Tag Archives: industry

Aircraft built in Lincoln – the home of the tank

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.

Image 1. 1000th Camel at Ruston works.
1000th Sopwith Camel made by Rustons in the factory with workers in the foreground. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

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.


Image 2. Robey Peters fighting machine
Peters in the gun nacelle of the prototype Robey Peters fighting machine. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)

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.

Robey Peters Fighting Machine 1 plan. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).
Robey Peters Fighting Machine 1 plan. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

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.

Robey Peters Fighting Machine 2 plan. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)
Robey Peters Fighting Machine 2 plan. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)
Handley Page 0/400 Bomber and Clayton & Shuttleworth workers. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).
Handley Page 0/400 Bomber and Clayton & Shuttleworth workers. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

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.

Minnie Pit, mine safety and the First World War

In this guest blog, Roger Deeks uncovers the history of coal mining, and reveals how one man’s efforts supported the war at home and at the front, and improved safety beyond the war.

But the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.

From Coal by Wilfred Owen, 1918 (subtitled How the future will forget the dead in war)

Coal was the main source of energy to fuel the War effort. The people and expertise needed to produce it safely were in demand on the Home and Western Fronts.  The story of the Arthur Bernard Clifford illustrates the learning exchanges that saved many lives and ultimately led to improved mine safety after the war. Pivotal to his story was the Minnie Pitt disaster of 1918, a tragedy he was unable to prevent but in the aftermath of which he played a crucial part.

For much of the First World War, the coal mines of North Staffordshire contributed to the thousands of tonnes of coal produced to power the navy, railways, homes and munitions factories during the War. It was a highly dangerous occupation for the men who mined in the pits. Many of the original Staffordshire miners had enlisted early in the War, sometimes at the instigation of the owners. Many were to become members of the Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers. The exploits of the early tunnellers and their charismatic commander Sir John Norton-Griffiths who laid massive mines under the Western Front are well documented. The Staffordshire mines they left behind were set to make a vital but much less well known contribution to the hazardous business of tunnelling.

Arthur Bernard Clifford wearing war medals and his ‘Staffordshire Knot medal’ including 5 bars for rescues. Photo by Philip Clifford

Arthur Bernard Clifford was a Staffordshire mine safety and rescue expert, an assistant to his father an instructor of the North Staffordshire Mines Rescue Brigades. He was born in Dodsworth, Yorkshire, went to Barnsley Grammar School and later studied at the Technical College in North Staffordshire. In 1914 there was a huge oil well fire in Mexico, millions of tons of oil were ignited and Clifford was sent to deal with it. He returned from Mexico in April 1915, with the intention of enlisting, but the next day he was called to the War Office and asked to take charge of training sappers to use ‘Proto breathing apparatus’ needed to cope with the poisonous carbon monoxide gas. Clifford played a key role in the establishment of the Mines Rescue School at Strazeene and Armentieres. Thanks to his training, the Proto apparatus was used throughout the war with success. Clifford trained over 4,000 men and hundreds of lives were saved as a result. In 1917, on leave in Staffordshire, now ‘Sergeant’ Clifford, Royal Engineers, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal at the Annual Dinner of the North Staffordshire Institute of Engineers. An unassuming man he was embarrassed to receive his award and was particularly apologetic that his work had drawn important personnel away from Staffordshire collieries.



Minnie Pit, 1918
The recovery team at the Minnie Pitt in 1918. Arthur Clifford is centre in his uniform supervising the team in use of the breathing apparatus. Photo: Philip Clifford.

Sadly this would not have prevented the explosion that ripped through a colliery in January 1918, when one of the worst disasters in mining history happened at the Minnie Pit in Halmer End in Staffordshire. Miners worked in cloth caps, carried candles and pit ponies moved coal to the main shaft. The mine had a history of explosions. On 12 January a huge explosion caused by a mixture of dust and flammable gases killed 155 men and boys either from the effects of the explosion or poisonous gas. Forty-eight boys under the age of 17 died, many were aged 14 years, and the oldest man was 65.The large number of boys and older men reflected a depleted workforce. There was another casualty when the captain of the mine rescue team was killed. The outpouring of national grief was astonishing given the daily casualties occurring on the battlefields. Even Wilfred Owen, staying in Scarborough in January 1918 a few weeks after leaving Craiglockhart War Hospital, was moved to write about the disaster in one of the few poems published in his lifetime.

The government responded by summoning Arthur Clifford back from the front and he was given a specific mission; to recover the mine and the bodies that it contained. The work took over eighteen months and was one of the longest and most difficult recoveries in mining history. When it was over the war had long finished. The tragedy added 67 widows to the many who had lost husbands in the War and the Great Depression saw no economic respite for local families when the colliery was closed.

Forest of Dean Rescue Station, Cinderford
A Post-War Rescue Team at Dockham Road Rescue Station, Cinderford wearing the Proto-breathing apparatus. Photo: Steve Cooper

Arthur Clifford moved to the Forest of Dean coalfields after the war. The initial legacy of his work was the large number of miners that returned to their workforce proficient in mine safety and use of the Proto breathing apparatus. The benefits of standardised training achieved at the Front also raised standards and Clifford became one of the country’s leading Instructors in Mine Rescue. In 1922 he produced The Rescue Man’s Manual, probably the first reference manual for the mines rescue industry which covered breathing, gases, and mine rescue conduct.

Continue reading Minnie Pit, mine safety and the First World War

White & Poppe Munitionettes

In this guest blog, Roger Deeks tells us what he found out from fieldwork at the site of a WW1 munitions factory carried out nearly 100 years after they produced shells for the First World War.

The history of munitions supply is one of the most compelling stories of the First World War. A revolution in shell production allied to the more effective use and development of artillery was central to the ultimate British success on the Western Front. The development of indirect fire, meteorology, creeping barrages and aerial coordination were key components in what has become known as the ‘learning curve’ of the British Army. However the scale of bombardment that led to the British firing over one million shells per week in the concluding months of the War was achieved through a monumental shift in shell production in Britain. The creation of the Ministry on Munitions in 1915, galvanising shell production through the creation of new factories, transformed Britain. To staff the munitions factories the home front was mobilised on an unprecedented scale, with women taking on hazardous work that had been traditionally a male preserve. The history of munition production stretches over two of the themes of the BBC World War One at Home stories; about Women and how war transformed their status, and Working for the War, the production boom that fuelled the frontline.

As an AHRC-funded adviser to the BBC I had the opportunity to advise on munition stories in a number of locations and in one particular case this involved fieldwork. This was in Coventry, central to munitions in the First World War, and whose workers were both praised and castigated by the wartime government. The fitting of fuses and explosives into shells had traditionally been carried out at Woolwich Arsenal but such was the scale of demand a huge number of factories known as a National Filling Factories were built around the country. I was particularly interested to be involved in the story of National Filling Factory No. 10, Whitmore Park, Coventry or White and Poppe’s, as it was better known locally. Some preliminary research threw up a lot of information about the company who operated the filling factory on behalf of the Ministry. In 1899 working from a site lower down Drake Street, just off Lockhurst Lane, two engineers, Alfred James White and Peter August Poppe, engine and gearbox manufacturers, had seized the opportunity to grow as part of the development of the automotive industry. As precision engineers their work was ideally situated to address munitions production and they first diversified into shell manufacture during the Boer War. Returning to their traditional manufacturing base the company was ideally placed to respond to the demands for massive high quality shell production in the First World War and the company expanded onto a massive 66 acre site part of which is still in existence.

EPW055122I met Siobhán Harrison, BBC journalist producing the World War One at Home programmes, in Coventry at Drake Street on a wet November day, equipped with plans kindly provided by the Herbert Museum & Art Gallery in Coventry to see what remained of the original factory and local people remembered of it. From the archaeological perspective the visit was illuminating; what became clear was that Whitmore Park was much more than a factory. Despite continual use and change on the site, a return to munitions during the Second World War and becoming part of Jaguar and other automotive components manufacture, much of the layout remained the same. The site was served with railways, sidings into sheds and the shell filling buildings were constructed to minimise the risk of a chain reaction of explosions. The core buildings were off ‘Swallow Road’ and the munitions buildings, now demolished had become the home of Swallow Sidecars which became SS Cars, then Jaguar and later used by Dunlop Aviation Division.

We were delighted to be provided with more information from the site staff from their own recollections and maps. What became clear was that the site was much more than a factory; by 1918 there were 12,000 staff recruited from far and wide, the majority of who lived adjacent to the factory in dormitories and factory houses. This in turn required a vast infrastructure; cinema, shops, swimming baths and allotments. Scattered amongst the buildings, many being demolished, were several of these buildings, the baths and the bank; relics of the first factory on the site. The munitions workers had a factory magazine; The Limit.  Foleshill Park and other areas around the factory had ‘munitions cottages’ that were used long after the War ended.

A day’s work provided only a few minutes commentary on the White and Poppe story, but made us both aware of the impact munitions had on the landscape and people of Coventry and its legacy.

World War One at Home – Launch Day Highlights

Across the BBC, stories from the home front were shared on local radio and news programmes to mark the launch of the World War One at Home programme. Some selected highlights of yesterday’s broadcasts included:

Professor Jane Chapman appearing on the BBC Look East to discuss the legacy of the war not only for women in the workplace, but as the birthplace of the modern twentieth century as we now understand it.

Jenny Agutter narrating the story of a child, Joan Burbidge, who corresponded with a ‘Chocolate Soldier’. After writing her name on a box of chocolates posted to British soldiers in France, Bombadier Edward Hassall exchanged letters with Joan throughout the war, although the pen pals never met.

Making traditional clothes for uniforms on BBC Radio Wales. Welsh homespun cloth used for Welsh Army Corps uniforms which was made at mills in Carmathenshire. As the war progressed, demand for the ‘brethyn llwyd’ (grey cloth) outstripped supply.

Fergus Keeling, BBC Northern Ireland’s Head of Radio, marked the launch of the programme in Northern Ireland by saying that the stories “shed light on familiar places we know and love, places right on our doorsteps”.