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Hawker Aircraft

KINGSTON has a unique place in the history of British aviation because for nearly 80 years it saw the production of thousands of iconic aircraft built initially by the Sopwith Company and later by Hawker Aircraft and then British Aerospace.

It all began in 1914 when Tommy Sopwith moved the production of his First World War aircraft from Brooklands to a small factory in Canbury Road, Kingston.  His Sopwith Camel was the most successful British fighter of the Great War but with the ending of hostilities orders dried up and Sopwith was forced to wind up the company that bore his name.

But to prove the theory that you can't keep a good man down, Sopwith teamed up with his chief test pilot, Australian Harry Hawker, to found H.G. Hawker Engineering Ltd in 1920 to continue the production of aircraft in Kingston.

The new company sold relatively small numbers of planes until it took on Sydney Camm as its chief designer in 1925.  Camm, who was later knighted for his services to aviation, was responsible for the design of the Hawker Hurricane, the mainstay of the RAF's fighter force during the Battle of Britain.  More than 14,000 of these aircraft were built and it was the most successful Allied fighter during World War II.  Camm also designed the Typhoon and Tempest fighters later in the war. 

The company's success in designing first class aircraft provided the financial base for Sopwith to acquire a number of other British aircraft manufacturers including A V Roe (manufacturers of the famous Avro Lancaster), Gloster Aircraft (Gloster Gladiator), and Armstrong Whitworth.  The company was then renamed Hawker Siddeley Aircraft in 1935.

In 1948 the company moved to the factory in Richmond Road, which had previously been used by the Leyland Truck Company, and from where it continued to produce both turboprop and jet aircraft including the Gloster Meteor.

After the war, Hawker's continued at the forefront of military aviation producing the hugely successful jet-powered Hunter for the RAF along with a succession of other increasingly sophisticated jet aircraft. It's piece de resistance, however, was the development of the Hawker Harrier - the world's first vertical take-off and landing aircraft - which made its maiden flight in the early 1960s and subsequently went into service with the RAF in 1969. Harriers and Sea Harriers were still in service with the air forces of several countries until 2012.

All good things come to an end and so it was with the Hawker factory. By the early 1970s Britain found that it simply could not compete with the huge American aviation giants and the factory - then owned by British Aerospace - finally closed its doors for the last time in1972 before it was demolished and replaced by the present-day housing estate.

Over the years, tens of thousands of people passed through the factory's gates and hundreds of wonderful aircraft were built by their skilled hands.

So next time you're stuck in a traffic jam on Richmond Road, glance towards the river and spare a thought what was a vital part of Britain's aviation heritage.

If you would like to know more about Kingston's proud history in aircraft design and manufacture, visit www.kingstonaviation.org.

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Aug 9
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