On 11th July David Hassard gave a most detailed talk on the history of the Richmond Road factory in which so many of us worked.

David has carried out much serious research in many sources including the Imperial War Museum, the Ministry of Munitions records at Kew, the Brooklands Museum, Sopwith, Hawker and Leyland board minutes, the British Commercial Vehicle Museum and Tollemache Estate papers. From this he has built up a definitive history of the site and factory uncovering new material which shows that many of the published and accepted ‘facts’ are, in fact, incorrect. David has also collected a large number of illustrations and photographs, some of which he used to illustrate his talk.

David started with Ham House, built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshall to King James 1st who granted him the land, and in Charles 1st reign owned by William Murray, the first Earl of Dysart. His daughter, Lady Elizabeth Murray, married Sir Lionel Tollemache from whom descended a line of Earls of Dysart, the 9th of which, in 1902 by Act of Parliament, bequeathed Petersham and Ham riverside land into public ownership. Crucially he also used the Act to cancel lammas rights (right by law for local people to over-winter their animals) on his land along the river with a view to house building and gravel extraction.

The Great Richmond Road Aircraft Factory

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In 1912 TOM Sopwith needing to expand from his Brooklands sheds bought the Kingston roller skating rink and set up aircraft manufacture there, soon building more factory premises in Canbury Park Road. The Government demand for military aircraft during World War I was so large that, under Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill and the Controller of Aeronautical Supplies (MoM) Sir William Weir, the National Aircraft Factory scheme was set up. The No.2 (not No. 1) “Richmond” factory was built by contractors Dick Kerr from November 1917 to April 1918 on land on the river Thames at Ham requisitioned under the Defence of the Realm Act from the 9th Earl of Dysart.

Sopwith leased the factory and delivered his first aircraft, a Snipe, in June 1918. A total of 720 aircraft, Snipes, Salamanders and Dragons, was built there before the Armistice brought an end to the need for fighter aircraft.

In 1919 the Ministry decided to discontinue renting the No.1 factory but to sell, offering it to Sopwith. The Ministry declined his offer and put the building out to tender, Leyland Motors responding with an offer of 200,000 which was accepted in late 1919. What had been overlooked was the fact that Government did not own the land they were selling so urgent negotiations were started with Lord Dysart’s land agent. A price of 15,000 was agreed for the 38 acre site.

Leyland started using the factory for refurbishing and converting over 3,000 war surplus Leyland ‘G’ Type lorries. Production continued with 17,000 of Leslie Hounsfield’s 4 cylinder 2 stroke Trojan cars and light commercial vehicles, thousands of 50 cwt Cub lorries, buses and specially bodied vehicles and, for World War II, 1,500 Lynx general service lorries, vital military machinery including 4,000 desert water carriers, 6,000 gearboxes 3,000 tank gun drives, 100 plus Centaur tanks and its Comet development, and even munitions (10,000 land mines and 400,000 incendiary bombs per month were produced ).After the war British United Traction ('BUT') trolley buses were built jointly with AEC.

In 1948 the Hawker Aircraft board, successors to Sopwith Aviation’s, offered Leyland Motors 585,000 for the Ham property. The Leyland board accepted moving the 'BUT' work to Park Royal and the rest to Lancashire. Hawker Aircraft progressively moved in from the Canbury Park Road premises which were closed in the early 1960s.

In 1958 the Kingston management and design organisation moved into a new office block built in place of the front bays of the factory, the brainchild of Hawker’s Managing Director John Lidbury, who was determined that Hawker should have a headquarters reflecting their status in the industry.

Hawker Siddeley directors demanded that the new building should not be too luxurious but Lidbury had already approved marble for the entrance hall. When Sir Roy Dobson, the Hawker Siddeley Group blunt northern MD, came to view the new HQ he said “I told you so, the b**** has used marble”. John Lidbury replied that it was actually travertine eliciting Dobson’s reply “It’s bloody marvellous what they can do with plastics these days.” Hawker’s chairman, Frank Spriggs only just managed to stifle his laughter.

Series production started with Sea Hawks followed by Hunters, Harriers and Hawks. In addition the V/STOL P.1127 development aircraft and Kestrel service evaluation fighters were built at Kingston.

Under the banners of Hawker Aircraft Ltd, Hawker Siddeley Aviation, nationalised British Aerospace and privatised British Aerospace plc, military aircraft design, development, manufacture, marketing, sales and all the supporting activities continued at the Richmond Road factory until its closure by British Aerospace in 1992. The works were demolished by Dick, Kerr, so closing the circle.

BAe’s property development company, Arlington Securities, had submitted several plans for a business park, an office development and mixed housing but had been refused planning permission by the Kingston Council. Arlington appealed to the Secretary of State for the Environment but a decision was deferred awaiting a regional development plan.

Eventually a scheme excluding industrial or commercial use was approved. It included 21 acres of housing by builders Bryant, Laing and Barratt Homes, 2.5 acres of ‘affordable’ housing, 12 acres given to the Kingston Council as open land including the 8 acre Hawker Athletic and Social Club (HASC) grounds and 4 acres in the west corner, probably the site of the underground WWII munitions factory. The housing land sold for 30m, a far cry from the 15k paid to Lord Dysart 70 years earlier.

The only remaining building on the whole site is that of the HASC, now the YMCA Hawker Centre in which this talk was given. In all 360 houses were built - one of which is owned and occupied by the speaker.