Captain Edward Wakefield placed advertisements in Flight magazine of 24 September 1910 for an aero engine and a ‘flight machine’. Amongst the many replies, was one on 26 September from Humphrey Verdon Roe of A. V. Roe & Company (‘Avro’), Manchester, which had been formed on 1 January that year. It was the world’s first company to be registered as an aeroplane manufacturer.
Wakefield met with Humphrey at Brownsfield Mills, Manchester (they had the common background of having served in the Boer War) and, following a letter from Humphrey to Wakefield on 6 October 1910, terms were reached for a Bleriot-type monoplane at £100 without engine, propeller and wheels.
Wakefield had seen the Roe 1 Triplane, which he referred to as the ‘Bull’s Eye’, flown by Alliott Verdon Roe, at the Blackpool Aviation Meeting on 19 October 1909. Alliott’s younger brother Humphrey financed A.V. Roe & Company. Humphrey owned H.W. Everard & Company which produced Bull’s Eye men’s trouser braces in a factory at Brownsfield Mills, Great Ancoats Street, Manchester. Hence the aeroplane carried advertising on its side of not only ‘Bull’s Eye’ but also ‘Avroplane’ which was the trading name.
Wakefield acted quickly, writing to Humphrey on 2 February, meeting on 5 February at Brooklands, Weybridge, and meeting Alliott at Brownsfield Mills, Manchester on 26 February. Arrangements were then entered into for an Avro Curtiss-type biplane at £250 and a Gnome Omega 50 hp ‘pusher’ [the propeller was behind the mainplanes] engine for £375. It is believed that there are only 2 such engines which have survived. Avro was an airframe designer and builder, but not an engine constructor.
‘Alliott Verdon Roe’s early interest in hydro-aeroplanes was sparked by Wakefield’s order.’– Eric Verdon-Roe, grandson.
The aeroplane was built at a basement workshop in Brownsfield Mills. The plan, dated 9 March 1911 and signed by the works manager Reginald Parrott, is the oldest surviving Avro aeroplane plan. The rudder is the earliest surviving part bearing the legend ‘A.V. Roe & Co’. Photos of the surviving parts are here.
Transfer took place to Brooklands, on 25 May for test flying, where Wakefield met Humphrey on 29 June. The aeroplane was flown by Louis Noel, Ronald Kemp, Frederick Raynham and Francis Conway Jenkins. Various changes were made, including replacing the car-type steering control wheel with a steering column – ‘stick’ – which Alliott had invented and obtained Patent No. 26,099 on 14 November 1907. The Chief Instructor of the Avro School was Howard Pixton, who watched the first flight. He wrote in a booklet The Brooklands Story 1910/1911, that 1911 was an eventful year for Avro, including the aeroplane for Wakefield who took one of the best Avro pupils, Herbert Stanley Adams, as pilot
On 1 July, Wakefield wrote ‘At about 8 p.m. under young Mr. Raynham’s skilful piloting a splendid flight took Brooklands by storm. Rising slowly and turning at first in wide sweeps she soon gathered speed and height and sailed for some miles (4 at least) over houses and trees, and then landed in front of her hangar as gently as a thistledown. Thus she passed her contract test with flying colours.’
On 7 July, the aeroplane was delivered to Windermere and, having been converted to a hydro-aeroplane, became known as ‘Waterbird’. On 25 November, flown by Adams, Waterbird made the first successful take-off and alighting on water outside the USA and France where the very first hydro-aeroplane flight had taken place on 28 March 1910. It was the first successful flight in the world to use a stepped float, which Wakefield patented.
Meanwhile at Cavendish Dock, Barrow-in-Furness, on 18 November, the first Avro D flown by Commander (later Air Vice-Marshal Sir) Oliver Schwann had taken off but crashed upon it falling back into the water. This aeroplane had first been flown by Pixton at Brooklands on 1 April, where he gave a demonstration flight to Schwann who bought it for £700 and taught himself basic pilot skills. On 2 April 1912, flying the Avro D at Barrow, Sydney Sippe made the first successful flight from seawater in Britain.
Earlier on 25 November, Oscar Gnosspelius had flown from Windermere, but he also crashed on alighting. In February, he had made straight and level flights at Brooklands, having been taught by Pixton. Gnosspelius No. 2 flew succcessfully on 14 February 1912, when Gnosspelius was the pilot. In April 1912, Gnosspelius invited Kemp, whom he had met at Brooklands, to Windermere in order to more fully explore the flight envelope of his hydro-aeroplane. Kemp made a series of flights between the 12th and 17th, including one of twenty minutes.
In July 1912, Gertrude Bacon flew as a passenger at Windermere in Waterhen and the Deperdussin. In her book Memories of Land and Sky she wrote: ‘I visited the aerodromes and aeroplane works that by then were springing up in all directions. One of the earliest of the latter I found in a mill outside Manchester, where half the building was devoted to the manufacture of men’s braces, and the other to ‘Avroplanes’. Of the former the most romantic example was undoubtedly Windermere.’
Avro built an aeroplane for John Duigan, similar to the Avro D, which Adams bought from him for £180. It was transported from Brooklands to Windermere where new wings, designed by Gnosspelius, were made and the ex-Waterbird engine was installed. It was first flown at Windermere on 28 August 1912 and became known as ‘Seabird’ and later as the ‘Avro’.
In December 1912, Adams test flew the Avro 501 at Eastchurch on behalf of Avro, the float having been designed by Gnosspelius, built to the orders of the Admiralty. It was adapted for alighting on, and rising from, either water or land.
The Avro 503, a slightly larger version of the Avro 501, made its first take off from the River Adur at Brighton on 28 May 1913, flown by Raynham. It was the first aeroplane to have floats designed by Avro. On the following day, he carried as a passenger John Alcock who was working at Brooklands as a mechanic and made the first Atlantic crossing in 1919, which brought an award of £10,000 from the Daily Mail.
The Daily Mail, founded by Lord Northcliffe in 1896, stimulated aviation by awarding prizes between 1907 and 1925. In 1907, Alliott won £75 in a model competition, which helped fund the full-size aeroplane. In August 1909, Lord Northcliffe wrote to Blackpool Town Hall suggesting that an air display be put on. It was from the Blackpool Aviation Meeting in October 1909 that Wakefield derived his inspiration to try and fly off water. On 14 February 1914, Raynham flew an Avro 504 to 15,000 feet. It was bought by the Daily Mail and carried out displays at towns around the British coast.
Between 1909 and August 1914, Lord Northcliffe gave what was then the enormous sum of £24,050 in prizes, and £5,000 was offered for the first round Britain flight by a seaplane, but World War 1 ended all competition flying. The prototype Avro 510 seaplane was built for the cancelled 1914 Circuit of Britain race. The cheque for it was handed to Alliott on behalf of the Navy by Captain (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Arthur Longmore. On 20 January 1912, Longmore had test flown Waterbird for the Navy, his first take-off from water.
On 20 April 1914, flying a Sopwith seaplane at Monaco, Pixton became the first Briton to win the Schneider Trophy.
Sippe flew an Avro 504 on 21 November 1914 during a Royal Naval Air Service raid on the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen, part of the first strategic bombing campaign, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order and the Légion d’honneur.
From 21 July until October 1919, Pixton operated two Avro 504 seaplanes (still displaying their military serial numbers) at Cockshott Point, Windermere for the Avro Transport Company, having taken a lease of the hangar from Wakefield. He carried out joyriding flights, instruction and delivery of newspapers to the Isle of Man.
In 1920, Crossley Motors Limited acquired 68.5% of the shares in A. V. Roe & Co. Ltd. Crossley took over Avro’s car manufacturing business, but Avro independently continued aeroplane manufacturing operations and retained its name.
In 1928, Alliott sold his shares in A. V. Roe & Co. Ltd. Seeking a company to pursue his seaplane ideas, he bought a controlling interest in S. E. Saunders Ltd, so leading to Saunders-Roe Ltd and flying boat production.