Alongside all the despair and destruction caused by the Great War, there were positive impacts on development in certain fields. There were advancements in medical science, including plastic surgery and prosthetics used to treated wounded soldiers. Communication technology, particularly radios, developed rapidly to meet the demands of the military. And aviation was transformed from an amateur pursuit to a thriving industry. Over 100 factories were established in England alone, with many engineering companies converting their production.
In Richmond by the end of the First World War there were three factories producing planes and parts. The Beverley Aeroplane works in Barnes (at the junction of Brookwood and Willow Avenue) produced starter motors for aircraft. The Glendower Aircraft Company bought land at Kew (now the site of Kew retail park) to expand their thriving South Kensington factory. From 1915, De Havilland DH4 biplanes were being built there, followed by the exotically named Salamander planes.
The largest of the factories was the Whitehead Aircraft Factory in Richmond. It was founded by John Alexander Whitehead, a carpenter who had made a fortune in America, before returning to England at the start of the war. He worked briefly for the Hendon Aircraft Factory before establishing his own factory in an old drill hall, with five employees.
The business expanded rapidly thanks to government contracts to provide planes for the Royal Flying Corps. In July 1916 the Manor Park Lane Works were opened by the Lord Mayor of London.
Aeroplanes then were constructed of canvas stretched over wooden frames – Whitehead’s experience as a carpenter no doubt proved useful. The first plane was completed in October 1915 and named Helene, after Whitehead’s daughter. The company went on to produce hundreds of Sopwith ‘Pups’,Shorthorns, DH9 and DH9A.
Footage from 1917 shows a number of Sopwith Pups believed to be made by the Whitehead factory. It is possible that one of the men in the clip is John Whitehead himself. The film can be viewed via the link below:
However orders dried up after the war and the company eventually went bankrupt in 1922.
Like many companies at the time, Whitehead’s took pride in providing for its workers. The factory grounds included a club house and subsidised canteen, and staff trips and parties were arranged, including for Mothers Day.
With thanks to G Davey for her research