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.
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’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.