Our little seaside town of Southport has an intriguing history in aviation, from early flight tests to its wartime roles. Located just up the coast from Liverpool, Southport's expansive beach provided a long flat space for aviators to operate aircraft in the early 20th century.
The Beginnings of Flight in Southport
In 1909, just 6 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, pioneering British aviator Henri Farman conducted flight tests on Southport Beach. Henry Farman brought his French-built biplane to Southport Beach to demonstrate aviation technology. Farman had already achieved record-breaking flight distances in France. His exhibition flights proved that the fragility of early aircraft was no barrier to advanced aeronautics taking off in Britain.
Over the next few years, Farman returned to Southport with improved models, along with other British aviation pioneers like C.H. Pixton. These early exhibitions attracted curiosity seekers to the beach eager to witness firsthand the wonder of aircraft taking to the skies. Local businessman E.W. Wakefield became a key promoter of these early events, foreseeing Southport’s potential as an aviation hub.
Following those ambitious displays on the sands, other brave aviators continued to perform demonstrations above Southport's coastline.
One of the most famous early aviators to fly at Southport was Claude Grahame-White. This British aviation pioneer thrilled crowds along Southport Beach in 1910 and 1911 with his Farman biplanes. Grahame-White had learned to fly in France and opened a flying school in England in 1910. His exhibition flights at Southport showed crowds how this newfangled flying machine could soar and bank above the sands. In 1911, he set a new British altitude record of over 11,000 feet above Southport, a feat reported widely in the press.
Grahame-White demonstrated aviation's rapid progress, advancing from straight hops on the beach in 1910 to spectacular height records the very next year. His exciting demonstrations played a key part in establishing Southport as a hub for new aviation technology in prewar Britain.
Southport hosts Air Shows
By 1913, Southport was hosting large air shows featuring the aviation technology of the time. Up to fifty thousand spectators would line the beach to watch aerial displays and contests. The events showcased bomber prototypes, looping stunts, parachute jumps and more. The air shows put Southport on the map as one of Britain’s top places to see aviation spectacles through the 1910s and 20s.
Southport resumed air shows in 1919 featuring the novel aircraft developed during the war—now thrillingly repurposed for peacetime. Aircraft manufacturer Blackburn held annual flying carnivals at Southport throughout the 1920s. Stunts like flying under the Southport pier tested pilots’ nerve and skill.
The shows also hosted races between planes, with courses marked by pylons on the beach. Up to ninety aircraft took part, battling for prizes while spectators watched from grandstands. This golden era established Southport as an iconic venue for aviation spectacle between the wars.
During World War II, Southport played an important role in Britain’s air defence network. RAF Woodvale was opened north of Southport as a Coastal Command station in 1941. Aircraft based at Woodvale ran patrols over the Irish Sea, on watch for German submarines and aircraft. Southport was within the defensive perimeter for the vital port of Liverpool, making it a strategic base.
Liverpool Airport and Southport Today
In the 1930s, a proper airport was established in Liverpool, handling larger passenger planes that couldn’t use Southport’s beaches. However, Southport continued to host private planes at its airstrips. Though no longer at aviation's cutting edge, Southport retains a special place in British flying history as one of the first places that amazed crowds witnessed aircraft take to the skies over a century ago.
You can get a taste of the thrilling exhilaration of those early flying displays by enjoying the Southport Air Show. The annual Air Show returns this September to Southport Beach so get ready for a weekend packed with entertainment.
Want to know more about Southport’s exhilarating aviation history? The Atkinson’s Between Land and Sea museum tells the story of the aviation and motoring history that was made on the long sandy beaches of the Sefton Coast.