Today we take flying for granted, but 100 years ago it was a different story. DAVID MILLS looks at how aviation took off in Crayford and Dartford.

HIS most famous invention is probably the automatic machine gun, but Sir Hiram Maxim’s pioneering contribution to aviation is often forgotten.

It was 115 years ago that the American inventor claimed to be the first person to get a heavier-than-air machine off the ground as well as a man into the air.

Known as The Flying Machine, Maxim’s 105 foot-wide invention was designed and built at the Vickers Aircraft factory in Crayford.

But it was in Baldwyns Park on the Bexley and Dartford border that he lay 1,800ft of track on which the 3.5 ton steam-powered machine could be run and tested.

And with Maxim at the controls, the aircraft took off on July 31 in 1894, about 10 years before the Wright brothers managed to fly a plane and control it.

Having covered 900ft of the track, the machine flew for 100ft at an altitude of about two feet before crashing safely to the ground in front of hundreds of spectators.

The records manager at Bexley Local studies and Archives Centre, Simon McKeon, says Maxim was instrumental in the development of flight.

He said: “I think Maxim was fundamentally important to the development of aviation.

“If you look at the designs of the Wright brothers’ planes they borrowed heavily from Maxim’s designs.”

Next month (July) in recognition of the achievement, Dartford Council is putting up a blue plaque at Maypole Primary School, which now stands beneath Maxim’s flight path.

As part of the ceremony at the school in Franklin Road, Dartford, there will be a micro light flight landing in a neighbouring field.

Bexley Council has received £50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable the borough to celebrate its role in 19th and early 20th century aviation.

As well as celebrating Maxim, the project called A Magnificent Town and Its Flying Machines, marks the 90th anniversary of the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic by British aviation pioneers Alcock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy, designed and built in Crayford.

Mr McKeon said: “Local people don't know of their town's links with these epic events in the history of aviation.

“Crayford in particular played a role in the early development of flying.

“The Vickers factory coming to Crayford was responsible for turning it from a rural backwater to an industrial town.”


Born in Maine, USA on February 5 in 1840, Maxim’s early experiments included an automatic mousetrap, which reset itself for the next mouse, and an automatic sprinkler system that not only extinguished the blaze but also alerted the police and the fire brigade.

It was after a visit to Europe in 1881 to the Paris Electrical Exposition that he first came to London.

There he laid claim to be the first man in the world to invent an automatic machine gun, which was manufactured at Vickers factory in Crayford and could fire bullets 666 times per minute.

However despite his aeronautical success, he said in 1897: “It would hardly be practicable to employ flying machines in a thickly settled country for carrying passengers about."

  • A reminiscence session for former Crayford Vickers workers is being held at Hall Place, Bexley on July 9 between 2 and 4pm. Anyone interested in attending should call Simon McKeon on 020 8836 7369 or email