The Whitehead Aircraft Company (II)

*Pictured: Majestic Wine Richmond, 22-28 Manor Rd., Richmond (see final note below). The Black Horse Tavern was situated at 181 Sheen Road, two minutes’ walk away.

In The industry of leafy Kew in World War 1, Martin Stilwell wrote on 26.4.19:

“Of all the wartime companies in the Richmond area, the most famous is the Whitehead Aircraft Company. John Whitehead was a good entrepreneur and self-publicist. A timber specialist by trade, he saw a profit to be made in the fledgling aircraft industry as early as 1915. At that time most of the British aircraft industry was centred around Brooklands in Surrey and Hendon in Middlesex. Sopwiths had already outgrown their hangers at Brooklands by the start of the war and were well established in nearby Kingston. Whitehead leased Richmond Drill Hall in Sheen Road and was contracted to make six BE2b two-seaters. He must have been sure of success as he also leased land in Feltham to use as an airfield. This became Hanworth Air Park and was expanded as the war progressed. By 1916 he was building 100 Farman Shorthorns for the MoM.

Although an obsolescent design, the Shorthorn was used for training and enabled Whitehead to build up the skills of his workforce, that now included many women. He expanded his premises by buying land (and existing houses) in Grena Road, Richmond. Hanworth Air Park was also expanded with the construction of large hangers used for assembly and testing. For many aircraft manufacturers, including Sopwiths, the factories were not adjacent to airfields and so the finished aircraft were partly unassembled and transported to airfields by road – Hanworth in the case of Whitehead. By 1917, the MoM must have been pleased with the quality of Whitehead aircraft, and his ability to manage large orders from a relatively small industrial site, as he received an order for 100 Sopwith Pups. This order was repeated until, by the end of the war, Whitehead had produced a massive 820 Pups, albeit the last 270 delivered as spares. However, to fund the expansion of the Grena Road site, Whitehead had overstretched his own finances and had negotiated a government loan.

By 1918, the company had not only filled every space around Grena/Manor Road with factory buildings but had purchased a row of 10 terraced houses on Grena Rd to use as offices. In 1918 they completed orders for 100 DH9 and 400 DH9A aircraft. In total, Whitehead produced 1,427 aircraft between 1915 and 1919 – a large number from such a cramped site, but helped by having the hangers and sheds at Hanworth for final assembly. As with many companies, the end of hostilities in 1918 came as quite a shock and what happened to Whiteheads is covered below…”


    “The distinctive saw-tooth roof ridges (with glazed skylights on the north facing slopes) of the ‘Old Drill Hall’ at 31 Townshend Terrace. In 1912-13 this building was used by aviation pioneer R. L. Howard-Flanders as a factory to build his Flanders monoplanes. In 1915 it was taken over by Mr. J. A. Whitehead, to found the Whitehead Aircraft Company. As the business expanded into adjoining properties, the original factory was repeatedly remodelled, as far as the footprint of the site allowed, and is referred to on the attached postcard issued by the company as ‘the old works.’ In the 1920’s it was used for manufacturing celluloid by Messrs. Greenhill & Sons Ltd. The factory was severely damaged in the same fire in 1947 that and subsequently demolished.
  • (From: Mr Jones from London Town: His Autobiography (2014) by David Richardson:
  • In 1948 Richmond had been shocked by the severity of a fire in the area of Townshend Terrace which found itself in the midst of an inferno that had found its way to a celluloid film factory via Hazelby’s timber yard sandwiched between the rail junction behind the houses. The destruction was considerable, lives were lost and many were injured.
  • The Coking plant at Richmond Gasworks, a short distance away was also on the verge of disaster at about the same time when another major fire erupted…)
    • The postcard shows the view outside the front of the Old Drill Hall (with its various clapboard extensions), looking east along Townshend Terrace. In the centre background in the north gable of the end terrace building of No. 71 Grena Road, now demolished, which was used by J. A. Whitehead as his private offices.
      Manor Park lane. At the beginning of WW1 the strip of waste ground to the north, between this road and the railway line, had been earmarked for housing but not yet built on. In 1916 this area was leased by Whitehead Aircraft and used as the site of a large extension to their aeroplane factory where they built Maurice Farman MFII trainers and Sopwith ‘Pup’ fighters – or ‘Whitehead Fighting Scouts’ as Mr Whitehead preferred to describe them. The temporary factory buildings were demolished after the war and the land reverted to housing.
      53-71 Grena Road. The chimneys of this terrace of domestic dwellings, tucked behind the former Whitehead Aircraft factory, are the only parts visible in this photo. This entire terrace was acquired by Whitehead Aircraft during WW1 and used as offices and stores.
      Factory buildings erected or remodelled by Greenhill & Sons Ltd. who took over part of the former Whitehead Aircraft works in the early 1920’s.
      *Blackhorse(?)Garage, built by Whitehead Aircraft during WW1. Now a wine sellers warehouse.”

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