WWI Aviation in Richmond

Original material held at Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Library and Archive

Women at a work bench, Whitehead Aircraft Original material held at Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Library and Archive

In the years leading up to the First World War, incredible developments were made in aviation. The Avro Triplane, an early aircraft built by A. V. Roe, first achieved a flight of 30 metres in 1909.[1] By the end of the war in 1918 planes were extensively produced by engineering companies across the country, as the technology proved itself useful in not only reconnaissance but also in attacking the enemy. In comparison with the Avro’s first flight of 30 metres, WWI planes were capable of long flights that enabled them to reach enemy lands. Heroes were formed in the shape of brave aviation pioneers.  Flight was no longer an amateur pursuit. Such developments in just a few short years led to the idea that “the main power of defence and the power of initiative against an enemy [had] passed to the air”.[2]

Richmond had a key role to play in the production of warplanes in the early twentieth century. Whitehead Aircraft Ltd occupied the old Richmond Drill Hall in 1914, under the auspices of John Alexander Whitehead, a timber merchant and former employee of Aircraft Manufacturing Company Ltd (AMC) in Hendon. Following a test order of planes from the War Office, the drill hall workshop later received an order for 100 Maurice Farman Shorthorns. The company acquired additional land at Hanworth Park, in Feltham, and whilst the aircraft parts were built in Richmond, the wings and additional parts were constructed at the Feltham site. In order to allow room for the aircraft to taxy the site, Whitehead instituted an engineering scheme that would cover the Longford River running through the site.

Whitehead Ad

Whitehead Aircraft 1916 Courtesy of Aviation Ancestry 9907

The company also went on to build Sopwith Pups, DH9 and DH9A. The first Pups were flown from Hanworth in early 1917 and delivered to the Royal Flying Corps. It produced a series of newsletters for its staff (which consisted of some women and disabled soldiers and veterans), known as Whitecraft, and provided them with a canteen. Skilled in the realm of publicity, Whitehead enrolled his staff in outside activities, such as the London Munitions Football League. At the Whitehead Aircraft Sports Carnival in August 1917, the Sopwith Company enjoyed a win in a tug of war competition against Whitehead team members.

Whitehead and his company suffered from a number of financial difficulties, particularly as war regulations ensured that profits in war time were restricted to 10%. Struggling with the peace time drop in demand for aircraft and battling with creditors, Whitehead Aircraft went into liquidation – but not before Whitehead revealed his conception of Hanworth as the London Airport of the future, predicting even commuting by plane.

In Ham, on the road between Kingston and Richmond, an aircraft factory was built by the Ministry of Munitions and leased by Sopwith Aviation. This was in addition the pre-existing factory site at Kingston roller skating rink, bought up by Tom Sopwith to expand his Brooklands sheds. Snipes, Dolphins and Salamander planes were built in large numbers. The staff at the Ham Factory mostly likely were drawn from both the Kingston and the Richmond areas. However, the factory suffered in a similar way to Whitehead when war ended, leaving huge stocks of unwanted parts. It was eventually sold to Leyland Motors.

Brooklands Great War 100: A special event to commemorate Brooklands’ role in the First World War will be held on Sunday 27th September 2015. Visitors can expect to see motorcycles, vehicles, and aircraft from the period up to 1919.

© Copyright Tony Grant and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Brooklands Museum © Copyright Tony Grant and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This blog was informed by an article written for Aviation News, February 1982 by Bruce Robertson.

With thanks to David Hassard of the Brooklands Museum for informing this blog post.


[1] Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roe_I_Triplane

[2] Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, November 1918 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Mitchell