Back in the 1970s my late father was working on a book about Essex airfields.

He never quite finished it and since that time many publications have appeared on the same subject.

However, I still have his rough notes and there is one particular entry that has always intrigued me.

Dad wrote: “In 1908 Pemberton-Billing founded a flying school at Fambridge.”

He even took photographs (dated 1978) of a large, odd looking, tin shed with a tall brick chimney next to it.

The date (1908) seemed very early to me in the evolution of flying.

After all, the Wright Brothers first powered flight had only been in 1903 – Orville Wright lifting his aeroplane 20 feet above the ground at North Carolina for just 12 seconds.

I had never heard of Pemberton-Billing before and it wasn’t clear whereabouts in Fambridge it referred to.

More than 40 years later, I decided to follow up the research and try to answer those questions.

After a bit of digging a fuller picture emerged.

Noel Pemberton-Billing was born in Hampstead on January 31, 1881, and was a complex, but extraordinary man.

He was one of those larger than life characters – far-sighted, forceful and colourful – who tried his hand at many things.

He served as a mounted police officer in South Africa, he was an accomplished boxer, an actor, playwright, alleged gun-runner, aviator, prolific inventor, publisher, MP during the Great War, aircraft designer, founder of a company that eventually evolved into Supermarine (of Spitfire fame) and he was the subject of a sensational criminal libel case at the Old Bailey (of which he was acquitted).

His biography says that, after fighting in the Boer War, he returned to England in 1903 and used his savings to open a garage.

The business was quite successful, but he was more interested in aviation, then in its infancy, and proceeded to “open an aerodrome in Essex”.

I discovered that Pemberton-Billing’s aerodrome was actually across the Crouch from Maldon at the riverside village of South Fambridge.

He used a former hydraulic crane factory as a hangar and then proceeded to let it out to various aircraft manufacturers.

He also built some new houses as accommodation for his engineers and those early, daring aviators.

He even appointed an estate manager, E C Gordon-England, on a salary of 25/- a week.

The official foundation of the aerodrome is given as February 1909 and, in that respect, it was probably Britain’s first ever example.

Pemberton-Billing doubtless had determination and vision, but he wasn’t good with money.

Not only was cash flow a problem, he soon discovered that the soggy Essex soil of the marshy landing strip was not always suitable for the rickety flying machines, as they continually mired down in the mud.

As a result the venture was soon closed and just ten months after it had begun, in the November of 1909, it was all over.

However, during its short life it saw many early experimental flights.

What Pemberton-Billing had done was to establish an albeit brief settlement, which attracted hundreds of enthusiasts and which he called the Colony of British Aerocraft.

The names of those men are now largely lost to history, but amongst their number was Howard T Wright with his 1908 biplane, built for Malcolm Serr-Keaton, in which short hops were achieved.

Then there was Jose Weiss’s modified glider, fitted with a JAP engine and the American, Robert Macfie, with his single seat Tractor monoplane.

Macfie achieved several successful flights and four crashes, before moving on to a better flying ground at Maplin Sands.

The Fambridge colony was abandoned for the next 15 or so years and then, on the eve of the Great War, aviation briefly returned when experiments took place on an early flying-boat prototype under the promoter, Mr Croft, and builder Talbot White-Quick.

Named the Talbot Quick, again the work was short-lived as the launch went wrong, the mechanic was tragically drowned and the aircraft abandoned.

Having clarified the aerodrome’s story, I decided to go in search to see if there was anything left.

With a nod to those Supermarine heydays of the 1930s and the company that started under Pemberton-Billing in 1913, I set off with my friend in his 1936 Austin 7 Ruby.

We drove out of Maldon along the Fambridge Road until we reached North Fambridge.

Looking straight across the river we could see South Fambridge.

At one time there was a ferry here, but no such luck for us today.

We returned to the B1012, Lower Burnham Road, and drove to South Woodham Ferrers.

From there it was the bridges – Battlesbridge and Hullbridge, then Ashingdon, and we picked up the Fambridge Road again on to our objective.

Located within the Rochford district, South Fambridge is fringed by the Crouch on one side and fields on the other.

At first we could find no trace of the early aerodrome.

We were then informed by a knowledgeable resident that it is now partly farmland and a housing estate.

Rather tellingly, one of the modern streets is called Pemberton Field.

The old crane factory building burnt down in the 1960s, but some of the worker’s houses are still there.

Then we spotted a memorial.

Unveiled by the director general of the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust, on February 20, 2009, the 100th anniversary of the first experimental flights, the simple granite monument was all the confirmation we needed.

Apparently, on the day, a Spitfire flew over and carried out some aerobatic manoeuvres to entertain the crowd.

The man responsible for it all, Noel Pemberton-Billing, died on November 11, 1948, on his motor yacht, ‘Commodore’, at nearby Burnham.

Nowadays not many people have heard of him, but he might be described as the father of British flight and it all started on our doorstep, in the little Crouch village of South Fambridge.

I am really pleased that I kept Dad’s notes.