Brooklands Stories: Sir George Edwards
18 September 2021
In our next Brooklands Stories, volunteer Peter Kearns is sharing the story of aircraft designer, Managing Director and Chairman of BAC, Sir George Edwards.
George Robert Freeman Edwards was born above his father’s toy shop in Highams Park, London. After local schooling, he went to Walthamstow Engineering and Trade School. From there he worked for a time in heavy industry and later on the design and construction of projects as diverse as lock-gate machinery, cranes, bridges, and hydraulic pumps.
At the age of 27, he moved on to design work with Vickers Aviation, at Brooklands. This started a career that spanned the era of manned flight from biplanes to supersonic travel.
At Brooklands, he worked on the design of a number of projects for the RAF, including the Wellesley, Wellington, and Warwick bombers. His links with the RAF continued for the rest of his working life. One of his more unusual design projects for Vickers was to protect the erecting shops from air-raids using a matrix of wooden pillars suspended from the roof.
A much more high-profile project was to defend ships entering and leaving ports from magnetic mines. This was so important that he was required to report personally, every day, to the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill. The resulting ‘Degausing Wellington’ was used with effect in British and Mediterranean ports.
Following the success of this, George Edwards was promoted to Experimentation Manager at Vickers and moved to work at the Foxwarren site near Cobham. Whilst there he continued to work in cooperation with Vickers colleagues at Brooklands and with other aviation manufacturers as part of the war effort. The skills he developed in working in collaboration with others at this time, became essential contributors to his success in major projects later in his career.
As the end of World War Two approached, thoughts turned to creating a post-war, civil aviation industry. After World War One, many of the wartime aircraft manufacturers quickly disappeared completely. The industry itself shrunk massively. George Edwards and others did not want to see a repeat of that. The Brabazon Committee was set up by the British Government in 1942, to investigate the future needs of the British Empire's civilian airliner market following the war.
Rex Pierson was Chief Designer at Vickers and was working on designs to develop a new passenger aircraft based on the Wellington. Pierson was promoted to Chief Engineer and Sir George was promoted to Chief Designer. The Viking, a Wellington derivative, was submitted to Brabazon Committee in December 1944. This was based on Wellington wings, with a metal covering instead of fabric, Warwick tail surfaces and a fuselage of stressed-skin construction. Much of the design was by George Edwards. Viking entered service with BEA in September 1946. 163 were built, four of which were for the King’s Flight. This design was then developed with RAF into Valetta and Varsity. Examples of both the Viking and the Varsity can now be seen at Brooklands Museum.
On the civil side, Viking was followed by the Viscount and the VC 10, both of which were technological advancements and commercial successes. Examples of both can be viewed at Brooklands Museum. The selling of the Viscount into the USA was a personal achievement of George Edwards. He started by selling initially to Canada, based on British Empire links, thus enabling its performance to be demonstrated in flights from Canada to the USA, which sealed the deal.
The cold war era led to demands for a delivery system for atomic weapons, including new, specially designed bomber aircraft, that became known as “V Bombers”. The first V Bomber into service was the Vickers Valiant. The design, led by George Edwards, included major innovations including all-electric controls, swept-back wings, and buried engines. The Valiant was the only V bomber to have dropped live nuclear weapons (for test purposes). The forward part of the fuselage of this aircraft can be viewed in the Aircraft Factory exhibition area of Brooklands Museum.
In 1957 George Edwards was knighted. In the same year, a new Minister of Aviation was appointed: Duncan Sandys. Sandys was only in this post for nine months. In this short time, he implemented a complete restructuring of the British aviation industry. This included the amalgamation of various firms in the aircraft and guided missile manufacturing into two new corporations.
One of these was British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), formed in 1960. This was made up of Vickers-Armstrongs Aircraft, English Electric Aviation Ltd, Bristol Aeroplane Company and Hunting Aircraft. BAC was set up in two divisions, Aircraft led by Sir George Edwards and Guided Weapons led by Robert Inskip, 2nd Viscount Caldecote (previously of English Electric). By 1963 Sir George was made Managing Director and Chairman of BAC.
A key incentive for BAC to progress the amalgamation was the prospect of an opportunity to build a new “Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance aircraft capable of flying at twice the speed of sound, or Mach 2 (hence TSR2). The project had progressed significantly when, on 1st April 1965, Harold Wilson’s labour government announced the cancellation of the TSR2. This was the very day that the second development aircraft was due to take its maiden flight. That flight was cancelled, the reason being given was that the aircraft had been accidentally damaged while being transported to Boscombe Down.
Sir George was operating in the field of politics as much as the field of engineering. He experienced the frustrations of dealing with national governments.
Another early BAC project was the One-Eleven, developed from a project that had started in Hunting Aircraft Limited. Eventually a major success, there was a fatal incident with its testing programme in October 1963. An accident occurred in which two test pilots and five test flight engineers were killed. Sir George’s immediate concern was to care for the bereaved families. This was directly followed by establishing a senior technical team to provide full information to all other manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic, including competitors, about the potential problem and the remedy.
Sir George started working beyond the national government boundaries to work on trans-national government projects. He led collaborative projects between British and other European corporations. On the military side this included the SEPECAT Jaguar (with France) and Panavia Tornado (with Italy, and West Germany). On the civil side it included Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde (with France) and Airbus Industries airliner series, (cross EU).
In 1948 he had achieved his Private Pilot Licence and he always took great pride in flying himself, each new aircraft type conceived under his direction, right through to Concorde.
Throughout this period, he had been active in the Royal Aeronautical Society, serving as its President in 1957-58.
His interests and achievements extended well beyond aeronautics. He was an accomplished painter becoming Patron of the Guild of Aviation Artists from its foundation in 1970. This association was appropriately crowned when, in its Silver Jubilee year, 1995, the Guild presented him with the Air League Trophy as a ‘lifetime achievement award’. His talent was further rewarded with a picture being hung in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London in the year 2000.
He had a long-term passion for cricket, showing capability and success as a player when a young man. In 1979 he became President of Surrey County Cricket Club. He was the founding Pro-Chancellor at Surrey University, which institution also awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Science. Additionally, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and Honorary Doctorates by seven other British universities, including the University of London (where he did his first degree).
He won many other accolades including: two Gold Medals of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1957; the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts in 1971 and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1974. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1968. He also held the post of Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Surrey.
He was closely involved in the formation of the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in North London from 1965 onwards and was Patron of the Brooklands Museum Trust from its foundation in 1987.
The most significant of Sir George’s many major national and international honours and awards came in 1971 when the Queen bestowed upon him the Order of Merit (OM) - the highest honour in the sovereign’s personal gift.
Sir George died peacefully at his home in Guildford on Sunday, 2 March 2003 aged 94 years.
Peter Kearns, Brooklands Museum volunteer