It is difficult to believe but it was as recently as July 1909 that Louis Bleriot became the first person to fly across the English Channel.
The earliest Blackburn aeroplane was also designed, built and flown in 1909 by Robert Blackburn.
Below is a picture of that plane.
Robert Blackburn had been born in Kirkstall in 1885 and after attending Leeds Modern School he graduated in engineering at the University of Leeds. He proved to be a man of great drive and imagination.
In 1911 at the age of 26 he founded the Blackburn Aeroplane & Motor Company making monoplanes at his Hunslett premises on Balm Road.
He then opened the Olympia Works on Roundhay Road in 1914 on the site of the former Leeds roller skating rink. This was the same year that he married his wife Jessica who was an heiress but who would also prove to be a major driving force in the success of the business.
He tested aircraft on Soldiers Fields and gave regular demonstration flights of his plane for crowds at Roundhay Park until the closure of Roundhay aerodrome in 1920.
In 1916 Blackburn had built a new factory at Brough near Hull. The company flourished through the war years and the proximity of the River Humber meant the factory was ideally situated for the launching of seaplanes.
He introduced the first scheduled air service in Great Britain, offering half-hourly flights between Leeds and Bradford.
In 1919 he set up the North Sea Aerial Navigation Company, using ex-First World War aeroplanes, which operated a regular passenger service between Leeds and Hounslow, London as well as cargo flights between cities, including between Leeds and Amsterdam.
In 1917 he and Jessica purchased Bowcliffe Hall at Bramham, near Wetherby as their home until their marriage was dissolved in 1936.
In 1950 he retired, leaving Bowcliffe Hall and moving to Devon
On his death in Devon in 1955 the Blackburn company’s production facilities became part of Hawker Siddeley – which itself became a founding part of British Aerospace in 1977.
You can see this plaque at Tesco on Roundhay Road
During the First World War and for a period of 10 years afterwards this was a thriving aircraft factory. It was the heyday of the Olympia Works
Here is a picture of the “Erecting Shop” where they assembled the planes.
…and here is the “Machine Shop” at the Olympia Works
At the Olympia Works also was one of the first Power Stations to be driven by the waste products from its production line. This Gas – Producer plant utilised the Company’s wood waste. The power plant driven entirely by waste produced enough power to supply all the company’s needs for power, heat and light. An innovation well ahead of its time.
Blackburn moved most production to the Brough premises in 1929. However the Blackburn factory opened again in 1936 but finally closed in 1946.
From the very outset Blackburn planes were put to practical use. In 1912 they were engaged as newspaper carriers between Leeds and York, Leeds and Harrogate and between Sheffield, Doncaster and Chesterfield and though flights had often to be taken in stormy weather, no single mishap or breakdown ever occurred – a remarkable record for a new technology.
The first two-passenger journey in the north was undertaken on an early Blackburn Monoplane, and amazingly the first passenger to the Yorkshire Coast from the West was an old lady of 76 from Harrogate who wanted to do some shopping in Bridlington and got a Blackburn pilot to take her there and back, some 140 miles in a couple of hours.
However matters were soon going to take a more serious turn.
One of the first tasks of the Company in 1914, at their then new Olympia Works was to design and erect a fast type seaplane to compete in the “Daily Mail Round Britain Race”
This machine underwent trials at Scarborough and was selected by the National Service League for their representative to travel in so as to publicise their cause during the race. The National Service League was a pressure group founded in February 1902 to alert the country to the inadequacy of the British Army to fight a major war and to propose the solution of national service. Ironically the outbreak of war in 1914 led to the race being cancelled and the Blackburn seaplane being offered to and accepted by the Government.
The First World War was the first time that aeroplanes were used as weapons of war. Blackburn was quick to realise their potential as weapons above and below the sea as well as above the land. It is fair to say that the First World War saw the fortunes of the company improve considerably.The Blackburn Kangaroo was a twin-engine bi-plane which was the principal aircraft adopted by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) for use in anti-submarine operations based in the North Sea. The Blackburn company thus became a leading supplier to the British Government but the Kangaroo only came into service in the last year of World War 1. They managed to attack eleven u-boats, sinking at least one and damaging four others before the war ended.
Blackburn aircraft were used against the Germans both against their submarines, and their Zeppelins which in the early years of the war flew all the way from Europe to drop their bombs. These Zeppelin raids were largely ineffective but they spread fear and alarm in the civilian population because they were rarely able to drop their bombs on their intended targets and were the cause of a number of civilian casualties to the extent that they became known as ‘Baby Killers’
Here we see a depiction of a Blackburn Seaplane attacking a Zeppelin during World War I.
The Official Record of this particular incident states:
“A Zepp being sighted by the pilot of Blackburn “Baby” Seaplane N. 1064 was immediately attacked, the seaplane climbing steeply to reach the Zepp. It says much for the speed and power of this type of machine, that the pilot was able to come close enough to his huge antagonist to empty his tray of ammunition into him. The Zepp was forced to fling out water ballast – to the discomfort of the drenched pilot – and at the full power of his engines shoot steeply upward. The seaplane pursued doggedly, and the Zepp at last was driven to flight, disappearing with a list which was evidence of the damage done to it in the encounter”
On the left we see a Blackburn torpedo plane in the act of dropping its torpedo.
From the records it seems that the activities of the Blackburn aircraft during the First World War were confined to costal defence both against submarines and Zeppelins. The role of aircraft throughout the First World was fairly limited in scope – at the start they were mainly used by both sides for reconnaissance. As the war progressed however there potential effectiveness became better appreciated.
After the end of the War Blackburns manufactured both civilian and military aircraft adapting the Kangaroo design to a civilian role. Many were bought by civilian aviation companies. The Kangaroo carried the first genuine commercial overseas freight charter flight on the 5/03/20, transporting raincoats to Amsterdam! They were also used for passenger flights between Leeds (Roundhay), London (Hounslow) and Amsterdam. The Leeds/London fare was £30 return. These aircraft had been converted to carry seven passengers in a glazed cabin. The last Kangeroo was scrapped at Sherburn-in-Elmet in 1929.
In the inter war years the variety of planes manufactured by Blackburn included the Swift, Dart, Ripon, Shark, Swordfish, Firebrand, Barracuda, Botha and Skua.
The Olympia Works closed temporarily in 1929 as manufacturing was concentrated at Brough in the East Riding.
However in 1934 aircraft manufacture was restarted at the Olympia Works and in 1938 an association was formed with Hudswell Clarke (Railway Foundry) a long established railway locomotive manufacturer which was based at the Grosvenor Works, Jack Lane, Leeds.
The records of Clarke Hudswell state:
“When the war came at last in September 1939 orders flowed in from Blackburns 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”
The Skua was a carrier-based low-wing, two-seater, single engine aircraft operated by the Fleet Air Arm.
…on 26 September 1939, one shot down the first enemy plane to be destroyed in the war.”
As the war proceeded a lot of the jobs at the Olympia Works previously carried out by men more and more were done by women.
Huge numbers of planes were manufactured by the Blackburn company during World War II.
For instance 580 Botha four-seat reconnaissance and torpedo bombers and 192 Skuas were built.
Below is a picture of a Botha
However the plane most associated with Leeds is the Swordfish
The Swordfish was based on a Fairey design for the Greek Naval Air Service. Over time it evolved from being a spotter and reconnaissance aircraft to include that of torpedo bomber. The prototype for this version first flew on 17th April 1934. It was a large biplane with a metal airframe covered in fabric, and utilized folding wings as a space-saving feature for aircraft carrier use. An order was placed in 1935 and the aircraft entered service in 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm. The Swordfish was also capable of operating as a dive-bomber When production ended on 18 August 1944, almost 2,400 had been built, 692 by Fairey and 1,699 (sometimes called the “Blackfish”) by the Blackburn Aircraft Company The most numerous version was the Mark II, of which 1,080 were made.
In May 1941, a Swordfish strike from HMS Ark Royal was vital in damaging the German battleship Bismarck, preventing it from escaping to France. The low speed of the attacking aircraft may have acted in their favour, as the planes were too slow for the fire- control predictors of the German gunners, whose shells exploded so far in front of the aircraft that the threat of shrapnel damage was greatly diminished. At least some of the Swordfish flew so low that most of the Bismarck’s flak weapons were unable to depress enough to hit them. The Swordfish aircraft scored two hits; one did little damage, but the other jammed Bismarck’s rudders making it unmaneouverable. It sank after intense Royal Navy attack within 13 hours
However the problems, with what was essentially an old fashioned aircraft, were starkly demonstrated in February 1942 when an attack on German battleships by six Swordfish led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde resulted in the loss of all aircraft with no damage to the ships. Thirteen of the eighteen Swordfish crew were killed. Esmonde, who had also led the attack on Bismarck, was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by the commanders on both sides: British Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay later wrote “In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed”, and German Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax remarked on “the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day”.
After more modern torpedo attack aircraft were developed, the Swordfish was redeployed successfully in an anti-submarine role, armed with depth charges flying from the smaller escort carriers. Its takeoff and landing speeds were so low that, unlike most carrier-based aircraft, it did not require the carrier to be steaming into the wind.
Swordfish-equipped units accounted for 14 U-boats destroyed.
The last of 2,392 Swordfish aircraft was delivered in August 1944.
Operational sorties continued in to January 1945 with anti-shipping operations off Norway, where the Swordfish’s manoeuvrability was essential. The last operational squadron was disbanded on 21 May 1945, after the fall of Germany, and the last training squadron was disbanded in the summer of 1946.
Orders for Blackburn aircraft declined following the end of WWII and in order to survive the company took on all kinds of non-aviation work, even making bread tins for Jackson’s Bakeries in Hull.
Pictures of 208 Squadron and picture of the Blackburn factory below by kind permission of Dale Kitching.
In the post war period the Olympia Works continued to be used by Hudswell Clark.
The company was closely involved in various secret programmes, including the British nuclear weapon programme. The airframe for the first British nuclear bomb, Blue Danube was manufactured by Hudswell Clarke at the Olympia Works.
The airframe for Red Beard, the second generation tactical nuclear bomb, followed with that for Violet Club, the Interim Megaton Weapon; and there were many other projects. All the bombs detonated at the Christmas Island H-bomb tests were contained in airfra
However the decline of armaments manufacture led to the cessation of operations and In February 1961 the Aircraft Section at Olympia Works was finally closed and all future projects of this kind were concentrated at the Jack Lane Works.
At its height the Blackburn company and the Olympia Works site had a good reputation as being a good employer. It had medical facilkities and canteens on site, There were numerous clubs and societies, There was a tennis club with 3 courts on site as well as football and cricket teams.
There was a flourishing works magazine called the “Olympian” distributed to all the thousands of staff employed by the company across the country.
It was an institution that had a big impact on the City of Leeds.
On the site currently is the Tesco supermarket. There were plans to expand the size of the store and to that end the lease which Homebase had on half of the site was terminated and the building now stands empty.
The Tesco plans for expansion are now on hold – one cannot help but wonder what the next incarnation of this site will be:
Most of the material for this article has been extracted from a book written by Sir John Foster Fraser FRGS in 1919 called Aircraft in Peace & War which can be found on the Oakwood Church website here. The main balance of the material was obtained from Wikipedia – an open source site. Some photographs are from Leodis.