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How Norwich firm took to the skies to help the war effort

PUBLISHED: 14:44 30 June 2018

The aircraft works at Riverside in Norwich a century ago.

The aircraft works at Riverside in Norwich a century ago.

Archant

A century ago the Great War was slowly but surely coming to a bloody end... and a world-famous Norfolk company was asked to produce an aircraft capable of carrying the biggest bombs deep into the heart of enemy territory. Derek James reports.

B&P Chief Engineer John North is the man in the bow-tie in this picture. He designed this plane which went on to set a world record by lifting ten people aloft.B&P Chief Engineer John North is the man in the bow-tie in this picture. He designed this plane which went on to set a world record by lifting ten people aloft.

They had built nine different types of aircraft - and more than 2,500 of them - but it not until 1918 that it was realised the quickest way to “bring hostilities to a conclusion was to adopt the German method of bringing

the war home to the capital of our enemies.”

In his book, Boulton & Paul and The Great War, published in 1919 for private circulation, William Ffiske explained: “With this end in view, in the summer of 1918 we were invited with other designers to produce a machine for the ABC engine for long distance flying, capable of carrying a quantity of our heaviest bombs.”

He added: “A machine was produced by Mr John Dudley North, which we believe fulfilled all requirements, and which we have reason to believe would have been put into production in large quantities had not the Armistice taken place before the engine had been perfected.”

The first Boulton & Paul design to be completed was the P3 Bobolink C8655, named after a North American bird. An example is pictured here in December 1917, having been built at Riverside Works.The first Boulton & Paul design to be completed was the P3 Bobolink C8655, named after a North American bird. An example is pictured here in December 1917, having been built at Riverside Works.

The brilliant John North was one of the great aviation pioneers and the guiding light of Boulton & Paul Aircraft for so many years. He felt the day of wooden aircraft was over and wanted to build them in steel - which he did.

It is important that we remember the part that factories, large and small, across the region played during the First World War, from producing chocolate for the troops to making aircraft. And B&P was a leading player in the latter.

Over three years they produced no fewer than nine different type of aeroplane and, because nuts and bolts and other fittings needed to put the aircraft together were so expensive, they made their own.

They also made flying boat hulls and almost 8,000 propellers at their now-vanished large Riverside and Rose Lane Works.

B&P were already respected all over the world for their huge range of goods, large and small – from huts to hospitals, and when war started the order book was full.

Contracts included a naval hospital in Dover, huts and stables for 6,000 men and horses to be completed in 10 weeks, a PoW camp in Jersey, hospitals in France and warehouses in Mesopotamia.

Then, in 1915, came the Government request for B&P to make aircraft and an airfield was laid out on the old Cavalry Drill Grounds on Mousehold from where the planes could take off from.

They outgrew the Rose Lane Works and moved across to the river to a 14-acre site at Riverside where Sopwith Camels and late Snipes were among the aircraft made. After the war the Rose Lane site was sold to the Co-operative Wholesale Society for use as a shoe factory.

And that is from where the business grew and grew during the last three years of the conflict.

As William explained at the time: “The names of 3,281 men were registered on our books during this period and also 1,226 girls.

“The wages bill was considerably over a million, and, as this was received by Norwich men and women, or those residing in the city, it is reasonable to assume most of this money circulated in Norwich,” he said.

This was a time when the community – rich and poor – came together to fight for victory, and help our soldiers in any way they could.

A War Savings Certificate Scheme was formed in Norwich under the chairmanship of Sir Eustice Gurney and the B&P workers joined up with more than 14,000 certificates issued.

An appeal was made by the Board of Management at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital to the workers in the city to support beds at £5 a month.

According to William a competition was arranged in the works with the result being recorded weekly by moving aeroplanes higher up on a picture displayed at the entrances.

“The hospital benefitted to the extent of £2,055 and there was also the Working Men’s Belgian Fund for starving children for which £75 was collected from employees,” he said.

For the B&P aircraft builders a century ago there was accommodation and canteens open night and day which were serving up more than 2,000 meals each day. “Long hours and hard work required good feeding,” said William, pointing out most Norwich men and women went home for their meals.

He praised the female volunteers, first under Mrs Pelham and then Lady Betty Trafford, for the enormous amount of hard work they put in running the canteens.

“Ladies were in attendance day and night, their sacrifices and cheery welcome they always gave were appreciated to the full by the workers whom they waited upon,” added William.

“I believe we were one of the first concerns in the country to employ Lady Welfare Superintendents to watch over the interests of the girl workers,” he said, pointing that, under the guidance of Mrs Wilfred Tillett and Miss Watson they formed a social club where they put on concerts, set up a sports club and rented the Newmarket Road ground for ground for cricket and tennis in the summer and football in the winter.

There were also smoking concerts, dancing two nights a week and whist and crib drives. The company made a real effort to look after its workers.

And William ended his 1919 book by saying: “It is to be hoped the better feeling between employers and employed that has manifested itself during the war will continue. Each really depends upon the other.”

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