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This June Kingston-upon-Thames (Surrey- UK) will be celebrating 100 years of aviation heritage- marking the centenary of famous aircraft designer Tommy Sopwith establishing his factory in the town.

The Kingston Aviation Festival takes place on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee weekend- 2nd - 5th June and launches Kingston's Cultural Heritage Programme of events. Visitors to Kingston's Market Square can expect an extensive exhibition of film footage- photographs and specially built scale models- many of which are being shown for the first time- plus a range of outdoor exhibits including a Sopwith Camel - in Kingston for the first time since the overflight in 1918.

Part of the exhibition's aim is to recognise the efforts of the many people who worked at the Hawker factory over the last century and the organisers are welcoming all ex-employees to re-unite with fellow workers and share their stories for a new oral history project.

You can find out more about this exciting event at: www.kingstonaviation.org/festival.html

Sopwith and Aviation in Kingston Upon Thames

The history of Britain would be very different if Thomas Octave Sopwith has not purchased the roller-skating rink in Canbury Park Road- Kingston in December 1912. The Hawker Hurricane would not have been available to defeat the German Luffwaffe in the Battle of Britain and save the country from invasion and the Harrier Jump Jet would not have been available to shoot down the Argentinean Jet fighter bombers over the Falkland Islands.

Why did this aircraft designer want to buy a roller skating rink? Because the flatness of the roller rink’s surface made it the ideal canvas for chalking out aircraft production guide-lines.

Sopwith was born in 1888 and started his involvement in aviation at the age of 18 flying balloons and growing to become a pioneering figure in aviation- winning the Baron de Forest prize in 1910 for flying across the English Channel.

Sopwith had a business idea to start a flying school and he set up at Brooklands aerodrome and racetrack in Weybridge- Surrey. One of his first pupils was Major Trenchard who later went on to run the Royal Air Force as Chief of Air Staff.

Sopwith started to build aircraft at Brooklands- manufacturing other designers' aircraft under licence and the first Sopwith constructed aeroplane took off 4th July 1912. During the next six months his confidence as an aircraft manufacture increased and he decided to start designing his own planes. He needed a premises and that is when he found the Kingston Roller Skating Rink. The Skating craze had hit a high two years earlier and now was in decline so it was an ideal time for Sopwith to buy the premises.

This was where the first plans for the Hawker Siddeley Harrier jump-jet were drawn up. The office building still remains but it has been turned into flats. All that remains of its historic past are small Hawker Hurricane propellers built into the wrought iron railings. The famous The Hurricane and The Harrier jump jet were constructed and developed at Hawker’s larger plant near the junction of Lower Ham Road with the Richmond Road on the outskirts of Kingston.

Sopwith got in trouble from the River Thames Conservancy group and the local police as he 'forgot' to ask permission to use the river to launch his planes. He used to wheel his float planes down to the river very early in the morning when there were very few people around to avoid being caught. Sopwith purchased a large Daimler Lorry to transport his land based planes to the nearby Brooklands airfield for testing but there are accounts that recall he also towed some of his planes to Brooklands behind his car!

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