The Whitehead Aircraft Company (I)

Above: view of *Terrace Gardens with, on left: present conservatory replaces a series of C19 and C20 conservatories on the same site and marked on historic maps. In the back wall of the conservatory sits a carved stone relief of Adam and Eve at the Apple tree with the snake. This is said to be a remnant from the Lansdowne estate. On right: Coade stone figure of Father Thames (John Bacon 1775, listed Grade II), facing the lawn below. The statue is thought to be a survivor from the statuary of the Montagu pleasure grounds and was moved here from its former location some metres to the south-east.

Anne Logie writes on her blog as part of an ongoing project for the Environment Trust:

“In August 1916 John Alexander Whitehead let it be known that he was buying Hanworth Park.  He intended it for an aerodrome and had already submitted building plans to Feltham Council.  The Whitehead Aircraft Company’s factory extension in Richmond had been opened with great ceremony by the Lord Mayor of London just weeks before, and it was less than a year since the company built its first plane.

Despite having neither a company nor any evident experience of running a factory, in 1915 Whitehead managed to win a contract from the Ministry of Munitions to build six BE2b biplanes.

At some point Whitehead had met Edward Hewetson Heaps, who was one of the directors of the Richmond Automobile Company Ltd.  The Richmond Automobile Company had a lease on 31 Townshend Terrace, Richmond, which had previously been used by the airplane designer L Howard-Flanders.  As described in FLIGHT magazine (16 March 1912) Howard-Flanders’ premises consisted of a large hall, around 120 ft by 50 ft, which was to be used as an erecting shop “where four or more machines if necessary could be laid down at the same time”.  There was also a machine shop in “an adjacent building”, and drawing and general offices above. 

On the strength of Whitehead’s contract with the Ministry of Munitions Whitehead and Heaps went into business together.  The Richmond Automobile Company Ltd was wound up and all its assets, including the lease on Townshend Terrace and the machinery in it, were assigned to a new company, Whitehead Aircraft Company Ltd, which was duly registered in May 1915 with Whitehead and Heaps as its two directors…

The Richmond factory continued in production.  Planes were constructed in sections – fuselage, wings, tailplane, and undercarriage – and could be transported in sections for assembly elsewhere.  The plane sections completed at Richmond were driven to Hanworth for assembly and testing…

On 9 June 1917 a Pathé film entitled “Birth of an Aeroplane” showing the entire process of building a plane from felling the trees through to a flight over a Flanders battlefield was premiered at the Pathé Roof Garden Theatre.  The factory footage was filmed in Richmond and the flight testing in Hanworth…

“Birth Of An Aeroplane” was not the only film featuring the Whitehead works.  “A Munition Girl’s Romance”, starring Violet Hopson as Jenny the munition girl and Gregory Scott as the Head Draughtsman, went on general release in Autumn 1917.  Also getting star billing was ‘Mr H SYKES (Britain’s most intrepid airman) by kind permission of Mr J A Whitehead of the Whitehead Aircraft Co.’.  Advertised as ‘the film you’ve been waiting for’, it was shot in the Richmond factory and at the aerodrome, with the aerial footage being recorded from Sykes’ Martinsyde…

In September 1917 Queen Amilie of Portugal (Dona Maria Amélia was the last Queen consort of Portugal), president of the Richmond District Girl Guides, visited the company’s works and was then entertained at Beccleuch (sic) House where the Guides put on a display.  There is a short Pathé film of Queen Amilie at Beccleuch House, and Whitehead can briefly be seen at her side as they descend the steps to the garden.

Beccleuch House was a prominent eighteenth century house which until 1938 stood by the Thames in what is now the open space downhill from *Terrace Gardens on Petersham Road, Richmond.  Whitehead moved his family there some time in 1917 and was renting it at a rate of £1,000 a year.  He was taking a salary from his company of £3,000 a year plus £1,000 expenses.  By way of comparison, in 1915 the expected annual cost of the thirty-bed Red Cross military hospital in Hanworth Park House was only £3,800.

On 16 October 1917 the new Lord Mayor of London, Col. the Rt. Hon. William H Dunn, Bart., opened the aerodrome and set in motion the culvert mechanism, an event which was reported widely throughout the country.  As described in the Whitehead company’s club magazine, ‘Whitecraft’, this was quite an event.  The Mayor, accompanied by two Sheriffs, initially inspected the Richmond factory, including the workers’ canteen and the club house. “A picturesque guard of honour” of Richmond Girl Guides drew up in Sheen Road and the “distinguished” company departed for lunch at Beccleuch House.  The distinguished company included forty-eight persons of prominence – mayors, aldermen, sheriffs, councillors, members of Parliament, Canadian and Australian agents-general, Whitehead’s father and uncle, and Mr H G Wells.  In the course of the speeches which followed Whitehead somewhat bizarrely referred to his “two or three thousand loyal employees” who were doing their best to supply airplanes.  The Mayor noted that he had known Whitehead’s father, George, for many years.  H G Wells was called upon to make a speech and reminded all of the hardships of those in the field of battle.  After various other speeches the party was conveyed by car to Feltham, where in hard rain and wind gusting to over forty miles an hour the Mayor set the mechanism in motion.  Despite the weather Sykes put on his customary aerial display, reported in FLIGHT (18 October 1917) as “looping the loop many times and liberating showers of leaflets”, before turning off his engine and gliding in to land “the machine rocking like a ship at sea”.

The event, complete with Sykes, can be seen in the Pathe film “River Diverted at Harmworth Park 1917” (note that the title mistakenly refers to Harmworth rather than Hanworth Park)…”

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