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Walthamstow flyer


Kurt Barling traces Walthamstow's illustrious aviation history

By Kurt Barling
BBC London's Special Correspondent

A hundred years ago the first all-British aircraft was assembled on Walthamstow Marshes. It was coaxed into the air by British engineer and model plane maker Alliot Verdon Roe.

When Alliot Verdon Roe claimed he would get airborne in the early 1900s all-comers humoured him; others ridiculed his "crackpot" idea. A news editor from The Times even told him the task was impossible and he was wasting his time.

Now reinvented as the next Summer Olympic venue in 2012; the long stretch of the Lea Valley, from Luton down to Limehouse, is long forgotten as the location of a series of industrial firsts.
Kurt Barling

Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail was keen to promote the craze which had been sparked off by the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, in America with their first 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina.

A massive competition offering cash prizes was held in 1907 at the Alexandra Palace in Wood Green for the best flying model. Roe won the sum of £75 and was hooked on turning the concept into something that could be flown with an engine by an aviator.

His first plane, assembled and tested at the Brooklands motor club in Surrey, made a few hops but was never officially recognised as a serious flyer. Such was the scepticism with which he was met by the burgeoning motoring gentry he was booted off their Brooklands race track for failure to pay rent in 1908.

With his meagre income, he sought out a suitable alternative site to continue his flight adventure. He found a premise under the railway arches close to the River Lea in Walthamstow. The land had long been protected as grazing territory and it's reputed to have been covered with the stumps of trees to tether cattle and sheep. Not exactly a smooth take off.

A GLC plaque now marks the spot in the Lea Valley Park around five minutes' walk from the Ice Rink on Lea Bridge Road.

For the next year he experimented with different wing designs and his original invention metamorphosed into the aircraft shape we are now familiar with. He also joined forces briefly with J.A. Prestwich, a Tottenham based engineer, to fit the aircraft with a suitable JAP engine to power his aircraft.

The engine is in fact no bigger than that on a modern petrol driven lawnmower.

The replica commissioned by his grandson, Eric Verdon Roe and built by former aircraft engineers from BAe Systems, shows just how brittle the craft was.

The Bullseye at Walthamstow Marshes.
The Bullseye at Walthamstow Marshes

It has been painstakingly and faithfully reconstructed over the past four and a half years to celebrate the centenary of British flight.

The team even found an old 9hp JAP engine, which was being used to power a water pump on a Yorkshire farm. Weather permitting there will be an attempt to get the replica airborne at the end of July.

Pioneering spirit

Back in 1909 there was no team of engineers, no template and no idea how it would eventually work. The final assault on the challenge to get the craft airborne was a process of trial and error. Crash and patch-up described as "a 50-yard hop, a crash and then two weeks' work".

Alliot's brother Humphrey, who would later become the business brains in their partnership, funded his development. The pioneering spirit of these determined, often eccentric, individuals was immortalised in the largely fictional film, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.

The mechanics of the craft are conventional and it seems extraordinary that it could actually take off with the tame amount of power offered by its JAP engine. Alliot must have had nerves of steel and the stubbornness of the determined inventor.

He was in good company in the Lea Valley. Now reinvented as the next Summer Olympic venue in 2012; the long stretch of the Lea Valley, from Luton down to Limehouse, is long forgotten as the location of a series of industrial firsts.

The Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, Thorn electronics at Ponders End and JAP motorcycle and car manufacturers are just a few of the big names of what local historian Dr Jim Lewis calls the post-industrial technological revolution.

His latest welter of three books (in the Lea Valley series - Middlesex University Press) resonates with the claims of revolution along the banks of the River Lea.

Alliot Verdon Roe performs his party trick.
Alliot Verdon Roe performs his party trick

One of Jim's favourite anecdotes is the fact that Professor Ambrose Fleming invented the diode valve in Ponders End. So what? I hear you mumble. That ingenious development allowed the control of a stream of electrons by electronic means. Cue the means by which the television picture is created.

Ponders End soon became a key supplier of electronic equipment to the newly founded BBC, broadcasting from Alexandra Palace.

2012 is only going to be broadcast from the Lea Valley courtesy of Lea Valley invention. How about that for a historical twist?

Alliot Verdon Roe's first flight on the 13th July 1909 led to an intense few weeks of work which extended his flying range from a few yards to several hundred. His detractors would have had to eat large dollops of humble pie.

Within four years A.V. Roe and Co were supplying planes to the newly founding Royal Flying Corps. The Avro 504 was manufactured in the tens of thousands for the war effort.

The company went on to become one of the greatest aircraft manufacturers of the 20th century; manufacturers of amongst other planes, the Lancaster, the Shackleton and the cold warrior Vulcan bomber.

Grandson Elliot Verdon Roe believes his grandfather was one of the great eccentric pioneers of early flight. Aged six he watched as the now knighted Sir Alliot celebrated his 80th birthday party with his party trick; cycling his fixed wheel bicycle backwards whilst sitting on the handle bars.

Now that would be a neat trick to recreate for the 2012 opening ceremony!

Flying high in aviation history
16 Jun 09 |  History
London 2012
17 Jun 09 |  People & Places




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