In this guest blog, Dan Ellin considers the places and people behind aircraft of the First World War which were built in a city better known for producing tanks.
In the history of warfare and the Great War, the city of Lincoln has become synonymous with the tank. In 1915 William Tritton, the managing director of William Foster & Co and Major Walter Wilson first began drawing designs of was to become the tank in a room in a local hotel. After unsuccessful trials of ‘Little Willie’, ‘Mother’ the prototype of the Mark 1 tank was tested at Burton Park on the outskirts of Lincoln in January 1916. Shortly afterwards the first 100 tanks were ordered, and tanks were first used in on the Western front in September 1916. Tanks were built in William Foster & Co’s Tritton works in Lincoln, but the city’s other engineering firms also played important parts in the war effort. Ruston, Proctor & Co., Robey & Co. and Clayton and Shuttleworth were all involved in aircraft production, with one in fourteen British aircraft being made in Lincoln during the war. The city was one of the top five aircraft manufacturing centres of the Great War with over 5,000 aircraft being constructed in the city’s factories which employed around 6,000 men and women on aircraft work.
Ruston Proctor & Co. LTD.
First contracted to build B.E.2c aircraft in 1915, Ruston and Proctor built over 2,000 aircraft and more than 3,000 engines in purpose built factory buildings in the Boultham area of the city. The firm was the country’s largest supplier of engines and employed more than 3,000 men and women in aircraft production.
Towards the end of 1915 the company began building the far superior ‘Sopwith 1 ½ strutter’ aircraft, and in 1917, the famous ‘Sopwith Camel’. The Camel was the highest scoring fighter of the war and it took its name from the hump over the two machine guns in front of the pilot. Rustons built the majority of the 5,500 Camels manufactured during the war; by November 1918 the Lincoln firm had completed 1,600. The thousandth model off the assembly line was painted in an Egyptian winged sun theme and used for publicity.
Robey & Co. LTD.
Between 1915 and 1919 Robey & Co. built aircraft for the Admiralty, but were unusual in that they also designed, built and flew prototypes of their own aircraft. The firm began with sub-contracted orders to build the ‘Sopwith Gunbus’, a pusher biplane with the engine to the rear of the aircraft, and later ‘Short 184 Seaplanes’. At peak production they produced one seaplane a day.
The first aircraft Robey designed and built was a single seater scout biplane. The prototype was sent to Hendon, but was never tested as the Gnome rotary engine the designer had hoped to use was not delivered. The company’s most successful prototype, the ‘Robey Peters Fighting Machine’ also never went into production, but two were built and tested. It was intended that the aircraft would be used by the Navy for anti Zeppelin and U-boat patrols. It was a single engine aircraft with a crew of three, the pilot, and two gunners. The gunners were to sit in separate plywood nacelles in the wings. The port nacelle was to be armed with a Lewis gun and thirty rounds of ammunition, while the starboard nacelle was fitted with a seven foot long recoilless Davis gun and ten rounds of 2lb ammunition. The second prototype was intended to be armed with two Davis guns.
The first prototype flew from Bracebridge Heath near Lincoln in September 1916. Its first flight, a circuit of the airfield was successful, but it overturned on its second flight. On its third test three days later, the engine overheated, the plane caught fire and crashed causing £50 damage to a hospital building. In April 1917 the second prototype stalled on takeoff and crashed on the edge of the airfield.
Clayton & Shuttleworth LTD.
The company built aircraft on its 100 acre site on the East side of the city. They first built parts for Admiralty airships, but in 1916 they received orders to build the ‘Sopwith Triplane’ and in 1917 ‘Sopwith Camels’. Lincoln’s long association with bomber aircraft arguably began in 1916 when Clayton and Shuttleworth were given an order to produce ‘Handley Page 0/400’ bombers. Prisoners of war were used to build new aircraft shops in which the aircraft were assembled three abreast. The Handley Page 0/400 could carry the 1,650lb (748kg) bomb, the heaviest bomb used by the British during the war and they were so large they had to be flown directly from the factory’s ‘Handley Page field.’ In September 1918 a force of forty Handley Page 0/400s bombed targets in the Saar region of Germany. An order for ‘Vickers Vimy’ bombers was cancelled after the armistice when only three machines had been completed.
Aircraft built in the city were delivered to ‘No.4 Aircraft Acceptance Park’ on Lincoln’s West Common. The landing ground, impractically built on the hillside, overlooked the William Foster’s Tritton works where the first tanks were manufactured, and was only a mile south of the tanks testing ground. William Tritton has been commemorated by ‘Tritton road’ built in the 1970s. Although some industry remains in Lincoln, the Robeys works is now a builders’ merchant and there is an out of town shopping centre along Tritton road where much of Rustons aircraft industry was located. Much of Lincoln’s aircraft manufacturing industry has been forgotten.
Copyright for images in this post remains with the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.