With war clouds gathering in Europe, Sopwith needed to find larger premises to meet the increased demands for new lighter than air machines.
Roller Skating Rink
Thomas Octave Murdoch (Tommy, later Sir Thomas) Sopwith, a wealthy young sportsman interested in aviation, yachting and motor racing, formed Sopwith Aircraft Company in 1913 at Brooklands.
In December 1912, and following their first aircraft sale, Sopwith moved into the company's initial factory in the Central Hall Roller Skating Rink behind the Cinem Palace and adjacent to the railway station in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey although they still retained their existing sheds at Brooklands Race Track and Flying Grounds for flight testing.
That first order for a Sopwith Hybrid (sometimes referred to as a Sopwith 3-seater tractor biplane) came from the Admiralty as in those early days before the RFC (or RAF) they oversaw the purchase of lighter-than-air machines.
With further orders placed, 6 craftsmen were employed with Sopwith’s good friend and pilot Harry Hawker assisting in the design and test flying. As demand grew so did the work force with carpenters, panel beaters, wirers and welders all worked in the 13,000 square foot great hall which was ideal for aircraft manufacturing given the lack of roof support columns.
Mostly in their 20s, the innovative Sopwith Team developed better and better aircraft, employing talented designers such as Fred Sigrist and later Herbert Smith. Sopwith accounted for the design and production of more than 25% of all fighter aircraft produced for World War One.
Design and development work continued in what soon became the ‘Experimental Department’ and even later became Hawker Aircraft’s Tool Room right up until the 1960’s when the buildings were finally sold.
Canbury Park Road Factory
In 1913, the company acquired a large plot of land just a 100-yards up the road (between number 27 and number 37) and erected new premises to produce early WW1 aircraft types.
The aircraft they designed and built for the Royal Naval Air Service soon came to the attention of the Royal Flying Corps and the Sopwith 1½ Strutter became the first fighter aircraft to enter service with the RFC.
The Canbury Park Works grew rapidly, acquiring its residential neighbours as it expanded to meet demand. Surrounded by roads, it soon became known as ‘The Island’ and grew from 14,000 square in 1913 to 40,000 square feet by 1917.
Built from brick, its main building reached up for 3-storeys and featured a sawmill, machine and sheet metal shops, tool stores, aircraft assembly floors together with separate dope and paint shops. One whole wing at Canbury Park Road was dedicated to separate departments for sales, ordering and accounts.
The Sopwith team built 3,600 aircraft of 32 types in Canbury Park Road and, in total, 15,000 aircraft they designed were built across the country for World War One (20% of all the aircraft built for the British forces) with the Sopwith Camel probably being the most famous aircraft of the era.
A further 4,200 Sopwith designed aircraft were also built in France.
As war came to an end the orders for military aircraft ceased and Canbury Park struggled for its very existence. After a number of failed collaborations, the end of 1920 and the liquidation of Sopwith Aviation, Canbury Park became the home of the newly formed, initially much smaller, H G Hawker Engineering Company.
Sopwith’s chief test pilot Harry Hawker, together with Thomas Sopwith, Fred Sigrist and Bill Eyre had created a new firm, starting afresh from the Canbury Park Road premises building a string of world-class biplane light bombers and fighters including the Hawker Fury, Hawker Demon, Hawker Hart and Hawker Hind designed by Sydney Camm.
Camm had met Sopwith and Hawker whilst working as a designer at Martinsyde Aircraft Company at Brooklands and it was a relationship that was to forge the future of the British aircraft industry.
By January 1935, Camm had completed his initial design work on a new single-seat monoplane fighter with an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage and eight machine guns - the Hawker Hurricane.
The prototype aircraft was created at Canbury Park in what is now the Grade II listed Siddeley House and when it flew from Hawker’s shed at Brooklands that November, the Hurricane laid the foundations of British air defence for World War 2.
In readiness for the Hurricane, a new design office had been created with the original Administration Building extended.
World War Two saw the Hurricane become a major player in the Battle of Britain with Canbury Park, Brooklands and Langley producing some 9,986 aircraft. After the Hurricane, Camm went on to design the all-aluminium Hawker Tempest, the RAF’s fastest fighter of WWII with a top speed of over 450mph.
The post war years saw the dawn of the jet era and the challenges of building more complex all metal aircraft.
Canbury Park had developed from a traditional a woodworking factory and was not suitable or large enough to replace all the work being done at the Langley factory. In 1948, the availability of the Richmond Road Ham Works one mile north, convinced Hawkers that it was time for a major re-organisation. The decision was made to relocate Langley work to the Ham Works and progressively to relocate the whole company there although it took until the early 1960s to fully evacuate and close the Canbury Park Road factories.
Ham Works, Richmond Road
Like most other aircraft companies, Sopwith Aircraft Company were not keen on inexperienced contractors building their designs. So when it was proposed in 1917 that a new factory be built by the Government for high-volume sub-contract manufacture of aircraft just a mile up the road, they took almost immediate action.
Negotiations had already started with Lord Weir ‘for his company to work this factory on behalf of the Government’ when Sopwith Aircraft Company made a successful counter-bid to lease the new facility and use it to rapidly expand their own aircraft manufacturing. As a result, Kingston was the first of these new government-funded National Aircraft Factories into production.
Contract prices for Sopwith airframes remained roughly the same whilst others trebled in cost at the other three 'contractor-run' facilities.
The site may have been chosen because it was only a mile from the existing Sopwith Aviation factory in Canbury Park Road since 1912.
The No.2 National Aircraft Factory, based on the Richmond Road at Ham, between Kingston and Richmond upon Thames, was built on 38-acres of riverside land that had been requisitioned from the Earl of Dysart (of Ham House) under the Defence of the Realm Act.
It was constructed in just 26 weeks by Dick, Kerr & Co Ltd between October 1917 and April 1918 for the princely sum of just £220,000. The cost has been later quoted as £233,000 but this probably included some machinery. The first aircraft was completed at the Ham Works on 1st June 1918 and in total, 788 Sopwith Snipe fighters and 357 Sopwith Salamander Trench Fighters were produced at the huge factory.
In addition, a few Sopwith Dragon fighters were also built before orders for much greater quantities of the type were cancelled following the unexpectedly early end to the war in November 1918.
Sopwith production was at full capacity when World War One came to an end and having invested heavily in plant, equipment and materials, they were left floundering when the Government demanded the return of the war loans and excess war profits duties. Sopwith himself initially suggested a reduced lease for the factory that was refused. He followed his with a verbal purchase price offer of around £80,000 but this too was dismissed by the Minister. As it transpired, neither offer would have been supported by the Board of Sopwith Aviation Company as it felt that the much reduced on-going orders for Sopwith aircraft could be accommodated in their original factory in central Kingston and that they had no need for the Ham Works.
With restricted availability of credit, and despite a joint venture with ABC Motorcycles, Sopwith went into liquidation whilst the Kingston operations were ‘closed for stocktaking’ during September 1920.
The Ham Works was sold to Leyland Motors, who initially carried out reconditioning work on ex-War Department vehicles for public and commercial resale. At one point, 3,111 ex-RAF Leyland G-type 41/2-ton lorries were parked at the site either completed or awaiting upgrade.
From 1923 to 1932, Leyland also used the factory to build some 17,000 of the extraordinary Trojan two-stroke light cars and 5/7cwt vans under license from the designer Leslie Hounsfield. Customers could learn to drive their new Trojan cars and vans around the large Ham Works site before driving them home.
Between 1931, and the start of the Second World War, the Leyland Cub light lorry and bus chassis were built at the Ham Works and from 1933, they also offered finished vehicles with their own Kingston-built bodywork, including flatsides, dropsides, refuse trucks, fire engines and tippers.
During the war, production switched to 4-wheel military Lynx G.S 3-ton tucks (1500 built) and the Works manufacture a wide variety of products including land mines, 41b incendiary bombs, desert water carriers, tank gearboxes and powered gun turret drives and eventually, whole Centaur tanks.
After the war it returned to making chassis for trolley buses.
By 1946, Leyland had joined forces with AEC as British United Traction (BUT) and increased trolley bus chassis production to a point that by 1947 they had accumulated orders for 500 machines.
A major re-organisation of the motor industry and consolidation into factories predominantly based in the Midlands, saw the Ham Works listed for closure once again.
Meanwhile, Hawker Aircraft, who were still based at the Canbury Park Road factory, needed a larger factory to replace that and their Langley satellite factory near Slough to build Jet aircraft. The Ham Works was purchased by Hawker in 1948 for £585,000 and thus the site restarted aviation activities relating to the development of jet aircraft.
A new office frontage was added, creating an impressive façade to the important military aircraft factory.
After building the first 35 Hawker Sea Hawk naval jet fighters the swept wing transonic Hawker Hunter jet fighter became ‘super priority’ for the RAF and the Ham Works was used to build 957 Hawker Hunters and Hunter 2-seaters (and later refurbish hundreds more).
Many improvements were made to the site, which had hardly been changed by Leyland from the original National Aircraft Factory and in 1958, an impressive new office block housing the Hawker Design Offices was built on the front, with a large new experimental workshop and ground testing laboratory was across the back.
Following cancellation of orders for supersonic fighter designs, the Hawker Design Team came up with the unique P1127 V/STOL Jump Jet, which first flew in 1960.
21 prototype and evaluation aircraft led to the production of 146 Hawker Harrier, 105 Sea Harrier and 123 AV8A aircraft (mostly for the US Marines). A further 96 BAe / McDonnell Douglas Harrier IIs were built for the RAF at the Ham Works, together with major components for 326 similar US Marine AV8B aircraft.
The final product designed and built at the Ham Works was the Hawk Advanced Trainer famously used by the Red Arrows and sold to air forces around the world. First flown in 1974, nearly 1,000 Hawks have been built, the first 350 at the Ham Works and it has the distinction of being the last purely British designed and built military aircraft to enter RAF service.
In 1977, during all this, Hawker Siddeley Aviation was nationalised into British Aerospace (BAe) and in 1990 they announced that remaining Harrier and Hawk work was to be progressively transferred to other BAe factories.
The site was run down and eventually closed at the end of 1992.
In 1993, the ‘temporary’ 1917 National Aircraft Factory No2 was raised to the ground and the site, now known as Royal Park Gate, was sold to developers who had built 360 homes there by 1995. The only remaining buildings are the YMCA Hawker Centre to the south of the site by the River Thames, which was the Hawker Athletic and Social Club.
Ham Works Timeline
|1917-18||Aircraft Factory No 2 Construction by Dick, Kerr & Company|
|1918||First aircraft constructed|
|1919||Sopwith offer to purchase the site but turned down|
|1920||Sopwith Aircraft are liquidated|
|1920||Factory sold to Leyland Motors|
|1948||Hawker Aircraft purchase the factory|
|1958||New extensions and building added including the impressive new frontage.|
|1960s||Manufacture of the Harrier and Hawk aircraft|
|1977||Hawker Siddeley nationalised into British Aerospace|
|1992||Factory eventually closed.|
|1993||Factory site demolished|
- The Hawker Association (www.hawkerassociation.org.uk)