Knights of the Sky: A lecture to the Royston Pike group

The following lecture was presented to the Royston Pike group on 21 June 2012 by Allan Winn, Director of Brooklands Museum.

This is the story of three great knights of the sky. Two of them were designers, one an entrepreneur. One of the designers created some of the most inspired flights of fancy of the 20th century; the other rose beyond his designer profession to lead one of Britain's two great aircraft combines. The entrepreneur led the other: the enforced merger of those two combines was to signal the ends of the aviation careers of both. They were born within 22 years of each other, were knighted within 15 years of each other, and died within 25 years of each other. Although from disparate family backgrounds, they all studied engineering They were giants of their age, who each stamped his own personality on the aviation industry, and who each left a legacy whose impact is still being felt: they were Sir George Edwards, Sir Tommy Sopwith and Sir Barnes Wallis. Most importantly, their common interest in aviation led them all to the same place - Brooklands.

 George Robert Freeman EdwardsThomas Octave (8th) Murdoch SopwithBarnes Neville Wallis
Born Essex, 1908 Kensington, 1888 Ripley Derbys, 1887
Son of Newsagent & tobacconist, mother died 2 weeks later, brought up by aunt Lead miner (articled to Sir W Armstrong & Co, Elswick), killed by shotgun accidentally discharged by TOM Doctor
Educated Warner College for Ladies - Little Boys accepted

Rejected by Grammar School as too old when applied, so went to Walthamstow Technical Institute 1919, then external BSc (Eng) London University

Cottesmore, Hove - ran away

Seafield Park engineering college 1901

Christs Hospital, Horsham, external engineering degree, University of London
Family Status Poor Well Off Well Off
First job Clerical officer, insurance company, then testing and then building cranes Motor industry consultant & Rolls-Royce car dealer Thames Engineering, then IoW shipbuilder, Vickers airship 1913
1st Brooklands Vickers Aviation, design draughtsman, 1935, appointed by Paul Wyand, chief draughtsman Racing a Mercedes (engine disintegrated) 1908. (1st flight with Chas Rolls balloon 1906). 1st fixed wing - joyride with Maurice Hewlett, Farman Chief Designer (structures) Vickers Aviation 1930
Died 2003 1989 1979

The first to arrive at Brooklands was Tommy Sopwith. Thomas Octave (because he was the 8th child) Murdoch Sopwith had had what can modestly be called a prosperous upbringing, though not without suffering. He was born in Kensington in 1888, the only son of a father (also Thomas) who had made his fortune in the lead industry - though by coincidence he had begun his working life articled to a northern engineering company called Sir W G Armstrong & Co at Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne. His father died when young Tommy was only 10, when the son's shotgun accidentally discharged, and Tommy was effectively brought up by his elder sisters. He disliked boarding at Cottesmore School in Hove, and at the earliest opportunity took himself off to Seafield Engineering College. His first venture into commerce was as a consultant to the fledgling motor industry, and by the early years of last century, he and a friend Phil Paddon were selling Rolls-Royces in London. He first took to the air in 1906, as a passenger in the Hon Charles Rolls' balloon, but his introduction to Brooklands was as a racing driver in 1908, at the wheel of a large Mercedes. His motor racing career was not to progress, however, his consuming sporting interest rapidly becoming that of competitive sailing - of which more anon.

It was at Brooklands he took his first flight in a fixed-wing aircraft, as a passenger to Maurice Hewlett, when he received two laps above the circuit for £5. Truly smitten by the aviation bug, in 1910 he bought himself for £630 a brand-new Howard Wright (no relation) Avis monoplane, on which he taught himself to fly - crashing at the end of his first 300-yard flight on the 22nd October. Having had the Avis repaired, he continued but replaced it with a more robust Howard Wright biplane, on which on his first day of flying it he gained Aviator's certificate No 31 on 21st November - and took his first passenger aloft on the same day.

Less than a month later he had won the Baron de Forest prize for the longest non-stop flight from anywhere in England to anywhere on the Continent: this flight of 169 miles, taking three hours 40 minutes, earned him £4,000 - some £375,000 in today's money.

Thus rewarded, he embarked on almost a year's worth of demonstration and competition flying in the USA and on his return, even further enriched by that activity, set up the Sopwith School of Flying at Brooklands in February 1912. One of his most famous early customers was one Major Hugh Trenchard, who paid the Sopwith School £75 (£7,000 now) to be taught to fly in 10 days. Another was an Australian, one Harry Hawker, who was to become central to Sopwith's story.

The eldest of the trio, by a matter of months, was Barnes Neville Wallis. The second son of an unhappy marriage, his father a fairly unsuccessful doctor who was to be crippled by polio when Barnes was just six, leaving him to be largely brought up by his mother - the second of our subjects to suffer the effective loss of his father at a tender age.

While the Wallis family did not have the financial comfort of the Sopwiths, there was a parallel in their sons' schooling: having initially been sent to the girls' kindergarten at Haberdashers' Askes', Wallis' fortune was to be seventh of 10 successful candidates from a total of 110 in his year to gain entrance to Christs Hospital in Horsham; his misfortune that his crippled father argued with the headmaster to force him to study Latin, in which subject he failed in any way to excel, unlike his favoured science and mathematics.

He didn't run away from this unhappy situation, but his father's obstinacy cost him a year's advancement which he was to rue for the rest of his life. After Christs, he found an apprenticeship with the Thames Engineering Works, which built ships' engines and, having at last found a subject that interested him, was able to transfer his indentures to John Samuel White's shipyard on the Isle of Wight.

Wallis' graduation from ships of the line to ships of the air came indirectly from the failure of Britain's first airship, Mayfly, which was built by the armaments firm Vickers at Barrow but which proved both too weak and too heavy and broke its back before it could fly. The one person at Vickers who had foreseen this calamitous state of affairs, a draughtsman named H B Pratt, was let go, and found work in 1912 next to Wallis in the drawing office at Whites. A year later, Vickers and the Government had a change of heart about airships, Pratt was re-hired by Vickers as Chief Designer, and he in turn tempted Wallis to Barrow as Chief Assistant in the design office: Wallis was in the airship business.

When war broke out in 1914, Wallis tried to join the Navy but was called back to Vickers. Eventually succeeding in his military ambitions when the Government had one of its periodic losses of faith in airships, Wallis served for a few months in the Artists Rifles, and was then dragged back onto building airships as a Sub-Lieutenant, RNVR. From there, he again became a civilian and Chief Designer of Vickers' airship programme, initially trying to complete the long-overdue Airship No 9.

Over the next seven years he endured the ups and downs of airships, achieving his greatest success and failure at the same time with R.80, a beautiful, efficient but under-sized machine which was not accepted for service, and also suffering a breakdown. When the airship business took yet another downturn, Wallis - initially with the help of a retainer from Vickers - embarked on an engineering degree at London University and armed with this became a teacher at a school in Switzerland.

Eventually, Wallis found himself in 1924 in the role of Chief Designer to the Airship Guarantee Company, charged with designing the private-venture R100 counter to the Government's R101. It was on this project that Wallis first developed what was to become Geodetic construction, though in the airship it was really only in the wire bracing that enclosed the gas bags that a true Geodetic design was embodied. In the end, R100 was completed and even made a return crossing of the Atlantic to Montreal and back, but it was in truth not a successful design and would anyway be condemned by the catastrophic crash of R101. But by then, Wallis had already become the second of our trio to arrive at Brooklands - being appointed Chief Structural Designer, under Chief Designer Rex Pierson, of Vickers Aviation.

The third of the group was the youngest. George Robert Freeman Edwards (the "Freeman" never made it into the initials by which he became universally known as "GRE") was born above a toyshop in Essex which was owned by his father (who also ran the newsagent and tobacconist across the street) and uncle. As with the other subjects of tonight's talk, GRE also suffered parental loss, but his was the earliest of all, with his mother dying just two weeks after he was born, leaving the youngster to effectively be brought up by his aunt. Like Wallis, Edwards was to suffer the indignity of starting his education at a girls' school - "Warner College for Ladies - Little Boys accepted" where at least he mastered French, which stood him in good stead in his later battles with the French over Concorde. Unlike Wallis, he failed to realise his ambition to attend a Grammar School, discovering too late that he was three days too old when he took the entrance examination at 11, so he ended up at Walthamstow Technical Institute. Again, like Wallis, he was to go back to finish his engineering education at a later date, like Wallis taking an external engineering degree from the University of London.

GRE's career began further from aviation that did the others we are discussing here tonight - he started as a clerical officer for the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation, and a year later followed another parallel with Wallis by moving into the marine business as a junior technical officer at Hay's Wharf, inspecting cranes and lifting tackle. He progressed to actually building cranes for the docks (through which activity he became an associate Member of the Institution of Structural Engineers), and then after seven years applied for a job in the drawing office at Vickers Aviation at Brooklands.

So by 1935, our three future knights are all in place: they've all done their engineering training; they've all established their links with the sea; they've all found their way into the aviation business; two of them are working in the design department at Vickers at Brooklands, Sopwith's Hawker company is assembling aircraft here, and Vickers is building Sopwith's Hawker Harts here under contract as well.

For Sopwith, of course, there had been a massive transformation from those barnstorming years. In 1912, with the mechanic who had looked after his boat engines, Fred Sigrist, as his right-hand man, and Harry Hawker as Chief Test Pilot, Sopwith had set up the Sopwith Aviation Company in a roller-skating rink in Kingston upon Thames. He had already built his first Sopwith Hybrid - using the engine from a Blériot and the wings of a Burgess-Wright with Sigrist's own fuselage design - that worked so well he sold it to the Admiralty for £900.

Just three weeks ago we celebrated the centenary of this first build, with the Museum's Camel replica, a new-build Sopwith Tabloid and dozens of Sopwith and Hawker aircraft models, backed up by fantastic new display panels on display in Kingston's Market Square - and we hope most of this material will end up on display here at Brooklands Museum. A highlight of that celebration was a visit by Tommy Sopwith's son - also Tommy - who was keen to rebuild the links with Brooklands.

By 1914, the fledgling Sopwith company was ready to make its mark on the world stage, which it did most handsomely by winning that year's Schneider Trophy race for seaplanes at Monte Carlo - at an average speed of nearly 87mph... Soon afterwards came the great war, in which Sopwith designs such as the Pup, Dolphin, 1½ Strutter and, of course, the Camel and Tri-plane. By 1918, his company and others had built 16,237 combat aircraft: at the end of the war the RAF had 22,000 aircraft on charge, and 25% of them were Sopwiths. The success of his company had made Sopwith a wealthy man, and he was able to buy the 2,750-acre Horsley Towers estate, for which he paid the immense sum (for those days) of £150,000 - by extraordinary coincidence the same sum just 11 years earlier was enough to build the Brooklands Motor Circuit, inside whose boundaries the Sopwith final assembly plant now stood.

Immediately after the War, Sopwith set his sights on the challenge of crossing the Atlantic non-stop. The company built a large biplane, the Atlantic, powered by a single Rolls-Royce Eagle engine and fitted with a fuselage whose upper deck could double as a lifeboat. Harry Hawker and Lt Cdr Jock McKenzie-Grieve were the crew, but their attempt in May 1919 failed after only five hours, and the crew were reported missing for several days before the steamer that had rescued them reached the British coast.

The end of the War also brought a near-total collapse of aircraft orders, with many existing orders also being scrapped. There was no market for new aircraft, and in September 1920 Sopwith placed his company into liquidation - a decision at least partly driven by outstanding taxes on money earned during the conflict. He paid off all its debts, selling off parts of the Horsley Towers Estate to help - but made the Government wait nearly three years for the last of its money.

Two months later a much smaller concern, the H G Hawker Engineering Company, was set up, with most of the senior players from the old Sopwith company in their old roles, and the original factory back in business - though the nearby larger Government factory in Ham, which Sopwith had used during the war, was now engaged in building Leyland lorries.

Although this was a new and promising start, tragedy continued to dog Sopwith when only nine months later Hawker was killed testing a Nieuport aircraft that he was due to fly in the forthcoming aerial Derby. He had, for many years, been suffering from tuberculosis, and medical opinion after the crash was that he would have anyway lasted only a few more months.

Into the late 1920s and early 30s, a new team led by Sydney Camm brought an amazing array of Hawker aircraft into service, and the Hawker biplanes such as Hart, Hind, Audax and Fury at one stage comprised 80% of the entire RAF fleet, as well as equipping dozens of overseas air arms. Their success was such that Vickers ended up building aircraft under contract for Hawker, and Hawker itself expanded by buying the Gloster Aircraft Co in 1934, to give it extra production capacity.

The following year, Sopwith caused a huge stir by setting up a trust to buy the Armstrong Siddeley Development Co, whose assets included A V Roe & Co (Avro) - the company whose roots ran all the way back to A V Roe's first flying experiemtns on the Finishing Straight of Brooklands in 1908. The Brooklands connection continued! This new Hawker Siddeley company would, having absorbed other groups like De Havilland and Folland, become the colossus which in the 1960s faced the British Aircraft Corporation (into which Vickers and Bristol, amongst others had been absorbed) and which would be later forcibly merged into the state-owned British Aerospace in the 1970s.

So back to 1935. Sopwith's Hawker company was about to fly the most important aircraft it had ever built - the Hurricane. The RAF's first retractable-undercarriage eight-gun fighter was a giant step forward, but that would have counted for nothing had Sopwith and Frank Spriggs, his Managing Director, not made the extraordinary decision to order it into full production before the Government had placed an order. Thoe first 1,000 Hurricanes were the aircraft which were ready when war broke out, and which arguably did more than any other type to win the Battle of Britain.

Meanwhile Wallis, who had persuaded the Vickers management of the superiority of the Geodetic construction which he had been slowly refining since the airship days, had got the Wellesley bomber into production, relying on this technology. The Wellesley was a triumph for him, its lightness and strength contributing to its ability to fly great distances, as exemplified by the fantastic non-stop flight by three Wellesleys from Ismailia in Egypt to Darwin in Northern Australia in 1938. But the Wellesley was just the beginning.

On 15th June 1936 - 76 years ago last Friday - the prototype of what was to become the Wellington had its first flight from here. Its structure was pure Wallis, but the overall aircraft design was the work of Vickers' chief designer, Rex Pierson - and the man responsible for the design of the tail fin, rudder, tailplane and elevator was one George Edwards. Edwards, a far less prickly character than Wallis, was now embarked on a stratospheric rise through the Vickers ranks which would see him overtake the Chief engineer structures and then become his boss.

Edwards' first big promotion came in 1940, when he became Vickers' Experimental Manager, in charge of the Fox Warren satellite plant where prototypes such as the "Tin Mosquito" experimental twin-engined fighter were built, and by 1945 he had risen to Chief Designer of Vickers Armstrongs at Weybridge. Along the way, he had had his first direct experience of working with the Government, as a part-time member of Lord Beaverbrook's team which was trying to accelerate aircraft production throughout the country - the hangar standing outside on the Finishing Straight is a stark reminder of that work.

Wallis, meanwhile, was moving down the road that would characterise the rest of his career. His Geodetic structures were in production, and would feature in further aircraft - the Warwick and Windsor bombers, and the postwar Viking airliner, and he was nominally in charge of the conversion of the Wellington into a giant flying electromagnet - the DWI aeroplane.

But his career of designing aircraft structures was ending, and he had embarked on the weapons for which he would become famous - the so-called Bouncing Bomb (actually an aerial mine) and the deep penetration bombs such as Tallboy and Grand Slam. Evacuated with a small specialist team from Brooklands during the war to the Burhill Golf Club, he would return to Brooklands in a totally new role, as Special Director and head of an independent Research Department. His work in areas like high-altitude research in the wonderful Stratosphere Chamber built in 1947 would be vital to the success of designs created by Edwards' team - such as the Viscount, Valiant and VC10.

His forward thinking in supersonics - and even hypersonics - would extend into areas like swing wings and would eventually influence designs like the General Dynamics F-111 and the Panavia Tornado, but none of his postwar designs would ever reach production.

Edwards, meanwhile, would continue his rise, becoming chairman and managing director of the operating side of BAC in 1961, chairman of the overall BAC group in 1968. In the course of those years, he would head the British effort on Concorde, fight valiantly for the survival of the V1000/VC7 airliner derived from the Valiant bomber, and head a bitter but doomed battle to save the ill-fated TSR.2 from the savage cuts by the Wilson government in 1965.

The final three years of his career, however, were dominated by what he called "Mergeritis", the disease by which the government pushed through the conglomeration of the country's motor, shipbuilding and aircraft industries into giant state-owned combines which never matched their designers' ambitions. Sir George, as he had been since 1957, wanted no part of it, and he gracefully bowed out of corporate politics in 1975.

These three were, of course, very different characters, and the common link of Brooklands that bound them together didn't necessarily make them always see eye-to-eye. For instance George Edwards is quoted as saying of Wallis:

"...Wallis always was a problem, because he was determined that whatever was going to be done was going to be done his way... He had the ability to drive chaps mad. Having told a lad how he wanted something done a week or two before, the lad would do his best and burst his boiler to make it look decent. Then Wallis would turn up and say a few words like: 'I've never seen such rubbish'. The group leader would then be hauled over the coals and told to do a lot better."

Not that GRE saw this as a wholly bad characteristic, as he later elaborated:

"I used to grizzle about the number of times that I had to do what seemed to me as relatively simple things. But this was the outward and visible sign of Wallis' obsession with quality... He wasn't easily turned froma course he was set on, but he was a chap of great inventive genius and could see things that lesser mortals couldn't see."

George Edwards survived the other two members of this trio, and was able to give the address at the service of thanksgiving for Sir Tom Sopwith in the RAF's church, St Clement Danes in 1989. In conclusion, he said then of Sopwith:

"We thank God for putting you on this earth when he did, and for allowing you to stay with us for so long. And we give thanks too on behalf of the generations still to come for all that YOU did to enable THEM to live in freedom."

Those words could equally have been said of all three of our trio of Knights of the Air: Tommy Sopwith, Barnes Wallis and George Edwards.

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