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Tales from Brooklands: Sir Thomas Sopwith

28 August 2021

In our next Tales from Brooklands, volunteer Peter Kearns is sharing the story of aviation pioneer Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith. 

Without any training, Thomas Sopwith made his first attempt at flying on 22nd October 1910 in a Howard Wright biplane. He managed a distance of approximately 300 yards before crashing and writing off the machine.

A month later bought a Howard Wright Monoplane. On his first day with this machine, he started with a few ground runs, then a few short straight hops at low level. After lunch, he managed some circuits of Brooklands and, later that same day, achieved a Royal Aero Club Certificate (number 31) and so became a qualified pilot. That evening he took up his first passenger.

A month after that, he won the Baron de Forest endurance flying prize of £4,000 for flying from Dover to east Belgium.

Two years later, he formed the Sopwith Flying School, at Brooklands and in 1913 he founded Sopwith Aviation. This was based in a disused ice-rink site in Kingston-upon-Thames, where the manufacturing took place, but the aircraft were brought to Brooklands for final assembly and testing.

Thomas Sopwith was born in Kensington on 18 January 1888. He was educated at Cottesmore School in Hove and at Seafield Park engineering college in Hill Head, Fareham. His father was Thomas Sopwith (a civil engineer and managing director of the Spanish Lead Mines Company. His grandfather was also a mining engineer, and also named Thomas Sopwith.

Tragedy hit Thomas Sopwith when he was just ten years old. On a family holiday on the Isle of Lismore, near Oban in Scotland, a gun lying across young Thomas's knee went off, killing his father. It is said that this accident haunted him for the rest of his life.

He became an expert ice skater in his youth. This culminated in his membership of the Great Britain team that won a gold medal in the first European Championships in 1910.

He developed an interest in motorcycles and, when he was only 16, he took part in the 100-mile Tricar trial where he was one of four medal winners. He also engaged in motor racing at Brooklands.

He had a go at hot air ballooning, his first flight being in C.S. Rolls' balloon in June 1906. Then he bought a Short Brothers balloon, with his friend Phil Paddon. The two of them later went into business selling cars, as Paddon and Sopwith, in London.

In the longer term, he concentrated on one very new form of technology, aviation, and on one very established technology, sailing. His involvement in aviation became the basis of is working life. His sailing was a sport, in which he achieved considerable success, especially in the America’s Cup races. On the water, he also achieved success in powerboats, including winning the British International Trophy.

It is in aviation that Thomas Sopwith made his greatest impact. As mentioned above, he had started his aeroplane building business in the period leading up to the start of the First World War. One of the first projects was a Sopwith Three-Seater, supplied to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. Next, he worked with the Saunders Boatyard in Southampton, on the Sopwith Bat-Boat for the Royal Naval Air Service.

The Schneider Trophy Races had started in Monaco in 1913 and were considered a prestigious opportunity for the manufacturers of seaplanes to demonstrate their wares. In 1914 the race was contested by France, Great Britain and Switzerland. It was won by a Sopwith Tabloid piloted by Howard Pixton. This led to orders for 42 Sopwith Tabloids and 136 Schneider Float Plane models.

As the war went on, more than 16,000 Sopwith designed aircraft were built in Britain and France and the company employed over 5,000 people. Sopwith designs were being manufactured by sub-contractors throughout the country.

The Sopwith Camel was considered by many to be his greatest design. During World War One, Camels downed 1,294 enemy aircraft, more than any other Allied fighter. It featured a pair of machine guns synchronised to fire through the sweep of the propellors. This gave the pilot a direct sighting on the target whilst flying, making it possible to have an effective, single-seater fighter plane. A replica of a Sopwith Camel, with an original Clerget engine can be seen in the Flight Shed at Brooklands Museum. This replica has flown over Thomas Sopwith’s home in the 1980’s, and still demonstrates engine runs at Brooklands Museum, when circumstances allow it.

In 1918, he was awarded a CBE in recognition of this contribution to the war effort. At about the same time, he was bankrupted due to a government demand for ‘Excess War Profits’ tax. Despite this, he went back into the aviation business as chairman of a new firm, H. G. Hawker Engineering Co, working with Harry Hawker.

In the 1930’s he bought the Gloster Aircraft company and established the Hawker Siddeley Group of companies. In 1936 he started work on a new fighter which became the Hawker Hurricane, a major contributor to the RAF’s success in the Battle of Britain, accounting for over 60% of the enemy aircraft destroyed.

In 1941 the Group had developed the Gloster Meteor which was the first British jet fighter and the Allies' only jet aircraft to achieve combat operations during the Second World War. Their main role was defending against the enemy’s very fast V1 “Doodlebug” flying bombs.

Thomas Sopwith was knighted for his services to British aviation in 1953. In 1978, when Hawker’s aerospace interests were absorbed into British Aerospace, Sir Thomas retired, aged 90. He died in 1989 aged 101.

There is a Blue Plaque in his memory on the wall of number 46 Green Street in Mayfair, where he lived from 1934 until 1940.

Peter Kearns, Brooklands Museum volunteer

Thomas Sopwith flying the Howard Wright Monoplane c.1910

Tommy Sopwith in his Howard Wright Biplane prior to winning the Baron de Forest Prize for a flight of 169 miles. Brooklands Dec 1910. Credit Hulton Archive

Sopwith Tabloid at Monaco for the start of the Schneider Trophy race.

Sopwith Camel

Sopwith Aviation Co works at Kingston-upon-Thames

The Museum Sopwith Camel and Hawker Hurricane