferably with two week's notice. A catalogue of its holdings is expected to be complete in 2017. Contact London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Rd, EC1R 0HB.
With thanks to Joanne Ruff and Richard Wiltshire of LMA, and Jordan Evans of Olympia. Images copyright CapCo, used with permission, except the lower image, which is by the author.
See also: On top of Olympia's retractable roof.