During 1907, when Hugh Locke-King designed and built his famous banked race track at Brooklands, he could have known little of aircraft and the way in which they would influence motor racing activities in the years to come.
This was the first purpose-built race track anywhere in the world and it was created after the Motor Car Act of 1903 placed a blanket speed limit of just 20 mph on all public roads. The UK motor industry was in its infancy and needed somewhere to test its new developments without the interference of bureaucracy - where better than on a closed, banked-circuit of 2.75 miles.
The track was nearly 100-foot wide in places to allow for maximum spectator visibility and which at times exceeded over 270,000 enthusiasts and fans. People flocked from all corners of the UK and Europe to witness the high-speed thrills and spills of the new sport of motor racing.
Over the next 5 years, drivers and teams smashed all previous speed and endurance records and weekend meetings drew in many of the brightest and inventive characters of the era such as Charles Rolls, T.O.M Sopwith, Harry Hawker and Alliott Verdon-Roe.
Engineering, power and speed were their chosen drug and Verdon-Roe even located his workshops at Brooklands to exploit its convenient potential as a Flying Ground during the week and then to capitalise on its proximity to London and his well-heeled investors. It was at a race meeting that Roe ‘A.V’ met other visiting and influential aviators such as Louis Paulhan and Henry Farnhan.
Manoeuvring AV Roe's Triplane out of the shed at Brooklands 1909
Roe was one of the UK's first aviation pioneers and his supporters make the claim that in fact that he was the first in the country to command powered flight when he ‘flew’ at Walthamstow Marshes in 1908. Their claims were never officially recognised however and discounted from being a ‘Controlled Flight’ as his only witnesses 'could not be relied upon' as they were both in his employ. In fact, that honour went to American Showman Samuel Cody at Farnborough in October of that year. Frenchman Loius Paulhan was the first man to make a powered flight at Brooklands however, doing so in October 1909 and witnessed this time by a stunned 20,000 crowd.
Roe left Brooklands during 1909 after a heated dispute with the landlords and he set up shop nearer to his Waltham Resting Grounds. Later he established an aircraft works with his brother Humphrey at Brownsfield Mill, Manchester.
Meanwhile back at Brooklands, aviation activity expanded further with a Flying School being opened by Hilda Hewlett and Gustave Blondeau in late 1910. Throughout Europe the aviation bug had taken hold with pleasure flying being the thing to do for the wealthy, active socialite and a waiting list of willing pupils grew almost weekly.
The first Brooklands Flying School was soon joined by another run by AV Roe and Company and this was followed by The Bristol Aeroplane Company, all eager to capitalise on the location and the affluent businessmen who frequented the race track at weekends.
Before too long (1912) the industrial giant Vickers opened yet another school although theirs was more of a Pilot Training and Test Facility for their range of early foreign types such as the REP Monoplane they were producing at their works in Joyce Green, Kent.
In 1912, T.O.M. (Tommy) Sopwith set up the Sopwith Aviation Company at Brooklands although he soon established manufacturing facilities in a disused ice rink in Kingston-upon-Thames some 11-miles to the North-East. Tommy had been a familiar sight around the Flying Grounds in the South-East having gained an interest in aviation at an early age. He had experienced his first flight with Gustave Blondeau in a Farman and by the end of the year he had flown solo for the first time (at Brooklands of course).
Meanwhile racing continued around the elongated concrete dome with aircraft becoming a mainstay of the work carried out at the venue. The two interests existed in harmony with many of the pioneers of aviation evolving from the ranks of the racing champions.
The famous race track existed alongside the Vickers Aviation works until 1939
By the outbreak of World War One, Brooklands was becoming the largest manufacturing centre in the country, creating Vickers types and assembling a small range of Sopwith fighters. Vickers also built 2,164 Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 aircraft at Weybridge during the period of conflict
Workers celebrate the completion of the 1,000 SE5 for the RAF
By 1915, war was raging throughout Europe and Brooklands became a central production and training hub for The Royal Flying Corps (RFC).
The Flying Schools converted into Pilot Training facilities with most new aviators receiving the most basic of instruction on their new flying machines. The race track was requisitioned by the War Office and major developments took place to provide maximum capacity to produce aircraft.
Vickers relocated their manufacturing workforce from Kent and swung into full production of various ‘FB’ Types (Fighter-Bombers) such as the F.B.5 Gunbus. Sopwith meanwhile concentrated on the Dogfighters with the Snipe and then the Camel, the most successful aircraft in the 'Battle for the Skies'.
In addition to the aircraft manufacturing, new technologies also visited the Surrey airfield during the First World War with the arrival of a ‘Marconi Team’, carrying out pioneering wireless trials. The world’s first ‘Voice Ground to Air’ transmissions were carried out at Brooklands during 1915.
By the end of the war 1,000’s of aircraft had been built, assembled and repaired at Brooklands especially within the three large 'Belfast-truss' General Service Sheds, built in 1917.
Following the war, Britain fell into a depression with some aircraft companies failing to survive the reduction in requirement for military aircraft. One of these was Sopwith Aviation, who were forced to close its doors when the government reclaimed all of its pre-production loans. It attempted to diversify into motorcycles with a range of ABC machines but this too failed to save the company. At its peak Sopwith Aviation had employed over 5,000 but within a year the entire workforce had been laid off and the company went into liquidation in 1920.
Tommy Sopwith was not deterred however and because of his relationship with his ‘racing friend’ and pilot Harry Hawker, he co-founded H.G. Hawker Engineering, of which he became Managing Director and Chief Designer. Both H.G. Hawker and Vickers continued aircraft production and assembly at Brooklands throughout the 1920s with the latter engineering over 20 different types during the period. Hawker meanwhile, sustained its production in Kingston, utilising Brooklands for final assembly and flight test.
Hawker Assembly building alongside the Byfleet Banking
Vickers became Vickers-Armstrongs in 1928 to form a separate identity from its ship and tank building sister companies (the ‘s’ was only used by the aircraft division) and it turned its Design Team towards military equipment / personnel transport aircraft.
An overseeing Brooklands Aviation Limited was formed in 1931 to control activities at the airfield as Britain returned to a degree of prosperity. During the inter-war years and during a period of relative calm and prosperity, a new ‘art-deco’ clubhouse was built in 1932 following the re-forming of the Brooklands Flying School. The school was very much a business operation and they won a government contract to establish an RAF Pilot Training Organisation. On 10th June 1935 they opened the No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, not at Brooklands as expected but at Sywell.
An upside down Hawker Hart practicing his air display over Brooklands in 1932
Most inter-war activity concentrated on aircraft production however although with dark clouds looming over Europe once again, both Hawker and Vickers-Armstrongs were 100% concentrated on military designs. Gifted engineer Sydney Camm had created the iconic and hugely proficient Hawker Hurricane which flew at Brooklands for the first time in 1935 - Hawkers seemed well-equipped to meet the demands of yet another war.
A pre-war highlight and moral-booster was the visit of King George V who showed great interest in the Vickers Wellesley that had just set a new world distance record by flying 7,162 miles form Egypt to Australia in 1938.
King George inspecting the Long Range Wellesley at Brooklands in 1938
Vickers-Armstrongs were also ‘ahead of the game’ with their Wellington being already in production, having also made its maiden flight at Brooklands in June 1936.
A certain Barnes Wallis was also part of the Vickers Design Team (headed by Rex Pierson) and in the Wellington they had produced an aircraft of which over 11,400 were built across the United Kingdom.
Wellington wing construction
As war took hold and despite efforts to shield the factory buildings from overhead bombing (by planting trees in tubs on parts of the race track), the Luftwaffe successfully bombed the Vickers Factory buildings and extensively damaged the facilities on 4th September 1940. Nearly 90 aircraft workers were killed with at least 419 injured.
The Hawker buildings were also attacked just 2 days later although thankfully, on this occasion, there was no loss of life and the works only sustained superficial damage.
After the bombings, Senior Design staff were dispersed to other less obvious locations such as Burhill Golf Club (Hersham) or to Foxwarren (Cobham).
Others were centred around Claremont House (just off the Fairmile in Esher) equidistant from Brooklands and Kingston.
Female worker preparing a fuselage rib ready for covering
Over 3,000 Hurricanes and 2,500 Wellingtons were built at Brooklands and after the end of the war, much of the track and facilities at Brooklands were in such a poor state and the cash-strapped government sold the whole site to Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd for just £330,000.
Hawker (by then Hawker-Siddeley) had already opened a new production facility in 1942 at Parlaunt Farm near Langley, Buckinghamshire. This was later joined by the acquisition of Dunsfold in 1950 (both of these are part of the Kingston webpages) and so their relationship with Weybridge and Brooklands came to an end.
The period immediately following the end of the war at Weybridge had new designs coming off the drawing boards at an alarming rate and the site management immediately set about rebuilding and redeveloping the site for the production of the Viking, Valetta and Varsity.
By 1951, production was in full swing and with the advent of larger, faster aircraft and so the difficult decision was made to remove part of the historic Brooklands Banking at either end of the runway. Racing had ceased in 1939 and the extensive damage to the track (and the placement of flight hangars on the level start finish line) meant that it would never resume.
During the 1950s, tensions and the build up to the Cold War resulted in the advent of the V-Bombers and Brooklands contribution would be the Vickers Valiant.
Valiant was one of 3 specifically designed aircraft that formed the V-Bomber Force, Britain’s nuclear deterrent during the extremely frightening period.
Vickers Valiant WB215 rollout - L-R: ACM Sir H Lloyd, GR Edwards (Vickers) AVM G Harvey & AVM G Tuttle
107 aircraft were built at Weybridge although thankfully none were ever used in anger, settling for a more peaceful refuelling role in later life.
New Flight and Assembly sheds were created on both sides of the river (The site has the River Wey flowing North-South through its heart) and Brooklands flourished with almost a shortage of personnel to fill the workshops. Production concentrated on the Viscount, probably Britain’s most successful airliner and this was soon followed by the Vanguard and the all-new jet-powered VC10.
VC10 Production at full pace
The early 1960s saw a major change at the now mammoth aircraft factory with the government-led rationalisation of the aircraft industry saw Vickers-Armstrongs amalgamated with Bristol Aeroplane Company and English Electric to form British Aircraft Corporation (BAC). This resulted in a number of cross-site collaborations such as the BAC1-11, BAC Strikemaster and BAC221, and of course the ill-fated TSR-2.
Much is written about the TSR-2 project and its cancellation and whilst most of the story surrounds Warton and Boscombe Down, it should be remembered that Weybridge played a significant role with the responsibility for the design and manufacture of the forward fuselage, cockpit and landing gear.
On 4th March 1964, the first prototype TSR 2 aircraft (designated XR219) was rolled out of the Vickers factory at Weybridge before being disassembled for transport to Boscombe Down for it first flight.
Exciting times at Weybridge during the ill-fated TSR-2 project
The disappointment when TSR-2 was cancelled in October 1964 sent shockwaves throughout the industry and whilst it signalled job-losses in other parts of the Corporation, Weybridge was already pre-occupied with probably the most famous aircraft of all - Concorde.
Weybridge played a major role in the design and development of the world’s most successful supersonic passenger airliner and the Surrey aircraft factory were predominantly responsible for the fuselage sections from the nose to the tail, as well as the fins and rudders. The Concorde project proved to be one of the greatest collaborations between 2 separate countries and the engineers and staff at Weybridge travelled back and forth to Toulouse on a regular basis.
Concorde Fuselage Manufacturing at Weybridge
The seventies saw the first signs of any reduction at Weybridge with Concorde orders failing to materialise and VC10 reaching the end of its sales life.
In 1977, there was another major change as British Aircraft Corporation was nationalised along with Hawker Siddeley to form British Aerospace.
Weybridge became the Company Headquarters and the factory concentrated predominantly on airliners under the newly created Commercial Aircraft Division. The upswing was short lived as the Civil Aviation market was flooded with the success of Boeing and the new kid on the block, Airbus Industrie GIE.
The production of complete aircraft became a thing of the past as the machine shops turned their attention to the manufacture of components for all sorts of aircraft including Sea King Helicopters, BAe 125’s and BAe Strikemasters. Before long even this work dried up and with real estate costs escalating the case for rationalisation became very clear.
The end of an era as Ron Hedges removes the name plaque after 80 years of aircraft manufacturing
With half the site already ‘mothballed’ or under redevelopment, the famous aerodrome became a prime target for redevelopment and in July 1986 it was announced that it would close within 3 years.
Plans were put in place to preserve the rich history at the site and today, Brooklands Museum is one of the country’s leading visitor attractions.