29 July 2017

Aviation History at Battersea Power Station

If you live at Battersea Power Station, or are one of the thousands who have visited Circus West Village recently, you’re probably familiar with Sopwith Way. It’s the street which brings vehicle access to the riverside entrance to Circus West Village: it runs between the railway viaduct and our neighbour development Chelsea Bridge Wharf. “Sopwith Way” is the postal address for Circus West. Parts of Circus West Village, including the Village Hall, are located in the railway arches.

The ‘Venetian Blind’ multiplane of 1904. This model was unsuccessful, though the later 1907 version may have flown. The inventor, Horatio Phillips, had earlier worked on helicopters at Battersea.

Some readers might also have heard that those railway arches running down the western side of the Power Station site are an important location in British aviation history, and this is absolutely true. The first aircraft manufacturer in the world was based in them; a busy balloon launching field operated next to the rail line for over a decade; many interesting machines were manufactured beneath the arches. Most readers will be aware that “Sopwith” is a famous name in British aviation, of course.

Some have even suggested that the Battersea arches were “connected with some of the first UK helicopter flights”, but that’s not quite true: what is true is that several early experimental helicopters were built there. One of the earliest aviation figures to work at the arches was Horatio Phillips, best known to history as the designer of the “Venetian blind” multiplane. This may have been the first powered heavier-than-air machine to fly in Britain, in 1907. But Phillips built his multiplane in Streatham, not Battersea.

Much earlier in his career, however, Phillips had indeed rented a Battersea railway arch to use as a workshop. In 1870 he built a helicopter there, a remarkable machine powered by a steam engine and featuring twenty-foot rotors. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it was unable to lift its own weight off the ground and never flew.

Some other non-flying helicopters were also built at the Battersea railway arches. The British Wright brothers, Howard and Warwick, had an engineering workshop at the arches in the early years of the 20th century. They advertised that they could build “any kind of machine to inventor’s specifications”, and they received several commissions from Signor Federico Capone of Naples to build aircraft to his designs, including two helicopters and an ornithopter (an aircraft with flapping wings like a bird’s) all of which were sadly unsuccessful.

So no, the Battersea arches had nothing to do with any helicopter flights. But it is true that early helicopters were built beneath them.

Early coal-gas balloon operations at ‘The Field’, Battersea

What actually did fly at Battersea, to begin with, was balloons. The famous Short brothers, later to lead one of Britain’s biggest aircraft companies, started out in aviation by making balloons. One of their most important clients was Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce renown), for whom the Shorts had built the 78,500 cubic-foot balloon “Britannia”, which he used for the first Gordon Bennett balloon race in 1906.

Rolls and the Short brothers wanted a convenient place for building and launching balloons, and they found it at Battersea. Most balloons in those days were inflated using coal gas, also known as “town gas”, the same gas that was used for lighting at the time. This was a mixture of different gaseous chemicals manufactured from coal, very different from today’s natural gas, and around half of it was hydrogen. As such it was lighter than air, and as it was affordable and widely available in bulk it was usually the choice for inflating balloons.

Just to the southwest of today’s Power Station site, between the railway viaducts, there was a group of gasholders connected to a nearby gasworks. Rolls and the Short brothers arranged with the London Gas, Coal and Coke Company to use an open grass area next to the gasholders, known simply as “The Field”, for balloon launches. The Shorts rented arches 75 and 81 from the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and set up in business there in 1906. They were appointed as the official Aeronautical Engineers to the Aero Club, and made balloons for many well-known early aviators. Customers could keep their balloons stored at the Shorts’ factory or the Shorts’ own balloon, “Aero Club IV”, could be hired for two guineas. Inflation took just an hour and a half, thanks to “special apparatus” installed in cooperation with the gas company. A telephone call to 788 Battersea was all that was required to arrange a flight.

The Shorts’ balloon field was busy, averaging ten ascents a month and carrying a total of 483 people in 1908. Some seven million cubic feet of gas were used in balloons that year, which was also the year that the British Wright brothers, who had arch number 80 (next door to the Shorts) were delivering the second of Federico Capone’s unsuccessful helicopters.

But 1908 was the year that Europe woke up to the potential of aeroplanes, when the American Wright brothers demonstrated their plane, the “Flyer”, in France. Though they had first flown an earlier Flyer five years previously, the Wrights’ success wasn’t well-known in Britain until their flights at Le Mans, witnessed by members of the British Aero Club among others. The American Wright brothers had often been suspected of being fraudsters up to that point, but the Le Mans demonstrations – by far the most impressive yet seen in Europe by any aeroplane – put all doubts to rest.

“This is the finish of ballooning,” Oswald Short reportedly said to his brother Eustace, on hearing of the French demonstrations. “We must begin building aeroplanes at once.”

The brothers did so, beginning with an order to make six copies of the American Wright brothers’ Flyer under licence. This appears to have been the first case of series production of aeroplanes to a standard design, allowing the Shorts to describe their company as “The First Manufacturers Of Aircraft In The World”. One of the new Flyers was bought by Charles Rolls, who made more than 200 flights in it but was sadly killed when its tail broke off during a flight at Bournemouth in 1910. The Short brothers also received another aeroplane order, for a machine along the Wrights’ lines but with modifications by the Shorts, in 1909: this was the Short No. 1 aircraft.

Meanwhile, in the arches next door, the British Wright brothers had also moved into making planes. These included the 1909 or “Avis” type, generally regarded as one of the first successful British monoplanes, and various biplanes. Aviation historians generally assert that the British Wrights in their Battersea factory were the leading aeroplane makers in the UK from around 1908. By 1911, they had so much work that they had rented arches 79 and 82, boxing the Shorts in.

The Howard Wright 1910 Biplane

At this point, however, the British Wrights’ company was taken over by the Coventry Ordnance Works, a large defence contractor. Howard Wright continued as an aeroplane designer, at first for Coventry, producing a biplane intended for military use in 1912. This was assembled at Battersea but it was not a success, and that year Howard moved to a different firm on the Isle of Wight to design seaplanes for the Royal Navy. His brother Warwick had left the aircraft business to concentrate on motor cars after the takeover, and the Battersea aircraft factory was subsequently closed down. The British Wright brothers continued to be prominent men in aviation and motoring circles, but their Battersea story was over.

Meanwhile the start of the Short brothers’ involvement in heavier-than-air flight was also the start of their move away from Battersea. The licenced Wright Flyers were actually made at a new factory on the Isle of Sheppey, though the Short No. 1 and perhaps some other early Short planes were made under the Battersea arches. Soon, however, all aeroplane making by the Shorts had moved elsewhere. Only the balloon business carried on at Battersea – with the number of ascents steadily declining, as Oswald Short had foreseen. World War I brought a temporary revival with military balloon orders, but it also conclusively established the dominance of the aeroplane.

In 1919 “The Field” ceased balloon operations and Short Brothers moved out of the Battersea railway arches altogether. The company went on to build many of the flying-boat airliners of the 1920s and 30s, and the Sunderland submarine-hunter of World War II. Short Brothers survives to this day, based in Belfast where it is the largest manufacturing concern in Northern Ireland.

Back in Battersea, “The Field” disappeared altogether in 1932 when the gas company built a much taller gasholder on the open grass using then-new waterless technology. However the name survived: the address of the engineer’s house at the gasholder site continued to be Nos. 1 and 2, The Field. When coal gas passed out of use and the gasworks itself disappeared, the gasholders survived as storage for natural gas. This role too disappeared in the end, and the National Grid (which had wound up as the owner) finally began demolishing the gasholders in 2013. The site is intended for redevelopment in the near future.

The unsuccessful Supermarine Nighthawk anti-Zeppelin fighter, designed to shoot down German airships using the Davis Gun.

There was one other aviation facility next to today’s Power Station site in the early days: this was Royal Naval Air Station Battersea, located on Kirtling Street to the east of the site during World War I. RNAS Battersea was an experimental R&D facility, where special weapons such as the fearsome “Davis Gun” were tested. The Davis Gun, invented by an American naval officer, was a powerful cannon – up to 3 inches in calibre – intended for mounting on aircraft. To prevent the gun’s recoil destroying the aeroplane, it was recoilless: as the shell was fired from the front of the weapon, a counterweight of lead balls packed in grease was blasted out of the back. This meant that the gun was mounted pointing downwards or upwards, so that the counterweight shot would be thrown clear of the plane. Davis guns were fitted at times in the Royal Navy’s Handley Page bombers and Felixstowe flying boats. They were used on the Western Front and for antisubmarine duties, but it’s not known how successful they were in these roles. There were also several plans to mount Davis guns in special aircraft for use against Zeppelins, including the remarkable Supermarine Nighthawk (not a biplane nor a triplane, but a quadraplane). None of these went beyond the prototype stage.

RNAS Battersea was absorbed into the Royal Air Force when the RAF was formed on April Fool’s Day 1918, and closed down not long after the war. The area around today’s Battersea Power Station has not figured significantly in aviation since then.

Apart from these true stories, there are quite a lot of myths and misunderstandings about the Battersea railway arches and their place in aviation history. It has been claimed in recent times that the great British aviation pioneer A V Roe – most famous, probably, for the Avro Lancaster bomber – built “the Bulldog plane, the first plane to fly” in the arches. This myth is particularly persistent: some people even go so far as to state that Roe flew the “Bulldog” over Battersea as early as 1904.

The truth is that Roe did build the Roe I (aka “Bullseye”, not “Bulldog”) triplane in south-west London, but not under the Battersea arches. Roe worked in the stables of his brother’s house on West Hill, Wandsworth, several miles from the Power Station. He did keep the Bullseye in a railway arch when flight trials commenced, but this arch was on Walthamstow Marsh, far away on the other side of London. In an indication of the way things were changing at the time, Roe transported his aeroplane across the city in a horse-drawn cart. 

The Bullseye triplane flew successfully above Walthamstow Marsh with Roe at the controls in 1909, but of course the American Wright brothers had flown their aeroplane six years earlier and other plane flights – including some by Roe himself, in an earlier biplane – had already occurred in Britain. When Roe founded A V Roe & Company (“Avro”, the firm which later built the World War II Lancaster) he did so in Manchester, not Battersea.
So the Bullseye, which had nothing to do with the Battersea arches and never flew over Battersea, was not the first plane to fly; nor even the first to fly in Britain. It is famous instead for being the first all-British-made plane (including engine) to fly.

In looking at the Power Station neighbourhood’s aviation history, we’ve come across many famous names: Charles Rolls, the Shorts, the British and the American Wright brothers and Horatio Phillips – though not, in fact, A V Roe. Nor, curiously enough, have we come across the name Sopwith, which is a little odd as we started off our story at Sopwith Way.