On November 11th the indefatigable David Hassard, who has given more
than 200 talks on Sopwith, Hawker and other local firms, addressed the
Association on the importance of Kingston’s aircraft industry to the
war effort. David tackled the story chronologically talking to
excellent slides. Such a talk is difficult to report as it is so visual
and packed with improvised verbal detail. What follows can give but a
poor impression of the actual event.
In 1906-07 the Brooklands motor racing circuit was built near Weybridge. Inside the banked concrete oval was a large, flat and level expanse of grass which was soon used as an aerodrome by the aviation fraternity. Tommy Sopwith taught himself to fly there in 1910. Many manufacturers and flying schools set up their ‘sheds’ at Brooklands, including Sopwith in 1912. He would teach you to fly for £75 (£7,500 today). His engineer, Fred Sigrist, created the Sopwith Hybrid as an improved trainer which was sold to the Admiralty causing the Sopwith Aviation Co, a family owned business, to be accredited.
With Vickers, Bristol and other companies there
Brooklands became crowded so Sopwith rented the Kingston roller skating
rink with its level and flat open space (no pillars), ideal for
building aircraft. A supply of skilled boatbuilding woodworkers was
available locally and there were plenty of women workers with fabric
cutting and stitching skills. Aircraft were taken by road to fly from
The first product of the Kingston factory was the flying
boat/amphibian Bat Boat which set many records in the hands of
Australian Harry Hawker, who had joined Sopwith and Sigrist as a
mechanic but was taught to fly by Sopwith and became the Company’s test
and demonstration pilot and co-designer.
In 1913 aircraft production was under way with sales to both the Navy and the Army of float and landplanes. The small, 80 hp, two seat Sopwith Tabloid, brainchild of Hawker and tested at Farnborough, demonstrated a maximum level speed of 92 mph, the fastest ever recorded. It was soon ordered for the Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC). In December 1913 the Sopwith Aviation Company Ltd was formed and started its expansion in Canbury Park Road, Kingston.
The speaker went through every Sopwith, and other manufacturer’s, types on a year-by-year basis, illustrating each with excellent photographs, and highlighting particular design features and achievements. The Tabloid proved to be a very important type which set the pattern for all subsequent fighting scouts. It was developed into the Baby and led to the Pup, Triplane, Camel, Snipe and Dragon.
In April 1914 a Taboid floatplane won the international Schneider Trophy race at Monaco and set the world speed record. During 1914 production increased; 12 Sopwith Folders, 24 Spinning Jennies and 18 torpedo droppers were sold to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
In 1915 130 Sopwith Schneider floatplanes, derived from the Monaco Tabloid, were ordered and 30 Sopwith pusher landplanes were subcontracted to Robey & Co. Other manufacturers operating in Surrey included Bleriot and DFW at Brooklands from 1914. In 1915 Martin and Handasyde/Martinsyde at Woking and Brooklands, Whitehead Aircraft at Richmond and Vickers of Crayford, Kent who had bought the Itala car works at Brooklands, were all active in Surrey.
Sigrist’s 1 ½ Strutter with its synchronised forward firing machine gun emerged in early 1915 followed by the Pup in 1916. 58 fighter and 178 bomber Strutters were ordered from Sopwith. Contractors would build 1100 and 4200 would be built in France. 97 Pups were ordered from Sopwith with 250 from contractors.
The high performance Sopwith Triplane, based on the Pup fuselage, flew in 1916; Sopwith built 103, Contractors 49. That year Whitehead built 100 Pups. The Sopwith Camel flew in 1917 and was ordered for the RFC and the RNAS. 553 were built by Sopwith and ten Contractors built 5194. By the end of 1917 the Canbury Park factory covered 5½ acres and was soon building the four gun Dolphin of which 1000 had been ordered from Sopwith with 750 from Contractors.
Because of the high attrition rate with an aircraft average life of 8 weeks, the Government needed 3500 new aircraft every month to support the 200 squadrons required for air superiority. To satisfy this the Government instituted the National Aircraft Factory (NAF) scheme; four were to have been built. NAF 2 was built at Ham and leased by Sopwith to build 700 Snipes, 800 Salamanders and 330 Dragons. In September 1918 Sopwith was building 40 aircraft a week. Whitehead, Bleriot, Martinsyde, Vickers and Glendower at Kew were also mass producing military aircraft under contract. In 1918-19 6000 aircraft were built in Surrey.
The armistice was signed on November 11th 1918 leading to the cancellation of orders and a consequent 60% cut in the workforce. During WW I 18100 aircraft had been built to Sopwith designs.
After the war Sopwith struggled to keep going with some prototype aircraft and motorcycle manufacture but had to close down when the Government submitted a bill for excess profit tax. The Sopwith Aviation Co Ltd was liquidated and a new era started in 1920 when, Sopwith, Sigrist and Hawker started again with the HG Hawker Engineering Co which grew into Hawker Aircraft and the industrial giant, Hawker Siddeley.
David Hassard produces a weekly article, ‘The Kingston Aviation Story - 100 Years Ago This Week’, which you can find on-line at www.kingstonaviation.org. David started this important task in May 2013 and is now approaching his 300th issue. Deeply researched and precisely illustrated the articles chronicle, week-by-week, the progress of TOM Sopwith, his companies, his colleagues, his aircraft and their achievements. All back issues are available.