English Electric Company

From Ultra Light Aircraft to Sea Planes to Supersonic Military Bombers.

English Electric was a multi-faceted industrial manufacturer of electrical equipment and machinery which was formed through the amalgamation of 5 major companies at the end of World War I.

 

These were: The Coventry Ordnance Works (Coventry), Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Company (Bradford), Dick Kerr and Company (Preston), The United Electric Car Company (Preston) and Willans and Robins (Rugby).

 

The company history has many twists and turns with amalgamations and diversifications so for simplicity, we only feature the aviation side of the business.


 
English Electric Black & White Logo
In 1897, Dick, Kerr & Company bought a disused factory in Preston and started to manufacture trams and electric locomotives.  In June 1905, it formally became known as the United Electric Car Company Ltd.
 
During World War I,  seaplanes designed at the S.E.S (Seaplane Experimental Station) at Felixstowe were actually being built externally by the likes of aforesaid Dick, Kerr & Company. Other UK engineering companies were involved such as the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Company, Willans and Robins Limited and the Coventry Ordnance Works.  
On 6th December 1918, that all changed when they merged into one entity, to be known as The English Electric Company with their aviation activities being concentrated on the Aviation Department at Strand Road, Preston and a small slipway at Lytham St Annes near Blackpool.
 

As war came to an end, so did the demand for the sub-contract production of military aircraft and so in 1921, English Electric decided to manufacturing their own aircraft.  

English Electric Wren J6973 at Ashton Park

The English Electric 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 aircraft received a warm reception with no orders being forthcoming although the 3rd aircraft produced (G-EBNV) went on to be the joint winner at the Daily Mail Light Aircraft Competition later that year.

English Electric M3 Ayr N148 launching trolley

The company's 2nd William Manning design, the English Electric Ayr Flying BoatEnglish Electric Ayr Flying Boat

A combination of the all-up weight (over 2-tons) and a difficulty in getting airborne resulted in the  project being abandoned in 1924.  The design had 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

 

The next in-house design, the English Electric Kingston Flying Boat, also proved equally problematic during 1926 and despite meeting the airworthiness requirements of the Air Ministry, it could not meet the requirements for seaworthiness and was not pursued 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 rebuilt in order to construct Handley Page bombers for the RAF.

During 1939 English Electric constructed a ‘shadow factory’ and a new airfield at Samlesbury, near Blackburn, for final assembly and flight test of the heavy bombers. In total, some 770 aircraft were built at Preston and Samlesbury which equated to more than half of the number of Hampdens that were ever produced.

During 1940, the runways at Samlesbury were extended and the factory expanded to produce the 4-engine Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber. Production was furious and 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 their 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 continue as an aircraft manufacturer after the war - it also recognised that they in order to survive that they would need to develop a new aircraft to their own design.  

New runways had originally been constructed on the banks of the River Ribble at Warton Aerodrome during 1940 and it had been intended that it would become a satellite airfield for RAF Costal Command, based just a few miles along the coast at Squires Gate, Blackpool.  Before completion however, it was re-allocated to the US Army Air Force who used it as a 'Base Air Depot' (BAD 2) for the processing of the 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 it became a non-flying storage depot. That was until May 1947, when English Electric moved its Design and Experimental activities to the site just 9 miles to the west of Preston.

W.E.W. 'Teddy' Petter had been recruited in 1944 to lead the Design Team and all their efforts were concentrated on a single design - the jet powered English Electric Canberra.  

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, especially with the RAF who had already ordered 132 aircraft without even seeing it fly.

Meanwhile, the Samlesbury facility concentrated on the assembly and flight test of the De Havilland Vampire, constructing 1,300 aircraft under licence.  Additionally, over 200 Avro Lincoln aircraft 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 Lightning emerges from the hangar at Warton

 

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

The Preston factory at Strand Road had remained within aviation producing various sub-assemblies and component until its final closure in 1992.

Since the beginning of the BAC era both Warton and Samlesbury have played significant roles in the military aircraft industry through the English Electric Lightning and English Electric Canberra, BAC TSR-2 and BAC Strikemaster, SEPECAT Jaguar, Panavia Tornado, BAe Harrier and BAe 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 whilst work on the next combat aircraft, Team Tempest, is continuing to grow.

Genealogy

  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

Aircraft

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

Other Information

Via email: BAE Systems North West Heritage Group (Warton) via Heritage@baesystems.com