Kingston: Birthplace of the Hawker Hurricane... ...and GA Buyer Europe!

Find out about Thomas Sopwith's first factory based in Kingston Upon Thames, in Surrey, UK, and how it became the birthplace of the Hawker Hurricane, as well as the original base of GA Buyer Europe.

AvBuyer  |  03rd August 2022
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Hawker Hurricane flying over Surrey

Kingston upon Thames, in Surrey, UK was the original base of World Aviation Communications Ltd and GA BUYER EUROPE, being published from the Cowleaze House offices from 2000. The company is now AvBuyer Limited and is based just down the river in Thames Ditton. The Kingston offices were based adjacent to the former site of Tommy Sopwith’s first factory when he moved from Brooklands to Kingston in 1912. In 2012 Kingston celebrated the Centenary and held an Aviation Exhibition in the town from June 2 – 5. This unique festival celebrated Tommy Sopwith setting up his first factory in Kingston 100 years before and the subsequent 80 years of the aviation achievements in Kingston.

The Kingston Aviation Festival

The Kingston Aviation Festival took place on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend 2-5 June, 2012 and launched Kingston’s Cultural Programme. Kingston’s aviation heritage had never truly been celebrated and the Festival 

engaged with schools and the local community as a whole to raise public awareness of the thousands of people employed in Kingston’s aviation history. 

45,000 Kingston-designed aircraft were been built since 1914 by the Sopwith and later the Hawker aircraft manufacturing companies. The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force had always had Kingston aircraft in service. It is a heritage to be proud of. 

Site of the Kingston Aviation Celebrations

The Festival took place in Kingston’s historical Market House and Market Place set in the centre of Kingston upon Thames. The Market House housed an extensive exhibition of displays including film footage, 

photographs, specially built scale models and paintings, some of which were being shown for the first time. 

Kingston Market Place had exhibits and activities for all of the family including Jet aircraft cockpits for children and enthusiasts of all ages to sit in and a Sopwith Camel was on display throughout the 4 days. This was the first time that a Camel had been in Kingston since the overflight in 1918. 

Brief History of Aviation in Kingston upon Thames

The History of Britain would be very different if Thomas Octave Sopwith (he was the 8th child) had not purchased the roller skating rink in Canbury Park Road near Kingston Railway Station South West London 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. 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? It was because of the flatness of the roller rink’s surface. It was ideal for chalking out lines on the floor. In the early years of the aviation production planes were built to chalked out lines on the floor. 

Sopwith was born in 1888 and started his aviation interest at the age of 18 by flying balloons. In 1910 he purchased his first heavier than air monoplane for £630 from Howard Wright. He flew solo for the first time on 22nd October 1910. A pioneering figure in aviation, he won the Baron de Forest prize in 1910 for flying across the English Channel. He later crashed the plane but he had caught the bug. He had a business idea of starting a flying school. He set up business at Brooklands aerodrome and racetrack, Weybridge, Surrey, England. One of his first pupils was Major Trenchard who later went on to run the Royal Air Force as Chief of Air Staff. 

Sopwith Charged £75 for a full course. Sopwith started to build aircraft at Brooklands. He built 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. At the start he only had seven employees. Sopwith officially registered Sopwith Aviation as a company in 1913. 

If you look at the former Sopwith factory’s location on a map it seems a strange place to locate an aircraft production facility. It was in the middle of a town and nowhere near an airfield. 

Sopwith had foreseen that Float Planes were going to become important over the next decade and he needed a stretch of straight water to launch his designs. The River Thames just north of Kingston bridge was ideal. 

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. There are accounts that state he also towed some of his planes to Brooklands behind his car. 

Sopwith Aviation made fighters and bombers for the Royal Flying Corps in World War One, like the famous Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Camel, and later for the RAF during the inter-war years and during World War Two. The Hawker Hurricane was developed in the Sopwith offices and built in Kingston upon Thames, Canbury Park Road near Kingston Railway Station. 

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. This was where the first plans for the Hawker Siddeley Harrier jump-jet were drawn up. 

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. From there, in the mid-1960’s Hawker's designer John Fozzard was put in charge of the development of the Harrier GR.1 After a long period of development the first Hawker Siddeley Harrier jump-jet flew on 31st August 1966. In 1977 Hawker Siddeley Ltd was nationalized and became part of British Aerospace (BAE) group. The ‘Hawker Siddeley Harrier’ then became the ‘BAE Harrier’. 

Interested in reading more about the Hawker Hurricane read, Looking in the eye of the hurricane!

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