In a sleepy corner of Kingston lies an aviation icon…
If one ventures to Canbury Park Road in Kingston these days it is hard to find anything to write home about. Just a slightly grimy offshoot of Richmond Road, opposite the railway station and nestling on the edge of Kingston’s dreaded one-way system.
Yet by wandering up past the tattoo shop and continuing into suburbia for just a few hundred yards, one is actually in the presence of greatness. The buildings become a little outsized – and they echo of some of the greatest British engineering of all time.
In December 1912, the 24-year-old aviator Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith purchased the Victorian roller skating rink which sat on Canbury Park Road. The fad for skating had passed and his needs were pressing – a smooth, clear floor was needed upon which to chalk out the lines of Sopwith’s home-made flying machines.
Even then Kingston was a busy town and very much part of London’s south-western sprawl. Ordinarily it would be an inconvenient place for building aircraft but as Sopwith specialised in fitting floats to his machines to take off and land on water he could – together with his mechanic, Fred Sigrist – easily hump his creations down to the River Thames and take off where it straightened out just north of Kingston Bridge.
Although it was an age far removed from modern ‘elf and safety’ concerns, the influential River Thames Conservancy group took umbrage at such use of the river – and so too did the local constabulary. As a result, Sopwith tended to fly off at the first light of dawn – but later invested in a Daimler lorry for transporting new aircraft down to Brooklands, equipped with wheels rather than floats for undercarriage.
Nevertheless, Sopwith’s seafaring aircraft were a hit. In 1913 the company’s most ambitious project to date was undertaken in partnership with the S. E. Saunders boatyard of East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, building the wood-hulled ‘Bat Boat’ which brought truly amphibious aviation to life.
Sopwith’s ‘Bat Boat’ became a roaring success
The success of these early models – the ‘Bat Boat’ was sold not only to the Royal Navy but also its Greek and German counterparts – saw the building of a factory in Woolston, Hampshire. Yet Sopwith retained Kingston as his centre of operations and soon there would be far more to the premises than the old ice rink.
The First World War brought about a massive expansion to Sopwith’s factory. His delicate little Tabloid seaplane made the early running, but in 1916 he employed Yorkshireman, Herbert Smith, as chief designer – and Sopwith became a fabled name almost immediately.
The Sopwith 1½ Strutter by Herbert Smith launched a famous line of fighting aircraft
Smith’s first design was the two-seat 1½ Strutter, which finally gave reconnaissance crews flying over the Western Front sufficient performance to survive against Germany’s new breed of single-seat fighters. Then came his brilliant line of single-seat fighting scouts the Pup, Triplane, Camel, Dolphin and Snipe… all of which were born in the heart of Kingston.
The original ice rink was supplemented by a saw mill and carpenters’ shop on Elm Road in 1914-15, doubling the size of the property, which doubled once again in 1916-17 with the addition of woodworking, paint and tinsmith’s shops.
In 1917 the government also built a new ‘national’ factory at Ham, between Kingston and Richmond, which was also leased to Sopwith for the duration of the war. In total, Sopwith employed 5,000 staff and 16,000 aircraft were built – although many were sub-contracted to firms such as the Lincolnshire farm equipment manufacturers Clayton & Shuttleworth and Ruston Procter.
The Sopwith Camel was called the ‘king of air fighters’
If the armistice of 1918 declared time on ‘the war to end all wars’ then clearly, society had no need of fighter aircraft – and Sopwith was immediately in trouble. The Ham plant was reclaimed by the government and sold to Leyland to convert ex-military trucks to civilian use.
By now Sopwith was a crippled firm which was also being pursued for Excess War Profits Duty. After a final, flailing effort to turn its wartime products into civilian aircraft and a doomed partnership with ABC Motorcycles, Sopwith went bust in 1920.
From the ashes of one fighter firm came another, however, fronted by Sopwith’s chief test pilot Harry Hawker together with Thomas Sopwith, Fred Sigrist and Bill Eyre. The new firm, H.G. Hawker Engineering, started afresh – albeit from the Canbury Park Road premises – to build a string of world-class biplane fighters such as the Fury, Demon, Hart and Hind designed by Sydney Camm.
Hawker aircraft like the Demon filled RAF squadrons between the wars
In 1934 the renamed Hawker Aircraft Limited bought out Gloster aircraft and a year later merged with Armstrong-Siddeley to create an aviation conglomerate comprising Hawker, Gloster, Armstrong-Whitworth and Avro under the banner of the Hawker-Siddeley Group.
Meanwhile life in Kingston carried on as normal. By January 1935, Sydney Camm had completed his initial design work on a new single-seat monoplane fighter with an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage and eight machine guns: the Hurricane. When it flew from Hawker’s shed at Brooklands that November, the Hurricane laid the foundations of British air defence for World War 2.
In readiness for the Hurricane – and doubtless with a weather eye on the increasing belligerence of Nazi Germany and the other fascist states – the site in Kingston was effectively levelled and a new factory complex erected in its place. The original administration building was retained – albeit in extended form – a while a nest of red brick sheds with slate roofs standing 2 or 3 storeys above Canbury Park Road.
All focus was fixed on the Hurricane as WW2 approached
It was from here that the war work was carried out, with the various iterations of the Hurricane and Sea Hurricane being followed by the Typhoon and, by the end of the war, the Tempest and Sea Tempest.
With peace and the arrival of the jet age it was clear that the Kingston plant could no longer cope with the demands being made upon it. So it was that Hawker left its home in 1948, moving back to the factory up the road at Ham which it had vacated 30 years earlier.
The story of Hawker and the Hawker-Siddeley Group in Britain’s golden era of jet production can be told another day. For the Canbury Park site there was little sentiment – even if it was unique as the birthplace of more war-winning weaponry than any other factory in the world.
The only overt sign of the Sopwith building’s true purpose…
Today the most obvious link between the past and present is in the form of a wrought iron fence which features four-bladed propellers as a motif. This fence rings the original nerve centre of the factory, the design office and administration building, which dates back to 1914 and updated in 1935.
From here the great Sopwith and Hawker designs of two world wars first emerged and it is an impressive edifice, blending a little bit of all styles from Georgian to Art Deco – which doubtless made it a mouth-watering prospect for the developers. Today this is one of the Ritzier residential plots in Kingston and a highly desirable address.
Gateway to the heavens: the main entrance to Sopwith and Hawker’s HQ
Around it one or two of the 1935-era industrial buildings remain, red bricked and metal trussed, such as the Experimental Shop. Some are a little careworn, but they do at least remain, and will continue to do so under Grade II listed status – the surviving parts of the oldest purpose-built aeroplane factory in England.
A little piece of history – the Experimental Shop today