Weaving the history of First World War aeroplanes

In this guest Blog, Professor Owen Davies from the University of Hertfordshire and AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centre ‘Everyday Lives in War’, talks about the importance of basketwork for Royal Air Force aeroplanes in this its centenary year.

Search deeply into the history of everyday lives during the First World War and many remarkable stories emerge. The importance and value of weaving and willow-growing to the war effort is one of the more forgotten histories that has been researched and promoted thanks to the Basketry Then and Now project.

Once you realise the importance of basketry, then you start seeing baskets everywhere in photographs of the First World War – on the battlefield and on the home fronts, across the combatant countries. They were the plastic bags and light weight plastic mouldings of their day, essential for carrying items from bomb shells to cauliflowers, from carrier pigeons to the war wounded. British German prisoners of war were even required to make small baskets to be attached to horses’ hooves to soften the shock and protect them from frost. It is no surprise, then, to find that basketry was essential to the success of war-time aircraft.

By the start of the war, all aeroplane fuselages were covered and fitted with willow, or more commonly, cane basketwork seats, replacing solid wood and metal seats. Steam-bent rattan was often used as the seat skeleton, through which the split cane was woven. As a light weight and flexible structure, basketwork was an ideal material for aircraft design. It was easily adaptable to the requirements of different spaces, and also responded well to the stresses and strains placed upon the frames of planes once in the air. It was also thought to give some protection against splinters during forced landings.

A replica Sopwith Camel Seat woven by Tim Palmer

Both cane and rattan were imported, which raised its own challenges during the war particularly when Germany pursued unrestricted U-Boat warfare against allied shipping. Cane was imported in large quantities from the bamboo forests of India for making fishing rods, umbrellas, walking sticks and furniture, while rattan, which is a climbing palm, came mostly from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.  One of the biggest importers of both for the war effort was the Dryad Works in Leicester, which had 200 workers at the beginning of the war. It had an international reputation for the design quality of its furniture. Come the war, much of its work was devoted to making shell and ammunition baskets, but Dryad also made aeroplane seats and balloon baskets. An editorial in The Aeroplane periodical noted in 1916 that

“It has been thought inadvisable to have one of the famous Dryad chairs in the editorial offices of THE AEROPLANE, lest visitors might be tempted to stay too long, to the detriment of the daily routine.”

Fighter aces could expect the best possible comfort. By 1916, The Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the Royal Air Force, was sourcing a standard design of seating exclusively through the Aircraft Supplies Co. Ltd., which purchased from the likes of Dryad. They cost around six shillings and three pence each.

Some 58,000 aeroplanes were produced in Great Britain during the war, each requiring one or two basketwork seats. French manufacturers produced over 51,000 planes in the same period. But just like the aeroplanes themselves, very few examples of their original seats survive today, and little information about the industry survives either. To understand more about the skills involved, the Basketry Then and Now team filmed basketmaker Tim Palmer as he set about recreating a split cane seat for a replica First World War Sopwith Camel cockpit being built by Tony Dyer, a flight test engineer, to house an original compass which belonged to his grandfather. The Sopwith Camel was the most important RAF plane during the war, but it was also one of the most difficult to fly. Little do we realise, perhaps, how important a comfortable, well-designed seat was to the war effort in the skies.

Royal Flying Corps Sopwith F.1 Camel in 1914-1916 period. Unknown RAF Photographer
Royal Flying Corps Sopwith F.1 Camel in 1914-1916 period. Unknown RAF Photographer, Source: Wikimedia Commons. Origional source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RAF_Sopwith_Camel.jpg

A 10-minute film exploring the work of Tim Palmer and Tony Dyer and their Sopwith Camel project, and Bunty Ball’s research on seats, is available as Shell Basket Documentary video.  It was produced and directed by Adam Jones-Lloyd.

For more information on aeroplane seats, and the importance of basketry during the First World War generally, see the Basketry Then and Now webpages.

Aeroplane Seat. Later version, courtesy of Anna Hammerin
Aeroplane Seat. Later version, courtesy of Anna Hammerin


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