back to article Kingston's aviation empire: From industry firsts to Airfix heroes

He learned to fly aged 22, set up his first aircraft factory aged 24 and by 30 his fighters dominated the skies over the Western Front. Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith - later, Sir – founded the Sopwith Aircraft Company in 1912, turning out aeroplanes from a Edwardian roller-skating rink in Kingston upon Thames. Yes, the …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Richmond Road site

    There's a bit of confusion here about the Richmond Road site; the YMCA and the playing field in front of it formed the Hawker Athletic & Social Club, not the site of the factory. The factory was on the other side of the wall on the northern boundary of the social club, entirely within what is now the housing estate.

    Strange that there was no mention of the Hunter. It was the money made from that hugely successful fighter that paid for the rather elegant façade on Richmond Road. A couple of hundred Hawks also rolled out (or rather were driven out on the back of a flat-bed truck) of that factory!

  2. AbelSoul

    Fantastic artcile

    Nice one Reg. I've missed these geeks guides.

    More of this kind of thing, please.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Fantastic artcile

      Yes, please!

  3. Bob Wheeler


    The HS Hunter was a wonderful looking jet aircraft, far more elegant then the moden jets.

    I remember, many years ago seeing the Swiss Airforce display team flying Hunters during the mid/late 70's.

    1. Vinyl-Junkie
      Thumb Up

      Re: Hunter

      The Patrouille Suisse were still flying Hunters well into the late 1990s! I was lucky enough to enjoy their performance several times at RIATs.

    2. Steven Jones

      Re: Hunter

      I recently took this picture of a hawk (XL592) which used to be sitting on a concrete plinth at Booker airfield looking very sorry for itself. I cam across it in a field at the back of the 15th century Ockwell's Manor, on the outskirts of Maidenhead. Since I took the photo it's paint job has been completed with RAF roundels.

      The Hawk was/is a very tough aircraft, and I suspect it will be flying long after more modern fighters are grounded as it is relatively simple. Unlike modern aircraft it doesn't need complex electronics to fly, and I suspect the Hawk will be flown by enthusiasts long after modern fighters are grounded.

      There is something about highly tuned machinery from the 60s, whether it's fighter aircraft or racing cars. They somehow "look right" whilst the modern stuff just seems to have ugly bits tacked on.

      nb. I'm not sure the item mentioned that Tommy Sopwith almost won the Americas cup in 1934 and there was more than a little controversy about the result.

      1. /dev/null

        Re: Hunter

        Ummm, you mean Hunter, not Hawk?

  4. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    don't forget

    the role that Dunsfold played in latter years of the Kingston Plant.

    I worked at Hawkers in 1975/76. I only left because of the £6.00 a week pay max rise that was imposed by the then Labour government.

    Sounds silly now but back then Graduates were on starting salaries of around £2400 a year.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: don't forget

      And before Hawkers bought Dunsfold there was Langley - doomed by Heathrow - that did a lot of production and final assembly work.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    And kids today seem to learn that the only two British aircraft in WW2 were the Spitfire and the Lancaster (and possibly the Mosquito) - the Hurricane and the Tempest just don't get the same share of mindset.

    The Tempest was, I think, the last production aircraft to use a sleeve valve engine. With the relatively primitive production facilities of the 1940s the sleeve valve could produce more power than a poppet valve design owing to the lack of (and limitations of) the hot exhaust valves of the poppet design. It was a pity that by the time Napier got serious about its engine and started making it properly the end of the War was in sight and the jet engine was already taking over. Whatever the reason, the Tempest shot down a number of ME-262s - though these were so unreliable that if the Germans had enough fuel to keep them up long enough, the engine would eventually blow up.

    [edit - oh yes, excellent article. If we are very good please can we have more like this?]

    1. SkippyBing

      Re: Spitfire

      I think the Sea Fury was actually the last sleeve valve engined aircraft produced, using the Bristol Centaurus, although that too was a Hawker aircraft being a decendent of the Tempest. It was as fast as the early jets and shot down at east 1 MiG-15 in Korea.

      Having said that the Airspeed Ambassador also used the Centaurus and I'm not sure what the production dates were for that.

      Incidentally the original aim of the sleeve valve, as I understand it, was to reduce the diameter of the engine by removing the valve gear which lead to less frontal area and drag.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Spitfire

        Thanks for the info.

        Whatever the original aim, Sir Harry Ricardo worked with the sleeve valve because he could not see a way to get the volumetric efficiency and compression ratio any higher with the poppet valves (and the petrol) of the day. We ended up with the disaster of leaded petrol to overcome the CR problems. The trouble with sleeve valves (apart from the mechanical and wear issues) was that it was never possible to get a clean exhaust because of the amount of lubrication needed.

        Adding lead to petrol. It's a reminder that we do actually need organisations like FoE, dopey as they can be at times, because corporations can be even more egregiously stupid.

    2. JetSetJim

      Re: Spitfire

      Well, hopefully this article and the work by Kingston Aviation will not consign their work to a footnote. I went to school less than 100m from the Canbury Park Rd and there was not even a mention of it in any of our history lessons, which is a real shame. I remember the days of nipping out the school to go down there to the local newsagent to buy a shandy and pretend we were drinking real beer.

      1. Kd

        Re: Spitfire

        Which means you must have gone to exactly the same school as myself!

        I posted on my chosen social networking site almost exactly the same thing, with the added 'Epic Fail, Tim McCann, Epic Fail'. History would have been much more interesting for this budding engineer, if it had been mentioned, and I could see the factory whilst eating my chips, at lunch time!

        1. JetSetJim

          Re: Spitfire

          Not only the same school, I even had the same history teacher so we're roughly the same era :)

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    And I have to say - "Octave" - that's a *proper* gentleman's middle name.

    1. graeme leggett Silver badge

      Re: Brilliant

      see also Octave Chanute.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A very poor legacy

    "His legacy? BAe Systems, the successor to those early firms: an £18bn global colossus employing 88,000 people....."

    Not much of a legacy for a commercial and technical pioneer. BAe hasn't designed any aircraft in their entirety since the Hawker Siddeley initiated the 146 and the Hawk in the 1960s using slide rules and paper. And BAe has never even got involved with any aircraft development at commercial risk, choosing to run away from civil air transport, and wait for the clowns of the MoD to pass them vast sums of money for follies like Nimrod AEW3, MRA4, or to continue to make Cold War relics like the Typhoon, and then do daft things like strap bombs to jet fighters, because neither the useless, useless MoD, not BAe's management had bothered to think that we might need strike aircraft as the antiquated Tornadoes came to the end of their useful lives.

    If anybody wants to get a real feeling for Britain's aviation heritage, then instead of looking to BAe, they should take a trip to the Shuttleworth Collection (which I assure you is a fantastic day out, far more engaging than the impressive but sterile RAF museums).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A very poor legacy

      There's very little of Hawker Siddeley in the modern BAE Systems. The BAC crowd won out in the power games after BAe was formed, and when did BAC ever take a commercial risk?

      1. Peter2 Silver badge

        Re: A very poor legacy

        As a point of detail, the Shuttleworth collection has the last production version of a Sopwith Triplane in the world.

        It was built faithfully as a reproduction to the original plans. Sir Tommy Sopwith decreed that it should be considered a one off extension of the original production line rather than a reproduction. It therefore carries a Sopwith builders plate with the next number in sequence in the cockpit, a priceless gift to the enthusiasts who built the aircraft.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A very poor legacy

        When did BAC ever take a risk? Hmm. Let's see: have you ever heard of Concorde? That job started out when BAC stood for Bristol Aeroplane Company and got going properly when BAC stood for British Aircraft Corporation.

      3. /dev/null

        Re: A very poor legacy

        Indeed there's not a lot of actual aircraft design/manufacture in the modern BAE Systems - only one division ("Military Intelligence & Air") really does much of that any more (although Regional Aircraft at Prestwick could possibly in theory design you a new aircraft). After various acquisitions, there are now many and varied lines of business including armoured vehicles, guns, ships, submarines, electronics, "intelligence services", etc etc. Hence why "BAE" doesn't stand for anything any more...

  8. graeme leggett Silver badge

    First floatplane?


    Henri Fabre's Hydravion , France 1910

    followed by

    Voisin brothers' Canard, France 1911

    The Wrights gave the first controllable aircraft but France was where powered aviation got going thereafter. With a lot of cross-Channel activity by British aviators.

  9. Semtex451

    Can I just ask here

    Are we making any planes at all in the UK anymore?

    1. A Twig

      Re: Can I just ask here

      Off the top of my head:

      AgustaWestland still make helicopters here I believe - the new AW159 is being developed in Yeovil.

      Rolls Royce make components (wings, engines etc) but not full aircraft.

      Airbus wings are made in Broughton by Airbus UK.

      Final assembly of the Eurofighter Typhoon is done by BAe in Warton.

      Britten-Norman build small transport aircraft completely in the UK - airframes were outsourced to Romania but now back.

      Bombardier make parts here, as do GE, as do GKN, There are probably some others...

      1. Semtex451

        Re: Can I just ask here

        Thank you.

        To my shame I wasn't aware of Britten-Norman, but I suppose its a less glamorous end of the market.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Can I just ask here

          Their site in the UK is less than glamourous too, it just looks like a hangar on a small private airfield rather than an aircraft manufacturer, tucked away as it is next to Whitecliff Bay on the IoW.

          I should also add it has survived despite several changes of ownership and near collapse on more than one occassion.

    2. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Can I just ask here

      There are a few:

      However, of those listed only Britten-Norman could be said to be a manufacturer of civil/military aircraft, most of the others seem to serve the recreational market.

      1. Vic

        Re: Can I just ask here

        There are a few:

        Strictly speaking, AeroElvira should be added to that list, as they're still sort of going - but they only have one Optica, and don't seem to be building any more.


    3. phuzz Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Can I just ask here

      Roll-Royce might only make engines rather than whole planes, but those engines power almost half the jet aircraft in the entire world.

    4. montyburns56

      Re: Can I just ask here

      Yes, if you are including Airfix ones.

  10. MJI Silver badge

    Excellent article

    I never knew about Sopwith and Hawker being basically the same company

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Spitfire vs Hurricane

    The Hurricane also dominated the RAF’s count of mono-wing fighters – outnumbering Spitfires at the pivotal Battle of Britain. Hurricanes scored more aerial victories, too, during that conflict: 1,593 of a total 2,739.

    Given that there were more Hurricanes in the air it stands to reason they would have a higher success rate. I also seem to recall that the main duty of the Spits was to deal with the Luftwaffe fighter escorts and then the Hurricanes were free to clean up the unprotected bombers.

    When I was a sprog I was a massive plane anorak. In the olden days you could write to all the UK aircraft manufacturers (enclosing an SAE) and then receive data sheets and glossy 10x8 black & white photos (real photos too) in return. Those were the days.

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Spitfire vs Hurricane

      The Hurricane was a very fine aircraft, with many plus points over the Spitfire (it's much easier to repair holes in canvas rather than aluminium for starters), but to me none of that counts, as my granddad worked on Spits during the war so there's no contest for me.

    2. BoldMan

      Re: Spitfire vs Hurricane

      > I also seem to recall that the main duty of the Spits was to deal with the Luftwaffe fighter escorts and then the Hurricanes were free to clean up the unprotected bombers.

      This is a myth that is oft repeated but it just wasn't true.

  12. macjules
    Thumb Up

    Great Article!

    Thanks. A lovely, well written and well researched piece.

  13. harryhedgehog

    Title pic brings it back!

    Glad to notice that your title pic of the Sea Harrier hovering in a cloudly background was in fact my father flying his FRS Mk1 for 800 Squadron (no 123) landing on an American carrier. As a 10 year old I couldn't have been more proud of having a dad that was a Sea Harrier pilot.....awesome read, just awesome!!!

  14. myhandler

    Eh, this is weird - my luxury office is in the featured Siddeley House - if I'd known El Reg were taking pics you could have had a guided tour - fyi, it's not owned by Serviced Offices but by a private landlord who cares for the building, no expense spared.

    (trivia point: my parents knew Tommy Sopwith)

    When I moved in I researched the aviation history thoroughly - yes, there should be more than the odd plaque, but what?

  15. Valerion

    Great article

    I've worked in Kingston for a few years now and never knew any of this!

  16. D@v3

    brilliant article

    I grew up in Kingston in the 90's after my family moved there are the end of the 80's.

    I am slightly ashamed to say I had no idea about this fairly significant piece of what is fairly recent history, of what (until recently) is my home town. Reading about areas that I know (many summer evenings spent in Canbury gardens) and having a lot of the names of places make sense has been a revelation.

    This is why I read the Reg.


    (might have to hop on my bicycle this weekend and have a look around with newly opened eyes)

  17. MrRoland

    I cried when they knocked this place down.

    Real tragic shame to have that place under the wrecking balls. They should have at least kept the front of the building. When I think of the F35 and what was in R&D years before, the P1154 or even the other design studies in the 1980s. Makes me sad. Also the double shaft of 1986 that ensured this place closed down.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I cried when they knocked this place down.

      I transferred from Kingston to Farnborough in 1992 just before Richmond Road was closed. It was heartbreaking watching the previously busy factory go silent and get gutted as everything was auctioned off. No way was I going back, knowing what would happen to the place afterwards.

  18. Ian Halstead

    Tubular steel

    I think the rear section of fuselage behind the cockpit was constructed with tubular steel lengths with duraluminium cross members, and then covered with fabric. Tough and easy to repair.

  19. Kev99 Silver badge


    I'm something of a history buff and really enjoyed this article. I had no idea the Harrier was the Camels "grandson". I can understand somewhat why BAe bugged out of Kingston. It probably had as much to do with saving a few pence as keeping the crybabies silent.

    Good article.

  20. captain veg Silver badge

    Small point

    "Sopwith was liquidated in 1920 and Ham was sold to British car maker Leyland Motors"

    Leyland was mostly a lorry and bus maker until it merged with BMC in the 1960s.


  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "[...] he bought up rivals including Gloster Aircraft, maker of the nippy little Gladiator biplane fighter and later a manufacturing plant for Hurricanes and Typhoons."

    Gloster made the first British jet that came into production too late to have any impact on the outcome of the war.

    It is said that even late in the war Hitler wouldn't countenance the idea of having to provide a major defensive air strategy in Germany. So the limited Me262 jet production gave priority to the light bomber version rather than the fighter.

  22. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    "the Camel, best all-round fighter of the First World War"

    Er, no. The Camel was very effective in 1917, but in 1918 it was too slow and had too low a ceiling for the newer German fighters like the Fokker D.VII(F). The Germans largely abandoned the old form of turning dogfight in 1918, at which the Camel excelled, and concentrated on dive-and-zoom attacks. This change in tactics left the slower Camel at a disadvantage and it was surpassed by Allied designs with inline engines like the SE5A. Probably the ultimate fighters of the Great War were the few Bristol M.1 monoplane fighters, but they were held back by the RAC's (and later the RAF's) bias against monoplane designs.

    1. itzman

      Re: "the Camel, best all-round fighter of the First World War"

      its more complex than even that.

      WW1 saw a continuous evolution of aircraft with tactics changing as aircraft capability changed.

      Its not really meaningful to talk about the 'best' aircraft.

      Camels were for a time there best there was on the allied side, although the Nieuport wasn't bad, then SE5a, SPAD and the Bristol fighter came in with more power and easier flight characteristics and the rotary engine died the death.

      Monoplanes were distrusted - the thick wing needed for structural integrity was reckoned to be aerodynamically unsound, and indeed at lower speeds a thin curved wing does work better, but as speeds grew so the Schneider trophy races lead to the sort of monoplane design that culminated in the Spitfire.

      Oddly while the hurricane owed a lot to earlier biplanes in terms of 'frame and canvas' construction, the spitfire owed a lot to biplane thinking in terms of a large wing area of slender dimension. That gave it the excellent turn it had, but made it a poor gun platform as the wing was not stiff enough to preserve the orientation of the machine guns under recoil over any sort of range.

      Ultimately the Tempest was the peak of Hawkers WWII efforts, tough, murderously fast, heavily armed and able to withstand punishment - although the engine problems were never really solved.

      Post war, you have to say that the Hunter was the best and most successful aircraft Hawker ever produced. The Harrier was good, but ultimately its role has been replaced by the attack helicopter.

      1. SkippyBing

        Re: "the Camel, best all-round fighter of the First World War"

        Talking of wing stiffness, the Seafire XV which was the first fitted with a Griffon engine, could suffer wing twisting at high speed when the ailerons were deflected. Essentially rather than rotating the aircraft the force on the wing caused it to twist and the aircraft to roll the opposite way to that expected. It tended to end badly for those involved.

  23. Richard Barnes

    And let's not forget the IT angle

    British Aerospace were one of the few companies who trained up programmers from scratch. I worked at a software house in Guildford in the early 90's and several of my colleagues were people who had cut their first lines of code on a BAe training scheme.

  24. Matt 70

    Kingston Polytechnic

    No mention in the article at all of this being the mechanical and aerospace engineering facility at Kingston Polytechnic until the mid 90's.

    I even saw Manic Street Preachers in the very modest Canbury Park SU bar one time.

    1. Frankee Llonnygog

      Re: Kingston Polytechnic

      A band I was in played there! We played on even while the stage was invaded by rugby players dressed as Roman soldiers. Happy days.

    2. Verne

      Re: Kingston Polytechnic

      I recall concerts in that bar. All the equipment had to go in the small service lift. Getting a stage up there was a nightmare!

  25. Stratman

    Kingston is also where England came into being

    In the year 927, when Athelstan united the separate kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia and became the first king of England.

  26. ecofeco Silver badge

    Handsome devil

    Rich, handsome and smart and a ground breaking inventor and successful entrepreneur.

    Sort of the Elon Musk of his day.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The last Harriers sold to the USA

    Of the last 76 Harriers sold to the USA 74 were serviced and upgraded and cost the USA just £1.5 million each.The USA are modifying 73 for their own use,they are not using them for spares.

    It still defies belief that the government virtually gave all 76 aircraft away for less than the cost of just one of the American F35 aircraft designated their replacement.

  28. Lien

    Sir Sydney Camm

    Sir Sydney Camm's house, Carradale, 29 Embercourt Road, Thames Ditton, KT7 0LH where he lived from 1938 to 1966 doing various designs as homework, has been bought by Shanly Homes to demolish and erect four little houses. They were told of the heritage value but are not interested in the least. Perhaps if people objected to their planning application 2015/1910 at they could be reminded that demolishing the house of the designer of the Hurricane in the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain is perhaps bad taste whether or not the right to do so was what all the fighting was for.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ".. an engine capable of operating in all theatres of war – European, desert and tropical while the Spitfire suffered engine problems outside Europe.."

    Little bit puzzled by this. Weren't the Hurricane and the Spit both powered by the same Merlin engine, at least in the early war years?

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