City solicitor who helped found Edinburgh Airport

Thomas Connolly, second from the left. Picture: comp

Thomas Connolly, second from the left. Picture: comp

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It is the Capital’s gateway to the world – the welcome mat for millions of passengers who generate a wealth of cash for Edinburgh.

But if it had not been for the relentless efforts of one post-war flying enthusiast, there is a good chance plans for 
Edinburgh Airport would never have got off the ground.

For the first time the story of city solicitor Thomas Connolly – and his contribution to the airport’s creation – has been unearthed by his grandson.

Niall Connolly, 63, originally from the New Town, grew up knowing very little about his late grandfather.

He said: “It just wasn’t something we ever really talked about.

“I always knew he was a successful lawyer, and that was it. But this year, I decided to start sifting through the old boxes filled with newspaper clippings and letters I’d inherited – and the more I read, the more I realised he was no ordinary lawyer.”

Despite boasting a bustling social life and booming career as an employment advocate, Niall’s grandfather also found time to take on another role as one of the Capital’s early flying enthusiasts.

Niall said: “He actually helped found the Edinburgh Aero Club in 1928, and went on to be a major advocate for public aviation. He was a very humble man, and a pioneer.

“He was completely relentless in pushing for Edinburgh to build a civilian airport. And from what I can tell, he made a serious impact.”

A self-made man, compensation lawyer Connolly worked his way up from a tenement in Leith to a sprawling mansion in Liberton. And while he earned royal commendation for his legal work, his greatest love was flying.

The Edinburgh Aero Club, of which he was a founder, was a proverbial ‘who’s who’ of Edinburgh high society, including the Earl of Selkirk and former Lord Provost Sir Alexander Stevenson.

Yet despite the council’s decision to allow the club to meet in Edinburgh City Chambers, the authority seemed to block the group’s ambitions at every turn.

In 1927, Connolly purchased an Avro Avian for the club to use – and planned to rent out the aircraft.

But when engineers flew Connolly’s aircraft up to Edinburgh, the solicitor eventually had to send it back after the government refused him permission to fly it from Turnhouse Aerodrome, the Royal Flying Corps’ most northerly air defence base.

Connolly decided to stir the pot, calling upon the city to purchase Turnhouse for development as Scotland’s first municipal airport.

His cries were echoed by Major William H Ewen, Scotland’s top aviation pioneer and the first to fly over the Forth.

Despite public support, it would take another 20 years before the new Ministry of Defence would allow commercial flights to use Turnhouse to land in Edinburgh in 1947. And even then, the government refused to hand over the site in full until the city’s Royal Air squadron finally disbanded a decade later.

From there, the stage was set to convert Turnhouse 
Aerodrome into today’s modern Edinburgh Airport.

Connolly died in 1949, so never saw his aerodrome dreams come to fruition.

nash.riggins@edinburghnews.com