What preceded aircraft and tram activity at Filton is a little sketchy although it is certain that Sir George White (Bt), the then owner of Bristol Tramways, founded the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company in their maintenance sheds on 19th February 1910.
Sir George, a Bristol-born electric tramway pioneer, foresaw the potential in this new form of transport although he was a little concerned that the manufacturing and marketing of aeroplanes could be a sound business proposition.
In fact, White cautiously formed two companies: The Bristol and Colonial Aeroplane Company and The Bristol Aeroplane Company, the thinking being that one would be used for the ‘sale and flying of aeroplanes’ whilst the other would be for the ‘making of aeroplanes’.
The British & Colonial name was created as safeguard against trademark and any other naming issues that might emanate from objections from the Board of Trade for using the name ‘Bristol’. White simply opted to paint the name 'Bristol' on the tailplane of every aircraft. The identity proved popular in all areas and it was soon adopted for virtually each and every type for the next 50 years.
British and Colonial, operating from Headquarters at Clare Street House, had acquired a licence to produce an ‘improved version’ of the Société Zodiac (a biplane designed by Gabriel Voisin) which they exhibited at the Aero Show at Olympia in March 1910.
After the exhibition, they transferred the aircraft to Brooklands for what proved to be unsuccessful flight trials and with no sales, all further production or development was abandoned.
Bristol Aeroplane Company meanwhile, had set up a small 'flying ground' in 1911, opposite Fairlawn Avenue at the top of Filton Hill and within a few months the factory was building its first design, the Bristol biplane, later nicknamed the ‘Boxkite’.
The drawings for the aircraft were created in the Design Office in just 1 week which led to some claiming that the Boxkite was simply a copy of the Farman biplane that was already being built under licence by London-based Airco. However, an expensive court case decreed that the differences were substantial enough to disprove any claims of patent or copyright infringement and Airco and Farman dropped the case.
It was claimed to be the ‘First Military Aircraft’ and by the end of the year Boxkite production was in full-swing with examples being sent on sales missions to Australia and India, making it also one of the first real aviation exports from the UK.
In all, 78 Boxkite aircraft were built with all but 6 being produced at the Filton factory and it is now recorded that over 100 aircraft were created at Filton by 1911, somewhat of an achievement given that the first UK flight only occurred 3 years earlier. Later Bristol Aeroplane advertisements proudly proclaimed ‘3 aircraft turned out every week’.
Prior to the start of World War 1, British and Colonial and Filton played a part in the X-Department Project, headed by Lt. Dennistoun Burney, a naval officer who had become convinced of the possibilities of naval aviation and who had several technical ideas on the subject. Burney was eager to develop his idea, but he was lacking in technical resources to do so and he approached Bristol Aeroplane Company who immediately expressed an interest.
Having been assured of support from the Admiralty, they set up a separate and highly secret Design Office (the X Department) at the start of 1911.
Frank Barnwell was hired to act as designer and their first proposal (designated X.1) was an adaptation of a Bristol Gordon England biplane. Eventually, the projects were renamed ‘Bristol-Burney Seaplanes’ and two experimental machines (X.2 & X.3) emerged between 1912-14.
The aircraft, neither of which was successfully flown, featured a novel hydroplane undercarriage and although they were unsuccessful, their development was the basis of Burney's later invention, the Paravane.
Initial work concentrated on a sub-surface hydrofoil structure that when towed behind a suitable smaller vessel whereby it would plane just below the surface. It would be with built surfaces allowing it to cut through the mooring chains and ropes of defensive mines.
Other variants could be attached to the bows of navy vessells allowing them to sail alongside floating mines that would then be cut free and diverted away from the ship creating a safe lane for following fleets.
Burney even developed an explosive paravane as an anti-submarine weapon which featured up to 80 pounds of TNT which exploded on contact. Eventually, the X Departments efforts were quickly overtaken by what was to become the torpedo.
The British and Colonial designers meanwhile dabbled in racing monoplanes such as the Bristol Prier, of which 34 were built for Pilot Training, as well as competition. Sir George continued to expand the businesses at Filton Aerodrome, injecting more capital and taking on new engineers and consultants to design and build more Bristol aircraft.
At the outbreak of the first World War, Bristol Aeroplane Company responded with the popular 100 mph Bristol Scout, necessitating further production expansion into the Brislington Tramway Works to the south-west of the city.
1916 heralded the arrival of perhaps the most famous of World War I aircraft, the Bristol F2 Fighter which took to the air on 9th September.
Within a month it was joined by the Bristol Type 14 F2B and in all over 5,300 F2 Fighter aircraft would be produced at Filton and at Brislington. These were in addition to the 2,602 other Bristol Types being produced alongside aircraft models as the Bristol M.1 Mono Scout.
Sadly however, 1916 also saw the passing of company founder and the first Sir George White who suffered a heart attack and passed away on 22nd November. He was succeeded by his eldest son Stanley (who as Second Baronet, adopted the same name) who became Managing Director alongside his Uncle Samuel White who was Chairman of the now group of companies.
The Royal Flying Corps established the first military designation at Filton Airfield when 33 and 22 Squadron RFC took over some of the fields at the bottom of Filton Hill in January 1916. Flying RAE (Royal Aircraft Factory) B.E.2’s, they were soon joined by 66 Fighter Squadron RFC, flying Sopwith Pups. 66 Squadron was later transferred to France where it was equipped with Bristol F.2 Fighters in May 1917.
By the end of the conflict, the RFC had morphed into the Royal Air Force and Filton’s home Squadron (101) were disbanded during 1919. By comparison, things fell quiet on the airstrip once more.
During 1920, the Bristol name became more formalised by the liquidation of the British and Colonial Company with its assets transferred into Bristol Aeroplane Company Ltd. The factory building, assembly shops and hangars continued to expand after World War 1 and within that year aero-engine design and manufacturing came to Bristol.
Following extensive pressure from the Air Ministry, Bristol Aeroplane acquired the aero-engine division of The Cosmos Engineering Company (incorporating Brazil Straker) at Fishponds and it was this that was to form the nucleus of the Bristol Engine Company operations for years to come (latterly this became Rolls-Royce – Engine Division).
During the inter-war years, Filton and Brislington employed around 3,000 workers concentrating on a range of successful designs such as the Type 105 Bulldog and the less successful Type 90 Berkley. In all, 37 different types were produced and although some failed to reach flight, it was a superb example of the ingenuity and skill of the workforce within the Bristol factories.
As clouds darkened over Europe with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Bristol designers responded with the Beaufighter, a two-seat multi-role night fighter and ground-attack aircraft.
A shadow factory was created at Weston-super-Mare as well as an underground facility at Corsham to produce aero-engines.
Company headquarter operations moved to the Royal West Academy at Clifton and in all, over 42,000 people worked for Bristol Aeroplane Co. creating their famous aeroplanes such as the Bollingbroke, Beaufort, Buckingham and Buckmaster.
Filton itself became a major target for the Luftwaffe one day in September 1940 when without warning some 80 German aircraft descended from a midday sky, just as workers were departing for their lunch-break. Although the raid only lasted for 45-seconds, substantial damage was caused to the Rodney Road Works and the Flight Sheds including the destruction of 8 precious production aircraft.
In total, the raid claimed the lives of 132 people throughout the area which included 92 Bristol aircraft workers, along with 315 casualties. Hurricanes and Spitfires engaged the German raiders as they headed for home with 5 successful encounters to 1 British loss. In total, 8 German aircraft failed to return as one was brought down by the AA guns with two crashing in France during the return flight.
As the war came to an end in 1944, Bristol Aeroplane Company continued with its truly exceptional development of advanced aircraft and it created a helicopter division at Filton (although it was later moved to the Weston-Super-Mare) under rotary pioneer Raoul Hafner.
During the next 20 years they created the iconic Bristol Type 171 Sycamore, the tandem-rotor Type 173 and the Type 192 Belvedere, the only true British tandem-rotor helicopter to enter production.
The Weston-Super-Mare facility was later sold to Westland (Now Leonardo) in 1960 and although all signs of manufacturing or rotary aircraft are long gone, it still boasts one of the largest helicopter museum in the UK.
Meanwhile back in Bristol, the company was suffering with the immediate post war downturn in orders for aircraft and despite the development of the utility passenger workhorses in the Wayfarer and Freighter, Filton sought to develop alternative revenue streams such as automobiles.
The 2nd Sir George (S.M.) White had witnessed the effect on businesses at the end of World War 1 and, with a responsibility for a workforce more than 70,000, he had the foresight to lay plans ahead of the end of the second conflict.
As early as 1941, he had prepared the Board to look at the automotive industry as an alternative source of revenue, recommending the purchase of an existing, established name rather than starting from scratch.
Alvis, Aston Martin, ERA and Lagonda were all considered but a chance conversation between Eric Storey (assistant to Sir George) and Mr D.A. Adlington (a former Ministry of Aviation Inspector) revealed that Adlington was now a Director of Frazer Nash Ltd.
It was recognised that his ambitions and philosophy reflected that of the Bristol Aeroplane Company and so, with the support of the War Reparations Board, Mr Adlington travelled to Munich where he purchased the rights to manufacture 3 BMW designs plus the 328 engines.
By July 1945, Bristol Aeroplane Company had already created a Car Division (Bristol Car Company) and it decided to buy a controlling stake in Frazer Nash (AFN) including its licencing agreements with BMW. A factory was quickly established at Fishponds, not far from Filton, to produce the Bristol 400, a quality Sports Sedan of which 427 vehicles would be produced.
Sir George White and Reginald Verdon-Smith (a Director of the Aeroplane Company) had joined the new Board of Frazer Nash but in January 1947 and soon after the first cars had been produced, differences between the Aldington and Sir George led to the resale of Frazer Nash.
The Bristol Car Division continued production, using the 328 engines under licence and recorded a degree of success. It eventually became an independent company from the Bristol Group when it was purchased by its founder Sir George White, during the merger into British Aircraft Corporation in 1960.
The company eventually passed into alternative, full private ownership (non-White family) in 1973 when it was also moved from Filton to premises at Patchway. The illustrious name Bristol Cars continues today although in a much smaller fashion than during its heyday.
In addition to automobiles and other 4 wheeled vehicles, Bristol developed pre-fabricated aluminium houses during the mid-1940s and whilst these were predominantly built at Weston-Super-Mare (at a rate of some 1200 house per month) it was the Filton Design Offices that produced the initial designs.
In the aviation industry back at Filton, the focus had turned sharply towards commercial and passenger transport aircraft and the publication of the Brabazon Committee Report in December 1943 led a Bristol Aeroplane Company submission for the Category Type 1 requirement.
Filton had already been engaged in wartime investigations with the design of a 100-Ton bomber, so they had a distinct head start over the only other contender for the funding of a prototype, the Miles X-11.
The Bristol aircraft was named after the Committee Chairman Lord Brabazon of Tara and at the time it was said to be the largest aircraft ever built with 1,000’s of workers employed on the creation of this gargantuan aircraft.
1,000s of onlookers assembled at Filton on 4th September 1949 as the 8-engined behemoth took to the skies over Bristol on its 25-minute maiden flight. It had been conceived that in addition to extreme passenger comfort, the Brabazon would offer the traveller sleeping accommodation along with luxurious 5-star dining.
Sadly, the project suffered several serious structural setbacks and the airlines showed little interest. The problems exhibited by the prototype meant that it never received a full Certificate of Airworthiness and the whole project was abandoned.
The Brabazon stands out as a major achievement of the period and despite its commercial failure, the lessons learnt in area such as wing design can be seen in modern day aircraft and modern wing technology.
There was huge disappointment around Filton over the cancellation although this was to be partially offset by Bristol Aeroplane Company having also won the competition for the Category III sector of the Brabazon Report, calling for a 48-seat medium range aircraft. Filton personnel were already ensconced in the design and development of what would actually prove to be one of the companies most successful designs, the Bristol Britannia.
Capable of transatlantic flight, Chief Test Pilot Bill Pegg took the turbo-prop Type 101 Britannia into the air at Filton on 16th April 1952 and despite a few initial snags, the aircraft would go on to appear at Farnborough later that year where it became known as the ‘Whispering Giant’.
During the early 1950s, Britannia production at Filton was at full stretch which resulted in just 30 of the total 55 aircraft with the balance eventually being completed under sub-contract by Short Brothers in Belfast.
Filton and Bristol Aeroplane Company’s post-war activity emanating from Filton also included a missile development program, starting in 1949. This resulted in the design and production of an early range of missile products such as the Sea Slug and the Red Heathen.
One of the most successful projects was the Bristol Bloodhound, an easily transportable anti-aircraft system for the RAF, which entered service in 1958 and was eventually deployed as a defensive system for the UK’s V Force Bomber bases. Testing was predominantly carried out at Woomera, South Australia and led to the later establishment of the Guided Weapons Division.
During the latter part of the 1950’s, Filton and Bristol Aeroplane Company undertook several studies into super-sonic travel (SST) and these were to form the basis of the huge involvement the Bristol factories took in the production of what is probably the world’s most famous aircraft, the BAC Concorde.
During the early 1960s, a research aircraft was created in the Bristol Type 188. It was designed to test the feasibility of stainless steel in aircraft capable of Mach 2.0 travel.
However, by the time the aircraft was completed in 1962, the Bristol Aeroplane Company name was already disappearing due to the rationalisation of the aircraft industry previously announced in 1959.
The formation of British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) was the result of a government led merger which started in 1960 and took over 3 years to complete. It incorporated Bristol Aeroplane Company, Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft), English Electric Aviation Ltd and Hunting Aircraft. As mentioned earlier however, it did not incorporate Bristol Cars (purchased by George SM White) nor Bristol Helicopters, which was sold to Westland.
During the early 1960s, English Electric Lightning Trainers would often arrive on lorries at Filton, transported by road from Samlesbury, destined for final completion as part of a BAC work-distribution exercise. These were frequently seen alongside Avro Vulcans. The V Bombers were stationed at Filton at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, as part of the UK’s Nuclear Defence Force known as the V-Force.
One incident of note involved a Vulcan which arrived at the airfield from the west and in heavy rain. As it touched down and the brakes were applied, the aircraft aquaplaned along the wet tarmac. The pilot quickly decided to abort the landing and applied full power for a take-off instead.
Although the abortive manoeuvre was successful, unfortunately as the aircraft gained height the jet blast extensively damaged the Petrol Station at the eastern end of the runway - eye-witnesses reported seeing cars spinning everywhere on the A38 trunk-road. The fuel station was subsequently relocated.
The 1960s were an exciting time at Filton and the associated factories as it embarked on one of the most famous aircraft projects in the world with the design, development and production of the world's first and only supersonic passenger aircraft, the Concorde.
Working alongside the factories at Weybridge and Warton, Filton undertook the development and assembly of all of the UK Concordes. It was an enormous undertaking which presented problems and issues which had never been faced before and despite language and metrication issues, as the end of the decade approached the first aircraft neared completion.
Whilst a large proportion of manufacturing of the supersonic jet was carried out elsewhere, Filton held the responsibility for not only final assembly but also the manufacture of the engine bays. Working in close collaboration with Aérospatiale on the main aircraft and with Rolls-Royce / Snecma on the engines, the Filton designers and engineers overcame the language and cultural difficulties which had never been experienced in the aircraft industry before.
Yet again, the Avro Vulcan became a common sight at Filton once more as they took on the role of flying test beds for the development of the Rolls-Royce / SNECMA Olympus 593 engines which would go onto to be at the heart of Concorde's power.
The first flight of Concorde 002 (G-BSST) took place from the Filton tarmac on 9th April 1969, a short but historic trip to near-by Fairford.
10 aircraft were built in the UK (2 prototype / development test beds and 8 commercial) and their departure from Filton meant that the runway required further extension as well as jet-blast diverters for the nearby A38.
The last Concorde to leave Filton (G-BOAF) departed on 20th April 1979 although she left the factory registered as G-BFKX but without an airline owner. Eventually, she joined the British Airways Fleet and served on routes around the world.
However, on 26th November 2003, she made a return and final flight back to Filton where after many years of braving the elements she now sits resplendent in her own purpose-built display area for visitors to enjoy.
In 1979, British Aerospace became a formal partner in the Airbus Consortium and the ownership of the Filton site was transferred. When the former De Havilland / Hawker Siddeley facility at Hatfield closed, Filton took on a major role in the construction of wings for the growing Airbus range of aircraft.
During the late 1990s, lined-up Boeing 747-200s and Douglas DC8s would sit on the side strip of runways at Filton, awaiting transformation from passenger planes into freight transport planes by what would become BAE Systems.
BAE Systems, which had been formed in 1999 by a merger between British Aerospace and Marconi Electronic Systems, left civil aircraft development and manufacture to reorganise into a military manufacturer of aircraft, ships and other military products. It withdrew from Airbus in 2006, selling its shares to EADS, the European Aerospace Group.
During 2008, Airbus sold the Filton Site and most of its wing component business to GKN although both Airbus and BAE Systems maintained a presence at Filton with Airbus announcing the creation of a new ‘Aerospace Park’ in 2011.
On 26th November 2003, Concorde 216 (G-BOAF) made her final ever flight as she journeyed from Heathrow, passing over the Bay of Biscay before making several low passes over Bristol and swooping over the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Finally, she returned to Filton where she is now maintained in a new museum, Aerospace Bristol, opened in 2017 to the North of the old runway in Hayes Way, BS34 5BZ.
The future of Filton looks uncertain with several housing and commercial developments underway. One thing is certain however that the name Filton and Bristol will remain at the forefront of the history of the British aircraft industry thanks to the vision of one man over 100 years ago.
Filton Site Timeline
Bristol Aeroplane Company / British & Colonial Aeroplane Company established at former Tram Sheds at Filton Hill.
Filton creates its first aircraft - The Bristol Boxkite.
|1911||X Department created and Frank Barnwell joins the Design Team.|
|1914||Filton builds its first aircraft specifically for the Royal Flying Coprs (Bristol Scout).|
Production is at full capacity creating over 5,000 Bristol Fighters and 2,300 Scout aircraft.
Royal Flying Corps establishes a training camp at Filton.
Founder Sir George White passes away and is replaced by his son George Stanley White as MD.
|1919||As war ends, the RAF Quadrons are disbanded and Filton returns to civil use.|
|1920||British and Colonial are liquidated whilst a new Aero-engine business is formed at Fishponds.|
|1935||The Bristol Blenheim is a success with over 4,400 example being built throughout the UK.|
|1940||At the height of World War II, over 42,000 people were working at Filton and in the local area.German bombers attack Filton claiming 132 factory workers and civillians are killed.|
|1944||A helicopter division is formed under Raoul Hafner (Later moved to Weston super Mare).|
|1945||Bristol Car Company created.|
|1948||The gigantic Bristol Brabazon flies at Filton (Subsequently cancelled 1953).|
|1952||The new Bristol Britannia has its maiden flight and goes into full production.|
|1959||Bristol Aeroplane Company is merged into British Aircraft Corporation.|
|1959||Bristol Bloodhound Missile System enters service.|
|1960||Bristol Car Company was sold to Sir George Stanley White as part of the Nationalisation program.|
|1962||With the signing of the joint treaty, work commenced on the development of Concorde.|
|1969||First flight of Concorde.|
|1977||BAC merge with Hawkers Siddeley Group to form British Aerospace.|
|1979||Final Concorde depart Filton and the company amalgamates as part of the Airbus Consortium.|
|1999||British Aerospace merge with Marconi Electronic Systems for form BAE Systems.|
|2006||BAE Systems withdraws from the Airbus Consortium and Filton changes ownership once more.|
Aerospace Bristol (www.aerospacebristol.org)