Tag Archives: flying boats

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

Colin van Geffen – Local Historian and Artist

This is the first in a series of blogs to acknowledge the many people who have given me support and encouragement during the research and draft stage of my novel Ancasta – Guide me Swiftly Home.

Colin van Geffen

I have a great deal to thank Colin van Geffen for. Firstly he gave me a great deal of support during my research into the history of Woolston, Southampton, in particular the history of the early development of aircraft manufacturing in the local region.  I was soon aware that he was also an artist who delighted in aviation and local seascapes and so it was a natural step to ask Colin if he would like to design the cover for my novel, which he was pleased to agree to. In fact he has painted an acrylic for a second edition of Riduna too, which will be out at the same time.

Here are the two new covers, first for Riduna, showing the wild and rugged coast of Alderney as Harriet would have seen it, from her home in Platte Saline, looking out towards Fort Clonque.

Here is the front cover for Ancasta, of the familiar floating bridge over the River Itchen towards Woolston and the Supermarine Works from Southampton.

The back cover is in fact a watercolour looking down from an aircraft out towards the docks, Southampton Water, Hythe and Calshot. As I explained in my last blog, Ancasta was the Goddess of the River Itchen, from which my novel flows to The Channel Islands and the world beyond.

If you have been reading my recent blogs, you will be aware that ‘Ancasta’ my second novel  and the next in The Riduna Series, has a theme running through it reflecting the early years of  flying boats, mainly at Woolston Southampton. The story itself is romantic, historical fiction, but my aim was to be as realistic as possible as to the lives my family might lead, living in Woolston Southampton from 1910, as we left them at the end of Riduna.

It was in my early days of research for the novel, on my second visit to Solent Sky the air museum in Southampton, that it was suggested I ask to speak to local historian who specialises in giving talks about the development of flying boats, in particular The Schneider Trophy, Colin van Geffen.

It was immediately apparent that Colin was not only knowledgeable, had a sense of humour, but he also needed to be reassured that my interest was genuine, and so he stopped me mid sentence with a question,

‘And so what is the difference between a flying boat and a sea plane Diana?’

‘Well,’ I hesitated, realising that my credibility might hang on my answer, ‘I believe a flying boat is a boat with a hull that can fly, whereas a sea plane is an aircraft that has floats so that it can float on water.’

I smiled nervously, with my fingers crossed that I had passed the test, but not leaving it at that Colin pointed to a photo behind my head and asked,

‘So what is that?’

‘It’s a Supermarine flying boat,’ I replied confidently.

From then on Colin was always there to answer my questions, check my facts, read through my manuscript for inconsistencies or factual errors regarding local history and more recently to design my book covers.

I am grateful to Colin for all of his support, patience and encouragement along the way!

If you would like to see more of his varied work then visit his website:

Colin van Geffen

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Filed under Alderney, Ancasta, Early Flight, Flying Boats and Sea Planes, Research, Riduna, Woolston

The oldest ‘Flying’ Flying Boat in the World! -Another Flying Fact from Diana

Having watched in awe as the Bleirot took off and hovered above the ground at Shuttleworth in 2009, 100 years since it first flew in 1909, my interest in old aircraft took off, if you’ll excuse the pun!

Following this, my researched honed in on early development of flying boats, mainly due to my links with Woolston and Supermarine and so I was excited to visit Duxford last autumn to climb aboard the Catalina and then watch the old bird glide above us like a giant albatross. It was while watching this spectacle that I started my quest to find the answer to this question:

What is the oldest, airworthy, flying boat in the world?

Now, on their interesting Catalina website, it tells you that the Catalina XPY-1 first flew in January 1929 in Maryland. Quite impressive!

But is it the oldest?  

I was enamoured to see an old Southampton, well, what remains of it, originally built by Supermarine in 1925 but now in Hendon museum; with its carefully built wooden hull, crafted and varnished to perfection, but however impressive it is to look down into this aircraft, of course it cannot fly.

In the end I asked the same question on the Flying Boat Forum, a place where you will meet enthusiasts; experts in the unusual history of this unique craft. You see, there’s nothing quite like a Flying Boat. A sea plane or float plane looks good, but there’s something very special about a flying boat. My next blog will be more about the differences and why these aircraft were so special, especially when they were first conceived.

I had some speedy responses which narrowed it down to a Sikorsky  Type S39, an interesting looking craft, camouflage painted in brown and white no N50V. You can click on the following photo below by Nick Dean to see many more on the site where it came from.N50V @ IA27 - / - by Nick Dean

This Sikorsky can be found in Florida, owned by Kermit Weeks and I’m told is part of The Fantasy of Flight museum collection.

Imagine my delight when another member sent a response of a link to a video where an Sikorsky S38 is on an amazing flight. It tells us in the introduction that the aircraft first flew in 1928, so I think I have my answer. Thanks guys! I’ll have to think of some more questions.  

This is truly a pleasure to watch. Enjoy!

Video of the 1928 Sikorsky

You can find more information on Seawings, The Flying Boat website.

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Filed under Early Flight, Flying Boats and Sea Planes, Frivolous Flying Facts, Supermarine, The Shuttleworth Collection, Woolston