The remarkable achievements of the Sopwith Aviation Company before the Great War. 

In the twenty-one months from its creation to the start of the Great War, the privately owned Sopwith Aviation Company was extremely competitive, keen to demonstrate that their aircraft could break records, win air races, and win prizes for major challenges.  This resulted in proven designs that attracted growing numbers of profitable orders from the British military, which in turn fully funded investment in further innovative products and business expansion.

For the origins of the company’s competitive nature, we need look no further than Thomas Sopwith himself.  Aged 16, he won a 100-mile reliability trial in a Pearson three-wheeler.  Two years later, he was the youngest competitor in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race in a 2-cylinder Peugeot and co-owned a gas balloon.  In 1910, he was goal tender for the British team that won the first European Ice Hockey Championship on a frozen lake in Switzerland.

In October 1910, at twenty-two years old, Thomas decided to teach himself to fly at Brooklands.  Buying a monoplane and then a biplane from Howard Wright, he gained the 31st Royal Aero Club Aviators Certificate by late November and three days later made a 107 mile cross-country flight, the longest in Britain at the time.  By the end of the year, he had flown 169 miles from Eastchurch to Belgium to win the £4,000 Baron De Forrest Prize for the longest flight from Britain to Europe.

From May to October 1911, Thomas was out in America with his biplane and a Bleriot monoplane, where he gave lucrative pleasure flights to rich Americans and won $25,000 prize money at “Aviation Meets” in Columbus Ohio, Chicago, Boston, and Long Island.

In February 1912, Thomas set up the Sopwith School of Flying at Brooklands whilst continuing to compete in his Bleriot, winning a cross-country race in May and the first Hendon Aerial Derby in June.  In September, he went to America with an 800hp powerboat and won the prestigious Harmsworth Trophy.

The Sopwith School of Flying

The team assembles

Back in July, Thomas had test-flown the first aircraft devised and built with his workshop team led by mechanic Fred Sigrist, whom he had recruited to install and maintain the engine in his large schooner. Sigrist is an early example of Thomas’ skill at recruiting exceptional talents.  Their biplane, a three-seat Sopwith “Hybrid” with an engine and some parts from other machines was slow but climbed and flew very well.

July 1912 Sopwith Hybrid over Brooklands

Australian motor mechanic Harry Hawker, who had only joined Fred Sigrist’s workshop team in June, was keen to learn to fly.  He gained his aviator’s certificate in September and, in October, flew their specially modified Burgess Wright biplane around over Brooklands for nearly eight and a half hours to win the 1912 Michelin Trophy and the £500 prize, proving himself to be yet another highly competitive member of the Sopwith team.

The original Hybrid was rebuilt by October, and the Naval Wing of the RFC purchased it for £900.  Thomas registered the Sopwith Aviation Company name to become an approved Admiralty aircraft supplier, and Harry Hawker delivered the Hybrid to Eastchurch in November.  Thomas was convinced he could sell other aircraft that he and his team were devising.  To do so, he needed a ready-made factory and more skilled workers.  Thomas’ search took him 12 miles to Kingston upon Thames, where he leased a 13,000 sq. ft. roller-skating rink just a few yards from the town railway sidings and recruited half a dozen skilled craftsmen from the local boatyards.

The Bat Boat takes flight

Starting the last week of 1912, they were building an improved 3-seater, the Type D, and an extraordinary pusher ‘Bat Boat’ flying boat with a slim side-by-side two-seat stepped speedboat type hull built by Saunders of Cowes, who had built Thomas’ winning powerboat.

Jan 1913 Sopwith Bat Boat and Three Seater in the Roller Skating Rink

Both machines were ready by mid-February and were greatly admired by the press and visitors at the 1913 Olympia Aero Show.  The Admiralty bought both machines. The Type D was soon delivered, but the Bat Boat was badly damaged in a storm before delivery and had to be rebuilt.  

By April, Thomas had decided to risk building three more Type Ds for stock alongside a further order from the Admiralty for three similar machines but on floats and with Anzani radial engines.  The factory quickly became a hive of activity.

April 1913 Assembling Sopwith Anzani Floatplanes

In May, Harry Hawker won the altitude competition at Hendon in a stock Type D disappearing into the clouds at 7,400ft and two days later won the Brooklands Handicap race. In mid-June, Harry Hawker broke two British height records in the Type D, taking two passengers to 10,600ft and one passenger to 12,900ft.

June 1913 Harry Hawker and passengers in 80hp Three-Seater

Early in July, Harry Hawker flew Sopwith’s original Bat Boat, rebuilt with a British Green engine and retractable wheels, on six flights from land to water and back in one a day to win the £500 Mortimer Singer prize for the first practical all-British amphibious aircraft.  Harry looks very pleased posing in front of the wing. 

July 1913 Harry Hawker with the original Bat Boat rebuilt as an amphibian.

Later that month, he was in the news again with a World height record of 8,400ft with three passengers aboard the Type D.  The company was quick to advertise their remarkable achievements.

The Company had accepted the challenge from the Admiralty to design and build a “Special Gun-Carrying Hydro-biplane” before it received its largest order to date and the first from the War Office.  It was for nine Type Ds as two-seaters with ailerons instead of wing warping.

Competing in the Circuit of Britain

By the time the new Admiralty Bat Boat was at Calshot with Sopwith’s first Anzani floatplane, the other Anzani floatplanes had been delivered to Cromarty and Great Yarmouth, and Sopwith had built themselves a very similar machine with a British 100hp Green water-cooled engine.  In mid-August, Harry Hawker and mechanic Harry Kauper set out from Southampton Water to compete for the £5,000 prize for Daily Mail’s 1,540 mile “Circuit of Britain” challenge.   

August 1913 Harry Hawker arriving at Scarborough.

They reached Great Yarmouth, where Harry Hawker collapsed, too ill to continue.  On his recovery, they flew the first 495 miles to Beadnell.  The next day, they flew three more legs around to Inverness and down the Caledonian Canal to Oban.  After repairing a waterlogged float the next morning, they crossed the Irish Sea.  Twelve miles short of Dublin, suspecting serious engine trouble, they spiralled to land near a beach but plunged sideways into the sea. Harry Kauper had a broken arm, and the aircraft was badly damaged.  As the only team to set out on this extreme over-water challenge and having completed over two-thirds of the distance, the Daily Mail awarded them a consolation prize of £1,000.

The latest news was that the Admiralty had decided to buy two of the company’s three stock Type Ds whilst Thomas Sopwith himself was still competing, albeit in powerboat races off the Isle of Wight, where he beat the Americans to win the Harmsworth Trophy for the second year running.

In September, the crowds turned up in their thousands to watch Britain’s now most famous aviators battle it out in the 95 mile Aerial Derby.  Beaten only by a modified racing and a 120hp monoplane, Harry Hawker in the company’s Type D came third, ahead of all the other 80hp machines.

In October, the Circuit of Britain machine, rebuilt as a landplane to compete for the 1913 Michelin Trophy challenge, was crashed by Harry Hawker, turning shortly after take-off and spinning into the ground.  He miraculously survived but with permanent damage to his back.  Meanwhile, Sopwith gained its first export order, three dual control, gun/bomb carrying pusher floatplanes for the Greek Navy. The Admiralty ordered two for themselves, and the first of the nine Type Ds was delivered to the Army.

In November, Sopwith took two orders for larger 200hp Bat Boat flying boats, one from the Admiralty and the other from a German agent destined for the German Navy.  The Admiralty had also decided to buy the Mortimer Singer prize-winning Bat Boat, refurbished with an Austro-Daimler engine.  With his Circuit of Britain machine rebuilt yet again, Harry Hawker made two last-minute attempts to win the £800 1913 Michelin Trophy prize before the closing date, but illness and then poor weather stopped him short of even the qualifying distance of 279 miles.

By now, Harry Hawker had convinced the company to invest in building his vision of a small agile “Stunt Bus” competition biplane.  Built in a month, Harry was delighted with its performance and promptly flew it to Farnborough, where they recorded an astonishing 92mph and 1,200 feet per minute climb with just 80hp.  That weekend, Harry amazed the crowds at Brooklands and Hendon with its speed and agility. Soon nicknamed the ‘Tabloid’ after Burroughs Wellcome’s tradename for their small tablets, Aeroplane’s editor explained that was “because it contains so many good qualities in such a small compass and is a concentrated dose of medicine for certain gentlemen at the Royal Aircraft Factory.”

February 1914 Sopwith Greek pusher floatplane


The Tabloid was an immediate success.  By the end of the year, Sopwith had received an urgent Admiralty order for a larger 100hp Tabloid specified by First Lord Winston Churchill and, soon after, a War Office order for nine 80hp Sopwith SS single-seat scouts.  By then, Harry Hawker and the first Tabloid were on a ship to Australia, planning one-man flying displays and determined to sell aircraft to the newly formed Australian Air Force.

In February 1914, Winston Churchill visited the factory. Sopwith received Admiralty orders for three large tractor floatplanes and the refurbished 1913 Circuit of Britain machine, whilst the Greek Navy ordered six more pusher floatplanes.  The roller-skating rink factory was already crowded, not helped by the sheer size of the first Greek pusher floatplane nearing completion. 

With the business growing fast, Sopwith Aviation was now incorporated as a limited company wholly owned by Thomas Sopwith, his mother and his sister May.  Thomas had already bought some land further up Canbury Park Road for a purpose-built additional factory and was planning to buy surrounding homes in preparation for extending that factory if demand continued to grow.

In Melbourne, Harry had given a flight to the Governor General of Australia and drawn a crowd of over 25,000 to his flying exhibition before setting out for similar displays in Sydney and a flight for the Minister of Defence.  Meanwhile, Howard Pixton was standing in for Harry Hawker, testing and delivering the last few of the War Office’s nine Type Ds and the Admiralty’s 100hp dual-control larger Tabloid, reportedly for flying lessons for Winston Churchill.

In gestation for nine months and now with a 200hp rotary engine, the first of two large Admiralty gun-carrying pusher floatplanes was finally being tested from Sopwith’s shed and slipway in Southampton. They had also completed a clipped-wing floatplane for trials with the Navy’s new torpedo release gear.

By this time, the freed-up factory space was urgently needed, not least for assembling the nine SS Tabloids for the Army, soon to be increased to twelve.  Also in there was the hull of the 200hp Bat Boat to be completed in time for the 1914 Olympia Aero Show. Its compressed air self-starter and motorcycle engine driven generator for the wireless telegraphy equipment drew much attention and admiration at Olympia.  

April 1914 RFC Tabloids and Bat Boat hull in the factory

Success in Monaco

Unable to resist a competition, Sopwith decided to build themselves a Bat Boat for the 1914 Circuit of Britain prize.

Then, just five weeks before the international Schneider Trophy races in Monaco, they set about modifying one of the War Office Tabloid airframes into a 100hp Monosoupape rotary engined floatplane.  When Howard Pixton tried it on the Hamble, it nosed into the water.  Rushing back to Kingston, they split the single central float in half, mounted those floats further forward and added a small tail float.  Now, just eleven days before the race, it was taxied on the Thames, and the next morning flew well enough to risk rushing it down to Monaco in time to compete.  They were just in time, but the rusty engine ran too fast at maximum power and might seize up. As luck would have it, bad weather postponed the race by a day, allowing them to fit a borrowed courser-pitch propeller.  The German entry had already crashed when race day started.  It soon became clear that the little Sopwith machine was much faster and could bank much more steeply around the pylons on the 10km triangular course out in the bay. 

Howard Pixton completed the two compulsory water landings and take-offs, hardly reducing his speed.  On the fifteenth lap, his engine started misfiring but settled to run smoothly on eight of its nine cylinders.  The fancied French 160hp Nieuport monoplanes at 75mph were much slower than Pixton and gave up; their two-row rotary engines seriously overheated.  Other French, British and American entries suffered engine problems or withdrew, seeing the amazing performance of the Sopwith machine.  Only the small Swiss entered FBA flying boat flew on, averaging around 65mph.  Pixton completed the twenty-eight laps at an average of 86.78mph to win the prize money and the magnificent trophy, but not before he had completed two more laps to take the 300km world seaplane speed record.

Meanwhile, the first Army SS Tabloid was the first aircraft to be looped by a Brooklands pilot before being delivered to Farnborough, where they recorded it at speeds from 40mph to 94.9mph, easily exceeding the contracted performance range.

Following the win in Monaco, manufacturing licences were negotiated with Bleriot, Societa Italiana Transaerea and the Russian V A Lebedev, each to have a sample Tabloid airframe.  Alongside those, Sopwith decided to build two single-seat racing Tabloids for the 200-mile Gordon Bennett international air race in France in August, the 100hp one to have a slim round cross-section fuselage.  Then, they received a large Admiralty order for three 200hp torpedo-carrying tractor floatplanes.

In May, the 200hp Austro-Daimler engined Bat Boats passed their acceptance trials.  The Navy’s one came back for repairs, but the second machine was handed over to Captain von Pustau of the German Navy. 

Sopwith was now building the Sunbeam-engined third Bat Boat to compete in the 1914 Circuit of Britain Challenge in August alongside an unspecified Sopwith floatplane.

May 1914 German Navy Sopwith Bat Boat

By June, the new 14,000 sq. ft. Sopwith workshop was in use, with the company’s total workforce now around one hundred.  Two properties and open land to the east were already being purchased to double its size. 

August 1914 Newly completed Sopwith assembly shop

“We had the machine to win, but not the pilot”

The 100hp Tabloid, now on wheels, was flown in the 1914 Hendon Aerial Derby but, like most other competitors, got lost in the mist and fog around London.  Immediately after Harry Hawker got back from Australia, he flew it down to Farnborough, where they recorded 111mph.  Unsurprisingly, it was handicapped to be last away in the 1914 London-Manchester air race.  Retiring at Coventry violently ill from the bumpy weather, Harry said, “We had the machine to win but not the pilot.”    

But the redoubtable Harry Hawker was soon back air racing and doing flying displays at Brooklands, which now included loops. When he came out of a slow loop in a spin, only just starting to level out, he crashed down through dense woodland.  The very next day, he deliberately put another Tabloid into a spin and proved that he now knew exactly how to recover safely. 

On the day the Royal Naval Air Service was formed, their secret 66ft wingspan 200hp Salmson Canton-Unne powered Sopwith Type C floatplane was ready for testing. 

Later in July, a sleek Sopwith two-seat 100hp biplane being test flown at Brooklands turned out to be their second 1914 Circuit of Britain challenger prior to fitting its floats.  While over at the roller-skating rink workshop in Kingston, foreman Jack Pollard was photographed alongside Harry Hawker and Thomas Sopwith with their pre-assembled Circuit of Britain Bat Boat.

Sopwith goes to war

Soon after war was declared, on 6th August, Sopwith’s stock and competition aircraft were impressed into military service, and they received orders from the Royal Naval Air Service for more new aircraft than the total they had built so far.  The RFC had agreed to Admiralty demands for sole access to their most valued aircraft suppliers, Sopwith Aviation and Short Brothers, and that would continue for most of the war. 

In their continuing quest to be best, Sopwith built the initial Admiralty orders for their rapid succession of successful designs right through to the Camel.  Follow-up orders went to other contractors, mostly for much larger numbers to supply the Royal Flying Corps.  However, Sopwith went on to build larger numbers of Dolphin and Snipe, bringing their number of aircraft built to wartime orders to 3,600. 

In total, however, 15,000 Sopwith-designed aircraft were built for the British services, roughly matching the numbers built to Royal Aircraft Factory designs and many thousands more than any other British aircraft company’s designs.

By David Hassard, The Kingston Aviation Heritage Project

First published in Contact! Spring 2024.