Leeds Engine:Histories: Aviation

A Brief History of the Aviation Industry in Leeds

All | Robert Blackburn | Arrow Aircraft (Leeds) Ltd | Marsh, Jones & Cribb | AVRO (Yeadon)

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"It is fitting that Leeds, the birthplace of the locomotive, and identified with so many engineering achievements, should now be associated with the comparatively new industry of aircraft manufacture. The Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co, of Olympia Works, was founded in June 1914, by Robert Blackburn, who designed his first aeroplane in 1909 and flew it himself at Saltburn. From then till 1914 he designed and produced various machines, until in May of that year a first order was received from the War Office. On the strength of this order the Company was formed (a start being made with twenty men), and it has since had a successful career. The war gave a great fillip to the business. The Olympia Works were devoted to the production of seaplanes for the Admiralty. It became necessary to establish another factory at Brough for testing and for the building of very large craft. The "Kangaroo" and the "Cuckoo" types, products of Olympia, became famous during the War. In 1920 the "Swift" torpedo plane was put on the market. This, and a later type, the "Dart," attracted much attention, and numbers were built for Britain, Japan, U.S.A., Spain and other countries. The Blackburn Co. is capable of manufacturing any type of aircraft, from a light aeroplane with a 50-h.p. engine, to a flying-boat with three engines developing 2,000 h.p. and carrying a crew of twelve."[1]
From "the Basic Industries of Great Britain" by Lord Aberconway, 1927

Robert Blackburn
Robert Blackburn, was born in Kirkstall, he attended Leeds Modern School and graduated in engineering at the University of Leeds. Robert Blackburn's father George William Blackburn was works manager at Leeds firm Thomas Green and Robert Blackburn served an apprenticeship with the firm.[7] Robert Blackburn attended Wilbur Orville's demonstration flights in Issy, France, in 1908 whilst working in Paris for a firm of civil engineering consultants[6]. He founded his own aviation business in 1908 in a rented basement in Benson Street, Leeds. His first monoplane was manufactured in 1909 and was tested on the flat beach between Marske and Saltburn on the Yorksire coast[6]. The plane had a 35hp engine made by Thomas Green, the firm assisted Robert establishing his aircraft business.
After racing along the sands what seemed a dizzy speed, the machine certainly did take off and then started a series of wobbles due to deviating from the straight and the low centre of gravity which I fear took charge.... I had probably been in the air for a minute only, but it seemed ages when I eventually pulled myself together and looked at the wreckage. Thus terminated my first attempt at flight, with no personal injuries other than bruises and cuts but with the total wreckage of months of laborious work.[8]
The second monoplane, built in 1910 and tested at Filey was equiped with a seven cylinder radial engine designed by R.J.Issacson of Hunslet Engine Co. This design was more sucessful and several demonstration flights brought good publicity and led to the development of the first production planes, the Blackburn Mercury, helping his aviation business really get off the ground. (Sorry, that was a terrible pun!)

Early Blackburn early advert (Image from Grace's Guide)
Blackburn's first factory was on Balm Road, Hunslet and with the business expanding quickly in 1913 they moved to larger premises, the Olympia Works, a former roller skating rink on Roundhay Road[6]. Demonstration flights for crowds took off from Soldiers Field at Roundhay Park. The first scheduled air service in Great Britain was launched here, offering half-hourly flights between Leeds and Bradford during the 1914 Great Yorksire Show. Roundhay Park became an international aerodrome when flights were operated to Holland and London in 1919.
During 1914 Blackburn created the Blackburn Aeroplane & Motor Company, which established a new factory built at Brough a couple of years later. The Roundhay factory diversified into production of car bodies and trolleybuses in the 1920s[6].
With the 'experimental works' at Brough becoming Blackburn's main facility, the Olympia works ended up in the hands of local locomotive maker Hudswell Clarke in an arrangement that saw that firm heavily involved in manufacturing components for aircraft and associated weapons in the second world war.[2]
"On 2 November 1938 an association was formed [between Hudswell Clarke] with the famous Yorkshire aviation company, Blackburn Aircraft, with its Olympia Works on Roundhay Roas, Leeds, for potential major subcontract work in connection with aircraft sub assemblies."
"When the war came at last in September 1939 orders flowed in from Blackburns and with the full approval of the Ministry of Aircraft Production the converted Engine Sheds were extended to become what came to be known as 'the Grosvenor Works', embracing a floor area of 43,000 sq. ft. The first section of this employed 300 men and when Blackburns concentrated their efforts in the expanding plant at Brough, their Olympia Works in Leeds (used so long for seaplane construction) was rented by the Railway Foundry to give even more available capacity and the eventual labour force of both men and women employed at the Jack Lane and Roundhay Road Works reached a peak of 1,100 personnel"
"The first order
[subcontracted to Hudswell Clarke] was for fuselage sections for the Blackburn Skua monoplane"..."on 26 September 1939, one shot down the first enemy plane to be destroyed in the war."
"In February 1961 the Aircraft Section at Olympia Works, Roundhay Road was closed and all future projects of this kind were concentrated at the Jack Lane Works."

From "The Railway Foundry Leeds" by Ron Redman, 1968
Upon Blackburn's death in Devon in 1955 the Blackburn company's production facilities became part of Hawker Siddeley. Now under the name 'BAE Systems' Brough has survived several closure threats in recent years and is still a major producer in the aviation industry.

Arrow Aircraft
Arthur Cecil Thompson, a designer with Blackburns responsible for the Bluebird IV established his own firm in 1930, Arrow Aircraft (Leeds) Ltd. Two prototypes were produced but these attracted no orders and the company just produced components for aircraft in a unit at Yeadon Aerodrome until 1951[6]

Marsh, Jones & Cribb
Dating back to the early 19th Century this firm were a furniture manufacturer. In the 1880s leading Arts and Crafts figure W.R. Lethaby was their chief designer and they undertook work fitting out ocean liners including the Mauretania. Like many engineering firms at the time of the First World War their skills were put to use for the war effort and planes were produced for the Royal Flying Corps in their York Road works. These planes were to other manufacturers designs and included Airco DH.5s, Sopwith Camels and Sopwith Snipes. After the war the firm returned to furniture manufacture.[6]

Avro Aircraft Factory Leeds
Today there in an anonymous looking industrial estate alongside Leeds-Bradford Airport which was the factory built for Avro. During the second World war it was an industrial production centre contributing to the effort on a gargantuan scale.
Yeadon Aerodrome had opened in October 1931 and regular flights linking it with London and Newcastle were established. Avro built a 'shadow factory' alongside the aerodrome in 1939 to contribute to the aircraft production needed for the war effort.
The factory, which covered 1,500,000 feet2 in area purporting to be the largest single factory unit in Europe at that time. Shadow factories were built around the country, to distribute the military production around Brittain, just in case one factory was taken out of use by enemy action. It was considered to be at high risk of being a target for enemy bombers due to it's large size. The factory was elaborately camouflaged, masterminded by film set designers. Grass was planted covering the roof of the factory, replicating the original and nearby field patterns, imitation farm buildings, stone walls and a duck pond disguised it as an agricultural area. (Many modern buildings feature grass roofs as a way to reduce the carbon footprint rather than for camoflage). Artificial hedges and bushes were changed to match the changing colours of the seasons. Dummy animals were moved around daily like props in a film or theatre set.. It was never detected by enemy bombers and remained untouched throughout the duration of the conflict.
More than 17,500 people, mostly conscripts, worked there on the production lines 24 hours a day assembling planes. Employees from all over West Yorkshire, worked 69 hours a week doing three days, followed by three nights. A famous visitor was Gracie Fields for morale boost she entertained the workers.
Avro Yeadon produced approximately 700 of the 7377 Lancaster bombers. The Lancasters are one of the most famous aircraft of World War 2 having been involved in key missions such as the sinking of the Tirpitz and the Dambusters raids, for which 19 of the aircraft were modified to carry Barnes Wallis' bouncing bombs. Producing Lancaster Bombers way beyond their capacity Avro subcontracted a lot of the work. Here in Leeds Hudswell Clarke are noted as having made a number of tail sections.

After the war Bomber Harris records: "The finest bomber of the war! Its efficiency was almost incredible, both in performance and in the way it could be saddled with ever-increasing loads without breaking the camel's back. The Lancaster far surpassed all the other types of heavy bombers. Not only could it take heavier bomb loads, not only was it easier to handle, and not only were there fewer accidents than with other types, the casualty rate was also consistently below those of other types."
"The Lancaster took the major part in winning the war with its attacks on Germany. On land it forced the Germans to retrieve from their armies half their sorely needed anti-tank guns for use by over a million soldiers who would otherwise have been serving in the field. The Lancaster won the naval war by destroying over one-third of the German submarines in their ports, together with hundreds of small naval craft and six of their largest warships. Above all, the Lancaster won the air war by taking the major part in forcing Germany to concentrate on building and using fighters to defend the Fatherland, thereby depriving their armies of essential air and particularly bomber support."
Not so much in the spotlight as the Lancaster was the much smaller Avro Anson, of which Yeadon built 4,500. One of the key roles of these craft was training pilots who would crew the Lancasters.[5] Avro also produced several other types of aircraft at Yeadon during the war. Delivery to the aerodrome was along a taxiway, which could also be used as a test centre for military flights.
Civilian flights resumed at Yeadon in 1947 and subsequently developed into Leeds-Bradford International Airport. After the war in 1946 the Avro factory closed and the site is now part of the Leeds-Bradford Airport Industrial Estate. The camouflage has been removed from the main building that housed the aircraft factory during the war. Traces of the taxiway remain visible today. A plaque commemorating the role of Avro Yeadon is displayed inside the airport's terminal building.

Above - The Blackburn blue plaque at Leeds Bradford Airport (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Internal Website Links
Picture gallery

External Website Links
Graces Guide page about Blackburns
Graces Guide page about Avro
Bomber Command Museum (Canada) page about the Lancaster Bomber[4]
Wikipedia page about the Avro Anson[5]
Wikipedia page about the first Blackburn monoplane[8]

The Basic Industries of Great Britain, Lord Aberconway, 1927[1]
The Railway Foundry Leeds, Ron Redman, Goose & Son, 1968[2]Look for this book on Amazon*
Auto Review 99: Blackburn Album, Aircraft built in Yorkshire, Rod Ward, Zeteo Publishing 2014[6]Look for this book at the publishers*
The History of Thomas Green & Son Ltd, John Pease, ISBN: 9781899889 81 5 [7]Look for this book at the publishers*
Aircraft of the fighting powers (vols 1 to 7), OG Thetford, Harborough Publishing Co, 1940's
Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War I, Jane's Publishing Co, 1919
Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II, Jane's Publishing Co, 1940

* These links are provided to help readers search for often rare books on the subject and to promote any books available, we are under no commercial incentives for this