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First World War: Aircraft Factories

At the outbreak of the war powered aircraft flight was just over a decade old, and its exploitation for military purposes around 5 years old. In 1914, the British air services had just 272 machines, but by October 1918 the newly formed RAF could call on 22,000 aircraft. Production rose from 50 per month in first year of the war to 2,700 per month by 1918.

Gloucester Aircraft Company, Brockworth, Gloucestershire
Gloucester Aircraft Company, Brockworth, Gloucestershire (EPW014490)

Typical of many new industries early aircraft manufacturers adapted existing premises to their needs. As confidence in the industry grew some firms, such as Graham-White Aviation Company at Hendon, north London erected a purpose-built factory, a couple of whose buildings are listed and survive within the RAF Museum. As the war increased the demand for aircraft many factories were pressed into production, including furniture manufacturers whose wood working and fabric handling skills were well suited to early aircraft production.

Women working on bi-plane wings at Waring and Gillow (BL23741/034)
Women working on bi-plane wings at Waring and Gillow's factory in Lancaster (BL23741/034)

Notable private producers included Sopwith at Kingston upon Thames, Handley-Page at Cricklewood, north London and Airco at Hendon, its factory fronted by an impressive three-storey neo-Georgian office building. In 1894, the government had established the Royal Balloon Factory at Farnborough, Hampshire; by 1912 it was known as the Royal Aircraft Factory and was also responsible for airships and aircraft. During the war in addition to expanding private production three National Aircraft Factories were built at Waddon (Croydon), Aintree (Liverpool), and Heaton Chapel (Stockport). All were laid out as model factories and the largest at Waddon factory comprised 58 buildings, the final assembly hall measuring 218m x 45m.

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Aircraft Factories

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Waring and Gillow’s factory, Lancaster, 1917 The former high quality furniture makers of Waring and Gillow were turned over to war work, including the production of wooden aircraft wings and fuselage. Here women workers sew fabric onto the wooden frame of aircraft wings. (BL23741/030)
  • Waring and Gillow's factory, Lancaster, 1917 Manufacturing bi-plane wings. (BL23741/022)
  • Waring and Gillow’s factory, Hammersmith, London, 1916 Women and boys painting the wings of bi-planes. The roundels of the Royal Flying Corps are drying on the walls. (BL23701/012)
  • Hampton & Sons Ltd, Lambeth, London July 1916 Workers manufacturing aircraft propellers for bi-planes. (BL23561/042)
  • Waring and Gillow’s factory and depository, Hammersmith, London, November 1916 Women applying dope to stiffen the fabric of bi-plane wings. The roundel of the Royal Flying Corps is in the foreground. (BL23701/011)
  • Hampton & Sons Ltd, Lambeth, London July 1916 Workers manufacturing aircraft wooden propellers for bi-planes. (BL23561/039)