Category Archives: Early Flight

100 years ago this October Supermarine was born

What does the name ‘Supermarine’ mean to you? The Spitfire? Nothing? An important company in Southampton’s history and later Swindon too? If you’re a football supporter to Swindon do you know what the connection is?

It meant little to me until my parents started looking into our family history and Dad began to speak of how important Supermarine was in our family when they lived in Woolston and once my interest is stirred I have a need to go and do some research. Why?

  • to know why the company was important historically
  • to find out what impact it had on my family
  • to understand how it changed every day lives of my family, their friends and neighbours.

This satisfies the social historian in me….not an exact science of facts and figures but and exploration of real lives for real and imaginary people. So here’s the historical facts laced with my interpretation in italics:

In 1913 Pemberton Billing, often described as a maverick in political terms, approached a little known boat builders called White’s in Itchen Village on the banks of the River Itchen.

I can imagine the rumours in the village pub, The Yacht Tavern while negotiations too place with Hubert Scott Paine in his yacht moored up the river.

He wanted to use the skilled craftsmen to build flying boats and an agreement was made to begin production in October 1913.  Supermarine was not the official company name until 1916, but Billing registered the name for telegram purposes but also had the name emblazoned on the roof in November 1913. 

I believe that the people of Itchen Ferry and Woolston would have been proud of the new developments and excited to see the newly developed flying boats take off from the river near where they lived and worked.

Supermarine Works & CHANNEL on slipway

Why Supermarine? The main use of flying boats for the military at that time was to look out for submarines….sub..under the water…supermarine…over the water. 

Why did he have the name painted on the roof? To be noticed from the air of course, especially to catch the attention of the military to be taken seriously and to gain orders and build business.

(For the family in my novel ‘Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home’ living in Woolston, split from Itchen Ferry only by the Portsmouth Road, I reasoned that this could only be good news, since two of the characters in my novel Ernest and Jack already worked at White’s. It meant better job security and job prospects.)

Flying boats were important in WWI to protect convoys, search for submarines and also to bomb strategic sites, out in Turkey for example.  In WWI they also helped in rescue missions for crews of sinking ships. It was a innovative development for the navy with the newly opened RNAS station along Southampton Water at Calshot. With the first sea plane carriers also in operation during WWI technological development was moving fast.

Why were flying boats so important to us in Britain?

Firstly there was no infrastructure of runways before WWI. Planes just landed where they could on fields and park land so it was quite reassuring, us being an island, that the aircraft could land on water. This was important, not only to impress the military but commercial projects later on. In 1913 it was only 4 years since the first ever flight across the channel.

If entrepreneurs were to persuade the wealthy public to pay for air transport, it was thought that they would be happier that the craft could land safely on land or water.

Supermarine Works c1919

Supermarine Works 1919

Supermarine’s most famous engineer RJ Mitchel was responsible for the development of more famous sea planes; the Sea Lion which won The Schneider Trophy in 1922 and the S6B  which won the Schneider Trophy outright in 1931.

Mitchel’s developmental work to such a high specification led on to the timely Spitfire. In the gallery of Solent Sky, the aviation museum in Southampton , there is an exhibit of small model aircraft right from those early sea planes to the Spitfire.

Many say that, if it hadn’t been for the development of the S6B, an amazing feat of engineering by Mitchel to develop the fastest amphibian aircraft in the world at that time, the technology would not have been in place to develop the Spitfire.

And so Supermarine was born one hundred years ago. It was a major employer in the area up until the second world war when Woolston’s Supermarine Works were bombed out, after the local people had been inspired by witnessing the first ever flights of the Spitfire right over their heads, including my father.

To me the facts are important, but it is the way in which I can weave lives of ordinary people through these facts that brings history to life. 

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Filed under Ancasta, Early Flight, Flying Boats and Sea Planes, Research, Schneider Trophy, Southampton, Supermarine, The Great War, Woolston

Amazing Female Aviators in the Early 20th Century ~ Hilda Beatrice Hewlett

Hilda Hewlett is my favourite of the early 20th Century aviators I discovered whilst researching, not only because she was English but I was also surprised to find out that she opened a factory making planes for the war effort (WW1) near to where I live in Leagrave, Bedfordshire.

When I have time I hope to research Hilda’s story in more depth and I will share it with you but here’s her story in brief:

Hilda Beatrice Hewlett 1864 – 1943

Background and inspiration to fly ~ Born into a wealthy but large family, she was educated at Kensington Art School in wood carving, metalwork and sewing, all skills she used later in life. She married Maurice Hewlett, a successful novelist and poet, and through him Hilda became interested in motorcars, becoming a passenger and mechanic to a female racing driver, Miss Hind.

In 1909 she became a friend of an engineer Gustave Blondeau, through whom she gained an interested in aviation and began to save up to buy an aeroplane. She travelled to France where she worked alongside the men building her aeroplane, where she called herself Mrs Grace Bird.

Aviation achievements ~ They returned with the aeroplane, called The Blue Bird, and set up a flying school at Brooklands where Hilda learned to fly. At 47 years old Hilda is the first English woman to gain a pilot’s licence in 1911. Alongside their flying school, where incidentally Tommy Sopwith also learnt to fly, they began making aeroplanes.

Notable difference ~ In 1912 she moved to Leagrave in Bedfordshire where she set up her own aeroplane factory where women were trained to build planes for The Great War. By 1918 they employed 300 men and 300 women. (Even her sewing skills came into use here in sewing the fabric on the wings of the planes.) Later, she was the first woman passenger to make the 11 day through flight from England and New Zealand and she was also involved in a commercial airline.

Death ~ Hilda Hewlett died at 79yrs.

If you know of any other early female pioneers in flying then please drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you or write me an email diana@dianamaryjackson.co.uk

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Filed under Early Flight, Frivolous Flying Facts, Research, Role of Women, The Great War, WW1

Early 20th Century Female Aviators ~ Ruth Bancroft Law

Was my third brilliant aviator from the early 20th Century the first woman allowed to wear an NCO uniform? Of course she didn’t fight in battle and there were characters like Joan of Arc and Boadicea before her, leaders of war in their day, but nevertheless Ruth Bancroft was a strong willed lady who deserves to be remembered, despite the fact the it was her husband who put a stop to her flying exploits.

Here is Ruth’s story:

Ruth Bancroft Law 1887 – 1970 ‘Ruth Law’s Flying Circus’

Background and inspiration to fly ~ A student at a private academy in New Haven CT, Ruth Law saw her first plane in the sky and fell in love with the idea of flying. 

Aviation achievements ~ She gained her pilots licence in 1912 and set the non-stop cross country record from Chicago to New York. It is also claimed that she was the first woman to do a loop the loop and to fly at night.

During WW1 she formed ‘Ruth Law’s Flying Circus’ to raise money for the Red Cross where cars raced aeroplanes and she flew through fireworks.

Notable difference ~ Due to her determination to contribute in a more substantial way to the war effort she was dismayed at the army’s rejection of her application to fly for them, but finally they allowed her to wear an NCO uniform whilst raising money for their cause. The first lady ever to do so.

The New York Governor chose Law to illuminate the Statue of Liberty which she circled three times with flares on the tips of her wings and a banner with the word ‘liberty’ on the fuselage.

It is strangely her husband who decided enough was enough, and put a stop to Law’s flying antics, by writing her notice of retirement in the newspaper in 1922!

Death ~Ruth Law died at the good age of 83 years.

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Filed under Early Flight, Frivolous Flying Facts, Research, Role of Women, The Great War, WW1