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English Electric Company

From Ultra Light Aircraft to Sea Planes to Supersonic Military Bombers

 English Electric Company

English Electric Black & White Logo
English Electric was a multi-faceted industrial manufacturer of electrical equipment and machinery.  It specialised in motors, transformers, railway locomotive and traction equipment although in much later years it expanded into consumer electronics, nuclear reactors, computers and of course, aviation. 
In 1897, Dick, Kerr & Company bought a disused factory in Preston and started to manufacture trams and electric locomotives  and in June 1905 it formally became known as the United Electric Car Company Ltd.
During World War I,  the seaplanes designed at the S.E.S (Seaplane Experimental Station) at Felixstowe were being built externally by the likes of aforesaid Dick, Kerr & Company, together with Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing and Coventry Ordnance Works.  On 6th December 1918 that all changed when they merged into one entity, the Aviation Department of The English Electric Company.

Production was concentrated at Strand Road, Preston with a hangar and slipway at Lytham St Annes, near Blackpool where the flying boats were tested. 

In 1921 English Electric attempted manufacturing their own aircraft, albeit on a minor scale with the EE Wren at Strand Road.  The Wren was designed by William Manning as an ultra-light monoplane for the Air Ministry, who were exploring applications for extremely light aircraft (gliders) for short distance reconnaissance roles.  The 3rd aircraft went on to be the joint winner at the Daily Mail Light Aircraft Competition later that year.

Their 2nd aircraft was on a much grander scale with the  English Electric Ayr flying boat (also designed by William Manning) although the project had to be abandoned in 1924.  The design called for the bomb load to be beneath the waterline and it was found to roll to the right during take-off trials and more importantly it refused to leave the water.

EE Ayr construction
English Electric Ayr construction in 1924 with Kingston prototype in background

The English Electric Kingston Flying boat proved equally problematic in 1926 as despite meeting the airworthiness requirements of the Air Ministry, it could not meet the requirements for seaworthiness and was not persued passed the prototype stage. 

Aircraft manufacturing lasted at the Preston Factory until 1926 when all production activities ceased (although they restarted aviation activities in 1938).  However, with war in Europe looming once more, the outdated buildings were demolished and then rebuilt in order to construct Handley Page bombers for the RAF.

During 1939 English Electric also constructed a ‘shadow factory’ and a new airfield at Samlesbury near Blackburn, Lancashire to assemble Handley Page Hampden Bombers from the components that were made in Preston – in total some 770 aircraft were built, which equated to more than half of the number of Hampdens ever produced.

During 1940 the runways at Samlesbury were extended and the factory expanded to produce the 4-engine Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber. A total of 2,145 Halifax's were built by English Electric with a peak delivery rate of 81 aircraft a month (achieved in February 1944).

In 1942, English Electric acquired the aero-engine manufacturer Napier & Son and extended the Design Department (which previously only existed to support the production facilities) to prepare for the development and production of a new Folland aircraft.

As it turned out the Folland project was cancelled although the Board of Directors had already decided that English Electric should remain as an aircraft manufacturer after the war - it also recognised that they would need to develop a new aircraft design of their own.  

New runways had originally been constructed at Warton Aerodrome during 1940 and it had been intended that it would become a satellite airfield for RAF Costal Command, based jus a few miles along the coast at Squires Gate, Blackpool.  Before completion however, it was allocated to the US Army Air Force and used as a Base Air Depot (BAD 2) processing thousands of aircraft on their way into active service over mainland Europe and North Africa during World War II.  

When the USAAF left Warton in 1945, the site reverted to RAF ownership and became a non-flying storage depot until May 1947 when English Electric moved its Design and Experimental activities to the site alongside the River Ribble.

W.E.W. 'Teddy' Petter had been recruited in 1944 to lead the Design Team and all efforts were concentrated on that single design.  After an extremely frustrating period of post-war austerity the English Electric Canberra was finally completed, making its first flight in 1949.  It was an immediate success with the RAF who had already ordered 132 aircraft without even seeing it fly.

Meanwhile, Samlesbury concentrated on the assembly and flight testing of the De Havilland Vampire, constructing 1,300 aircraft under licence.  Additionally, over 200 Avro Lincolns received major updates to their electrical systems and radars at Samlesbury.

In the meantime, Warton development of military aircraft moved on at a rapid pace with the design and first English Electric Lightning P.1A making its maiden flight on 4th August 1954.

English Electric Lightning emerges from the hangar at Warton
English Electric P1.B Lightning at Warton

The aircraft division of English Electric changed its name to English Electric Aviation Ltd in 1959 before it became an integral part of the merger which became British Aircraft Corporation in 1960.

The Preston factory remained within aviation until 1968.

Since the beginning of the BAC era both Warton and Samlesbury have played significant roles in the military aircraft industry through the EE Lightning and Canberra, BAC TSR-2 and BACStrikemaster, SEPECAT Jaguar, Panavia Tornado, BAE Harrier and Hawk, and of course Eurofighter Typhoon.

Today they are heavily engaged in the ongoing development of Eurofighter Typhoon and are playing an integral part in the new F-35 Lightning II.


  Dick Kerr & Company
  WB Dick
  John Kerr
1918 English Electric Company
1959 English Electric Aviation Limited                                            
1960 British Aircraft Corporation
1977 British Aerospace
1999 BAE Systems


1921 Wren                                            1949 Canberra 
1924 Ayr  1954 English Electric P1.A / Lightning
1924 Kingston     

More Information

email: BAE Systems North West Heritage Group (Warton) via