Rochester, Kent is home to the UK based elements of BAE Systems’ Electronic Technology platforms and is situated just to the north of Rochester Airport.
Its history could be considered as complex as it includes a number of famous tenants and owners throughout its 85 plus years of excellence.
Short Brothers had been building aircraft on the Isle of Sheppey since 1909 and their success required a move to larger premises for the production of seaplanes.
In 1913, they commenced the ‘Seaplane Works’ alongside the Medway at Borstal near Rochester which not only provided sea access but also allowed the space for further development.
Aerial view of Shorts factory on the Rochester Esplanade
In 1937, Shorts won a British government defence contract for a military flying boat, the Sunderland, which was to become one of the most effective long-range seaplanes in use.
Shorts survived the slump post World War 1 with rationalisation of its workforce and by diversifying into building Bus and Tram bodies. In the period between the wars Shorts started building a highly successful range of Flying Boats such as the ‘Calcutta’ which permitted long-range airline services between outposts of the British Empire.
Rochester City Council established Rochester Airport in 1933, with an initial acquisition of 105 acres of land bought for just £10,000.
Rochester Airport 1934
The company also saw an increasing success with its land planes and it needed a factory and airport at which to build them.
The Council recommended that Short Brothers be given a lease for some of the land required for flying, on condition that the land was to be used as an Airport and that public landing and flying rights were preserved.
Scylla under construction at Rochester Airport Feb 1934
They opened a brand new factory at Rochester Airport for the production of the Shorts Scion and the huge ‘Scylla’ passenger aircraft. Subsequently, the the factory on the Isle of Sheppey was subsequently closed.
In 1934, Douglas Pobjoy moved his firm (Pobjoy Airmotors) to Rochester Airport where they made aero engines and later constructed aircraft, becoming increasingly dependent upon Shorts.
In about 1935 however, Oswald Short realised that the Esplanade Works was not adequate for the workload and entered into discussions with Harland and Wolff in Belfast and the business of Short Brothers and Harland was established in Belfast in 1936.
Rochester in World War II
With the imminence of World War II, Shorts were given a contract to build the Stirling four-engine bomber and during 1939 - 1940, extensions to the main works began in preparation for the production.
However, the airfield was highly vulnerable to air attack and indeed the factory was bombed heavily during the Battle of Britain with a large number of Short Stirling aircraft destroyed. Despite this, around 538 Short Stirlings were actually built at Rochester during the war years.
With the ending of the war, Stirling production ceased and moreover, the Government decided to concentrate Shorts production efforts in Belfast.
In June 1946, the closure of the Shorts Medway Towns factories was announced and the site quickly fell into disrepair. By October, the Board of Trade had allocated some 350,000 sq ft (nearly half of the Shorts Brothers factory space) to three key businesses.
Leon Bagrit of B & P Swift and Geoffrey Lee of Elliott Brothers collaborated on their approach to the government to acquire space at Rochester.
Their bid was successful and airfield factory space was taken by B & P Swift Ltd and its subsidiary company Swift and Swallow Ltd.
They agreed to employ over 450 men in the manufacture of gears, automatic scales and hydraulic pumps whilst Elliott Brothers (London) Ltd undertook to employ a further 500 men in the manufacture of electrical and mechanical instruments.
A year before their move to Rochester however, Leon Bagrit acquired control of Elliott Brothers London (1947) who are described on a separate page elsewhere on the website (Under Construction).
Bagrit set about restoring the Company’s business and in 1957 Elliott Brothers (London) and Associated Automation Ltd of Willesden merged to create Elliott Automation, pioneering the use of computers in industry and making 'automation' a household word.
Work on avionics such as Autopilots and Inertial Navigation systems were transferred from Elliott's Lewisham site to the new Rochester facility.
By 1961, it was claimed by some that The Elliott-Automation Group was now the largest company in the world devoted to System and Control Engineering. It was also thought that they led the way in the development of automation techniques around the world.
In 1962, Elliott Flight Automation was established with its headquarters at Rochester, with the first of the Tower buildings being constructed in the same year.
A further acquisition was made of the aircraft displays sector of Rank Cintel, who subsequently transferred their activities from Sydenham to Rochester in 1963, creating the Airborne Display Division. By 1966, Elliott’s had occupied nearly the whole of the Airport Works and had built two further Tower blocks.
It had also occupied and extended much of the Flying School site. The company continued to expand through the 1960s,, and grew to employ around 35,000 people.
However in 1967, the company underwent an uncontested take-over bid from English Electric
English Electric and GEC
Under the takeover, Elliott Flight Automation were joined together as one entity at Rochester with Marconi (who had also recently been acquired) to become English Electric (Electronics & Automation), thus bringing together the electronics and automation capabilities of all three companies under one roof.
Later in the same year, a further industry merger took place when GEC and English Electric joined forces and Rochester became the home of GEC- Elliott-Automation and GEC- Marconi-Electrics.
These new groups would settle as Marconi-Elliott Avionic Systems although the name changed again to Marconi-Elliott Avionics the following year.
Ten years after Elliott had first merged with Marconi and English Electric, the company became Marconi Avionics Ltd and whilst the number of employees had dropped from the 1960s high, it steadily increased again to around 12,000 between 1978 and 1982.
A further name change occurred at Rochester in 1984 with the amalgamation into GEC Avionics Ltd and within four years sadly the trading name of Elliott Brothers London finally disappeared.
In January 1993, the company became GEC-Marconi Avionics Ltd, bringing together four different businesses into one unit.
Another name change arrived in 1998 as the company became Marconi Electronic Systems, before its merger with British Aerospace in late 1999 to form BAE Systems
Today, Rochester is still home to the UK based part of the Electronic Systems business and produces commercial aircraft avionics for Boeing and Airbus, Head-Up Displays for military aircraft, Helmet Mounted Displays such as Striker II and the Active Inceptor for the new F-35 Lightning. Behind its modern facade, those Elliott’s buildings from the 1960s still form the backbone of the site infrastructure.