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Tales from Brooklands: Sir Edwin Alliott Verdon-Roe

20 March 2021

In our next Tales of Brooklands, volunteer Peter Kearns is sharing the story of pioneering aviator Sir Edwin Alliott Verdon-Roe OBE, Hon. FRAeS, FIAS.

Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe was born in 1877 in Eccles, Lancashire, he was the son of Edwin Roe, a doctor, and Annie Verdon and had a younger brother Humphrey Verdon Roe. Throughout his life he was generally called Alliott Roe or A.V. Roe. His given surname was Roe, rather than Verdon-Roe. In 1933, at the age of 56 he formally changed his surname by deed-poll to Verdon-Roe in honour of his mother who had died in 1921.

A.V. Roe left school at the age of fourteen and headed off to Canada with the intention of training as a surveyor in the silver mining industry. At just that time there was slump in the silver market and he was not able to get the job he wanted. Having done some odd jobs for a while, he returned to England. Here he gained an apprenticeship with the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. After that, he tried and failed to join the Royal Navy to study marine engineering. He decided to go to sea anyway and in 1899 he joined the British & South African Royal Mail Company as fifth engineer on SS Jebba and then served on various other ships, ending his Merchant Navy period as third engineer on SS Ichanga.

It is said that he became fascinated by the flying abilities of seabirds and that this led him to thinking about the possibilities of creating a machine for a person to fly in.

From 1903 he spent 3 years as a draughtsman in a motor works at Brotherton and Crockers Limited. It was while he was at Brotherton and Crockers that the Wright brothers made the first flight in a heavier than air machine at Kittyhawk, USA. A.V. Roe was almost immediately in correspondence with them. In August 1908 he cycled to Le Mans to meet them when they made their first European flights.

In the meantime, in 1906, the Daily Mail offered a prize for model aeroplanes capable of sustained mechanical flight. The flights made by A.V. Roe’s model glider led to him being awarded a £75 prize.

After this success, he spent a short time in the U.S.A. with a firm trying to build a gyrocopter. The machine was a failure and Roe came back to Britain but was not discouraged.

On returning to England, he used his Daily mail prize money to set about building an aeroplane which would be able to carry him aloft. A half-used stable in Wandsworth, behind the surgery of his brother (Dr Spencer Verdon Roe), was ideal and construction of his first aeroplane, the Roe I canard biplane, started in 1907.

He tested the aeroplane at Brooklands motor course in 1907 and 1908. At first, he found that the 9hp JAP engine he had was not powerful enough. Later he managed to borrow a 24hp Antoinette engine. It is said that this once took to the air while he was taxiing and flew for about 150 feet (45 metres). The aeroplane was then damaged in an accident while being lifted over railings back to his shed. This event is sometimes described as the first powered flight by a British pilot in a British built aeroplane. It was not officially observed and so was not recorded as that. The first official observed and recorded flight was by Samuel Cody at Farnborough in October 1908, a ‘hop’ of 1,390 ft (420 m).

The then Clerk of the Course, the Baron Ernst Rodakowski, had not been supportive of aeroplanes at ‘his’ motor course and required A.V. Roe to leave. It is said that Rodakowski did not approve of A.V. Roe sleeping in the shed beside his aeroplane. A.V. Roe described Rodakowski as: “a belligerent character who was entirely sceptical of the possibility of flight”.

In 1909 Louis Blériot achieved his flight across the English Channel setting off a burgeoning of interest in the possibilities of flight. Enthusiasm for aeroplanes returned to Brooklands, supported by the new Clerk of the Course, Major Lindsay Lloyd.

A.V. Roe returned to Brooklands, renting a shed in the Flying Village where he offered his aeroplanes for sale, and opened a flying school, using Avro aeroplanes, of course. The school continued until August 1912, having trained twelve students to achievement of their
Certificates. He also offered pleasure flights in Avro aeroplanes during this period.

In 1910, A.V. Roe and his brother Humphrey founded A.V. Roe and Company, Ltd. They started with the triplane design, but in 1911 he built a biplane which was followed by the Avro "504," with an 80hp Gnome engine. This was most successful, 17,000 were built and they remained in service for over fifteen years. It was used on bombing missions in the early part of World War I and served as a trainer for British pilots.

In 1911 he designed the first enclosed cabin aeroplane, which flew in 1912 and was entered in the British military trials that year. In October 1912 it established a British flying record of seven and a half hours.

One of A.V. Roe's other interests was the application of aerodynamics to the motorcycle, and in 1922 he produced a single-track vehicle in which the rider had a bucket seat. The first model had small outrigger wheels for stability at low speeds.

Another example of his interest in the future technology was his prediction that aircraft would one day be flying at over 1000 mph at heights of over 12 miles, with passengers in warm, pressurized cabins. He believed firmly that speeds would increase with height above the earth and the times of long journeys would be reduced substantially.

Ten years after the First World War, A.V. Roe severed all ties with his company and acquired an interest in another firm, which became Saunders-Roe, Ltd. which designed and manufactured flying boats. In 1929, he was knighted. During the 1930’s he became a member of the British Union of Fascists. It is said that BUF was able to attract people such as A V Roe as it marketed itself as the 'modern movement', with its newspapers full of enthusiasm for modern technology, the flight industry, and motoring.

During the Second World War, two of his sons were killed in action whilst serving with the Royal Air Force.

He died on 4 January 1958 in Portsmouth.

The Avro name went through a succession of different owners, eventually with BAE Systems. It produced some of the great aircraft of the 1940’s to 1970’s, including the Lancaster, the Shackleton and the Vulcan ‘V’ Bomber. In 1994, British Aerospace rebranded its ‘146 regional jet’ design and adopted the name Avro RJ.

On 28 October 2011 a green plaque was unveiled by Wandsworth Council and members of the Verdon-Roe family at the site of Roe's first workshop at West Hill, Putney. There is also a Blue Plaque at Walthamstow Marsh commemorating his first successful flight there (in July 1909) on one of the railway arches where he worked.

Peter Kearns, Brooklands volunteer

A.V. Roe's shed in 1908 and the modern recreation at Brooklands today.

A.V. Roe's 1908 Roe I Biplane and the Museum's replica

The Museum's Avro 504K replica