Progress 1909 to 1937

The air travel which we take for granted today is due to the vision, skills and bravery of the early ‘magnificent men & women and their flying machines’ – many of whom made their trailblazing contributions at and from Rochester.

The historic importance of Chatham Dockyard is well recognised and many will know that Short Brothers once had a large factory on the Esplanade. I am though not so sure the significance of ‘Rochester’ in the pioneering of international passenger and cargo flights is similarly recognised; further it is also possible that the townspeople of Rochester may not have recognised the significance of the events they witnessed during the 1920s/30s.

In 1923 Donald Maxwell, artist / painter,  wrote of the view he had from his studio in Rochester [The Beacon, Borstal Road – Kelly’s 1930]. “.. I can look down upon a medley of mud, and mist, chimneys, barges, hills and woodlands, and never tire of it because there is always something unexpected in the air.” (The Graphic, 16 Jun. 1923.) 

For international fights to be possible reliable flying machines were needed along with suitable routes. Early planes could not have made it over mountains, and without prepared runways, lakes, rivers and calm waters needed to be found on which planes could land/take-off; there would have also been limited places to refuel and to undertake essential repairs.

Many of these obstacles were ‘resolved’ at Rochester – all enabled by the vision of the Short brothers and the skills of their workforce.  Many of these workers would have been drawn from local boatbuilders and the dockyard as military spending was cut back at the end of the Great War (WW1). These workers would have brought with them skills which would have been invaluable in making the floats for seaplanes and the hulls of the flying-boats.

Vision for the Future

In a morale boosting speech given to his factory workers in early 1915 Oswald Short recalled the progress made in flight in just a few years. From the first circular flight of one mile achieved at Leysdown in 1909, at a height of 20ft and at a speed of 30mph, the factory at Rochester was now producing machines that had to pass a 60 to 70 mile test before they would be accepted by the military.

Before the end of the Great War and perhaps bolstered by the advances made by his firm in aero-engineering during war, Oswald Short developed ambitious plans to extend aircraft manufacture at Rochester by gaining approval to reclaim a portion of the foreshore and to extend Willis Avenue as far as the barge works at Borstal (Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer, 12 Jan. 1918.)

From Australia & Back. 1926

After the Great War Oswald outlined the “Great schemes planned [for] Shorts’ Rochester works”. These included envisaging aeroplanes providing short journeys of up to 800 miles – a vision which was not shared by many, including our Government, but was shared by the governments of other countries; the Japanese even sent a delegation to Rochester in 1919 to learn and perhaps subsequently copy the innovations made at Rochester (Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham News, 4 Jan. 1919).

One cynic on hearing the idea that cargo could be carried by air, allegedly claimed that pigs will fly first. This may explain the following photo taken on 4 November 1909:

The pilot was John Moore-Brabazon an enthusiastic aviator and later MP for Rochester

The expansive views of Oswald Short, supported by the brothers’ design skills, and the expertise of their engineers, the firm attracted support from other designers and pioneering pilots – of which there were very few at the time. These included Alan Cobham, nicknamed ‘The Birdman’ (Northern Whig, 9 Jun. 1928) who undertook many early and dangerous long-distant flights to prove the reliability of the machines being developed, and to chart safe air-routes. He was later knighted in recognition of this endeavours.

Technological Advances

Based on contemporaneous news reports there is no doubt that the inhabitants of Rochester would have witnessed many innovations in the sky over Medway and indeed launched onto the river. Many of these were ahead of the game in Britain and on occasions, the World.

There are many learned technical books that describe in detail the planes built by Short Brothers. However the significance of particular innovations can be lost in the technical  detail. The following highlights some of the innovations and developments ‘delivered’ at Rochester.

1914 Seaplanes with folding wings. These machines required a quarter of the space of an aeroplane with unfurled wings. This enabled them to be more easily shipped to the Front. They could reach a speed of 70mph and fly for five hours on a tank of fuel. (Illustrated London News, 21 March 1914.)

1918 Expansion of the Works at Rochester. Short Brothers gained Council approval to reclaim a portion of the foreshore and to extend Willis Avenue as far as the barge works at Borstal. (Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer. 12 Jan. 1918).

1919 Selling the Vision. Major General Seely, Under-Secretary for Air was flown from Rochester to Westminster in a Short seaplane piloted by Mr John Lankester Parker (Illustrated London News, 19 Apr. 1919). 

1919 Diversification into Boat Building. With drastic cutbacks in military spending after the war, Shorts moved into boat building (Nottingham Evening Post, 19 Sept. 1919) – amongst other things. This must have helped in the future design and manufacture of the floats for seaplanes and the hulls of the future flying boats.

1923 Stepped advance in Wing Design – Plane for the Price of a Car. The Gnosspelicopter [aka Gnosspelius Gull] was seen in the sky over Rochester. This was a small plane designed by Major Oscar Gnosspelius and built by Shorts at Rochester. It was estimated it would cost about £60 to £70 to build (Western Gazette, 8 Jun. 1923). In designing this plane Gnosspelius took inspiration from the design of a bird’s wing as he questioned the ‘wasteful’ design of earlier machines that were driven through the air by brute force and at an enormous cost. This plane was powered by a motorcycle engine, could fly at 68 mph, would only required 1/2d of petrol / mile. It was said this machine would resurrect the dream of people flying for pleasure (The Graphic, 16 Jun. 1923). [Gnosspelius was head of the research department at Short Bros. Here he designed the Gnosspelius Aerodynamic Pendulum equipment that enabled him to test the lift of various  wing designs.] 

Gnosspelius Gull – Aeroplane Monthly 1979-03 / C Barnes

1927 Hush-Hush Trials of the “Short Bristol” a plane that was to be entered into the Schneider Cup race (Daily Mirror, 13 Sept. 1927). Unfortunately it crashed during trials (Leeds Mercury, 13 Sept. 1927). 

1928 100ft long Hydrodynamic Test Tank installed at Rochester. Beautifully designed scale models, made of mahogany, were used to test the various designs of floats. The models were drawn through the water to assess their performance under various wave conditions and at various speeds. It was reported that this investment “…. will bring forward the time when fleets of mercantile flying ships will carry urgent traffic from the Motherland to the Dominions, the routes being patrolled and guarded by squadrons of aerial cruisers” (Birmingham Daily Gazette. 5 Jan. 1928).

1928 The First All-metal British Passenger / Commercial flying boat the Short-Jupiter Calcutta, weighing 10 tons, was successfully launched at Rochester. It was said to be the largest passenger flying boat ever built in this country. The Mayoress of Rochester christened the huge machine by breaking a bottle of champagne over the stern after which it slid gently down the slipway into the river (Sheffield Independent, 4 Feb. 1928, Dundee Courier, 14 Feb. 1928). Trials at Rochester suggests it can travel at 125mph and will be capable of flying up to 1,000 miles. The plane was fitted with a galley and buffet for serving hot food and drinks, as well as an ice chest for use in hot climates. (The Scotsman, 14 Feb. 1928; The Sphere, 3 Mar. 1928). The plane could carry 15 passengers along with a crew of four – the pilot, second pilot, wireless operator and steward to look after the passengers (The Sphere, 3 March 1928). 

Short’s Calcutta

1929 The Most Powerful Twin Engined Flying-Boat ever Built in this Country was launched at Rochester – The “Short-Rolls-Royce Singapore” (Birmingham Daily Gazette,16 Dec. 1929). 

Short Singapore

1930 Trials of the Largest Seaplane in the World – built by Short Brothers – Commenced. The “Valetta”, an experimental monoplane, constructed entirely of metal was capable of 145mph and could carry 15 passengers, and had a non-stop cruising range of 520 miles (Lancashire Evening Post. 25 Sept. 1930; Leicester Evening Mail, 25 Sept. 1930). It was considered to be a marked advance from the “Calcutta”. With a 10 ton load it took off in 18 seconds against a strong headwind on 27 Sept. (Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore), 28 Sept. 1930). The plane was built for the Air Ministry to test the relative merits of large seaplanes and flying boats for commercial transport (Daily Mirror, 25 Sept. 1930).

The “Valetta” from Twitter – Ron Eisele / Mike Edward

1931 The Short Bristol Monoplane was Launched at Rochester. The new machine, which is an all metal flying boat, is driven by by 3 Bristol Jupiter engines. An important feature of this machine – prepared for explorative flights around Africa by Alan Cobham, (see below) was the special construction of the undercarriage which enabled floats and wheels to be exchanged. This innovation enables the plane to follow land and sea routes (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 18 Jul. 1931). (This machine could have been a modification of the “Valetta“ described above as variously dated news reports described it as the World’s largest seaplane, and some use the same name. This launch may therefore have been the a re-launch rather than the launch of a new machine.)

1933/4 Shorts Moved onto Rochester Airfield. Land-planes were being built at their factory on the Esplanade but they needed to be transported to Gravesend or Lympne airports for test flights. Having a factory and landing strip on the same site made the design, manufacturing and testing of land-planes much easier. (A brief history of Rochester Airport, 1979.)

1934 A Miniature Airliner – Short brothers entered the field as makers of a six-seater that required no more that 170hp to fly at 120mph. Test flights were carried out from the Customs Airport of Gravesend (The Bystander, 17 Jan. 1934).

1937 A Plane Capable of Reaching America – designed, built and tested at Rochester. Strollers along the embankment at Rochester would have seen a composite aircraft comprised of a four-engined seaplane strapped to an Empire flying boat (Maia) in what was described, at the time, as a “Pick-a-Back”, arrangement. The seaplane, named the Mercury, was capable of carrying a load of 1,000lbs of mail across the Atlantic (Illustrated London News, 16 Oct. 1937). Click for video of the separation.

The Mayo Composite – from Flickr

1938 The Maia ‘Carrying’ a Mercury Seaplane Successfully Separated in Flight but out of sight! Notices appeared in the press that a test-fight would be conducted on 12 February at 11am. Due to poor weather the flight was postponed, however hundreds remained along the river bank in the hope of seeing the combination take off. Not only were they not disappointed, their commitment was rewarded when the ‘composite’ not only took off at 4pm but 20 minutes later the Maia returned without the Mercury still attached.

Whilst the joined planes were over High Halstow a telephone conversation took place between Capt J L Parker aka ‘Poker-face, piloting the Maia, and Flight Lieut. H L Piper who piloted the Mercury, during which they decided to attempt the first in-flight separation. It had been planned to undertake the first separation at 5,000ft but as it happened it was undertaken at 700ft whilst flying at 140mph. The separation was described as the most daring thing ever attempted in the air.

The first the crowd knew of the separation was when they saw the Maia return ‘alone’, only to be followed 15 minutes later by the Mercury. There was, as to be expected, great excitement on the pilots’ return with them both being mobbed by schoolchildren wanting their autographs. 

A further demonstration flight was arranged for the following Wednesday when the separation was to take place over Rochester – and to be photographed. Four bus loads of reporters and camera men came to Rochester only to find the flight had been postponed! (Chatham Rochester and Gillingham New. 11 Feb 1938.)

(The smaller four-engined Mercury assisted in the take off of the larger plane – thereby enabling it to carry a larger payload; and the larger plane would have reduced the fuel consumed by the smaller plane at take-off thereby enabling it also to fly further (The Sphere, 18 Sept. 1937). It is reported that the Mercury once flew 3,000 miles – nonstop – between Eire and Montreal, Canada. The flight took 20 hours and 33 minutes. The Pick-a-Back was ‘retired’ in 1941 Daily Record, 5 Jun. 1941). 

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In less than 25 years Short Brothers had moved on from building the first British aeroplane to flying a circular mile at about 30mph, to building, at Rochester, the most powerful flying boat ever built in this country, followed by the largest seaplane in the World.  Their machines were reliable, efficient and capable of flying around the World – using land and water as a ‘runway’, and able to carrying freight and passengers. From this point on the machines the company built got larger and more powerful, and the expeditions undertaken more challenging.

Delivering the Vision

Delivering Oswald Short’s vision of a vibrant industry of air transport required more than test pilots. It required trailblazers & trailblazing flights to refine the technology and, as importantly, to build confidence in the reliability and safety of their flying machines; safe commercially viable routes also needed to be charted. Many pioneering and explorative flights took off from Rochester. 

‘There & Back’ Flight to Australia

Not all the machines used for these long distant flights were built by Short Brothers. However one pioneering pilot, Alan Cobham, must have had confidence in the company’s ability to build and modify planes built by others; for instance floats were added to a De Havilland 50 at Rochester in preparation for a ‘there & back’ flight to Australia to be undertaken by Alan Cobham – a distance of 26,000 miles. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 30 Sept. 1926). 

On 1st July 1926, a small crowd of enthusiastic supporters gathered at Rochester and lustily cheered as Alan Cobham’s plane gracefully lifted off from the river and disappeared from sight over Borstal on the first stage of its flight to Australia (Western Morning News, 1 Jul. 1926). [In 1919 a one-way trip had been undertaken to Australia – taking off from Hounslow.]

Amongst the crowd was Alan’s wife, Gladys, who had said her goodbyes the night before, but subsequently changed her mind and travelled down during the night and stayed at the Crown Inn in order to say a personal goodbye. She had previously given her husband a Springbok mascot inscribed “Till we meet again”. On the day of departure it was reported that she held her emotions together saying “Cheerio Old Thing!, Best of Luck, and a good flight” as her husband left on his epic flight (Western Morning News, 1 Jul. 1926).

The dangers associated with this flight cannot be over-estimated and not just from mechanical failure or the weather – wind, heat, monsoons and climatic extremes. One month into the flight to Australia someone took a shot at the plane when it was about 120 miles from Basra (Iraq). The bullet passed through a fuel pipe and the arm of Mr A B Elliott, the mechanic on the flight, breaking his arm and lodging in his chest. He was flown to the Airforce Hospital at Basra where he underwent surgery but subsequently died (Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 7 Jul. 1926).

From Australia & Back. 1926

Although there were reports that the flight had been abandoned, Cobham was encouraged by his wife to continue (Australia and Back, Alan Cobham, 1926, p29). On 5 Aug 1926 it was reported that he had landed at Port Darwin in Australia – having been able to recruit another mechanic. Here he changed the floats on his plane for landing wheels, before flying onto Sydney (Yorkshire Evening Post, 5 Aug. 1926).

Alan Cobham returned to Britain on 1 October 1926. He landed near the Houses of Parliament in order to receive an official reception. He was shortly afterwards knighted. It was said that this flight brought to the country’s attention the potential for long distant flights to bring the Empire closer together. 

For flights to be commercial they needed to meet a requirement that people were prepared to pay for to have met. Having proved distance was not an issue Alan Cobham undertook further survey fights in order to find commercial routes. Many of these were made from Rochester, in planes built by Short Brothers, and explored routes across Africa and around the Mediterranean.

Survey Flight of Africa

Late in 1927 plans were advanced for a Sir Alan to undertake a three month 20,000 mile survey flight of Africa in a Short/Rolls Royce all metal plane – the Singapore. It is perhaps interesting to note that this flight may have been about selling the idea of flying – particularly to women. Although the need for this needs to be questioned as it was reported that the majority of air passengers were in fact women.

News reports of the time made much of Lady Cobham’s involvement in the longest flight a woman had ever undertaken. In interviews Lady Cobham stressed that she was full member of the surveying crew, but also observed that her involvement in the expedition  would help ensure that the design of future passenger planes were comfortable for women (Leeds Mercury, 12 Nov. 1927). 

Sir Alan and Lady Gladys Cobham

On 17 Nov 1927 a farewell lunch was hosted for Sir & Lady Cobham by the Mayor of Rochester before they departed later that day for Africa. Sir Alan gave a short speech during which he said a little Rochester girl had presented him with a spider mascot. She said that it was for luck “because it never fails, and because it makes webs like Sir Alan hopes to make air journeys in Africa” – and because she was a direct descendent of Robert Bruce! (Western Morning News. 18 Nov. 1927). [As an aside the wife of Robert Bruce was briefly held as a prisoner in Rochester Castle in 1314.]

Sir Alan stated that the main objective of the flight was to gain data on a proposed Cairo-Cape air route, but he was also going to investigate the potential for an airline of giant flying boats to fly between Cape Town and England, following the west coast of Africa. If such a route could be operated regularly he said there was a contract on offer to carry one ton of gold a day (The Scotsman, 18 Nov. 1927). 

Sir Alan’s departure from Rochester was watched by hundreds of people who had assembled on the river bank and fields overlooking the river; to mark the departure a flag was flown from castle flagstaff. As was his tradition Sir Alan circled the factory to honour the makers of his plane – the Singapore.  

A further ‘marketing device’ to promote civil aviation, involved interviewing Air Vice-Marshal Sir Sefton-Brancker, Director of the Civil Aviation Board, in a new Calcutta as it flew over Kent. On board were 12 persons including several foreign flying experts, and ballast equivalent to three more passengers in order to represent a full load of passengers. 

‘Marketing’ Flight?

The Calcutta was in the air for one hour and achieved a world record for a flying-boat by climbing to 12,000 feet in 30 minutes. The reporter recorded that the charm of the machine was that conversation was even easier than in a railway train. The hope was expressed that machines of this type could be used on a Mediterranean service (Western Morning News, 20 Apr. 1928).

Survey Flight of the Belgian Congo

Later in 1928 Alan Cobham undertook another explorative flight from Rochester to the Belgian Congo. It was reported that [unspecified] scientific equipment had been installed on his plane by Short Brothers (Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal, 25 May 1928). Sir Alan stated the purpose of this 23,000 mile flight was “to illustrate the progress that has been made in aircraft construction… ”. His safe return to Rochester on 11 June was the occasion of a great demonstration of pride by the townspeople – a pride shared nationally  in what was recognised as the accomplishment of a great aeronautical feat. 

The long flight had been undertaken with no mechanical difficulties, and after seven months’ continuous service and being exposed to climatic extremes, the machine had returned in an excellent condition. In celebrating this flight the reporter recorded that it had “shown the world that travel by air over a long distance [was] safe and reasonable, and [had] thus brought perceptibly nearer the establishment of a regular service between Great Britain and the most distant outposts the Empire. (Derby Daily Telegraph, 12 Jun. 1928).

Exploration of an East to West Seaplane Route Over Africa 

In further efforts to find commercially viable routes Sir Alan left Rochester on 22 July 1931(Hull Daily Mail) on a 11,000 mile journey. On this trip he travelled east to west across Africa investigating the possibility of this journey being made by the giant twin-float short-Bristol seaplane. This plane had been specifically designed so it could be used with equal ease over land or sea routes. The itinerary included alighting on places on the Nile, and crossing Africa making use of high altitude lakes to the Congo. 

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Proof of Principle – Delivered at Rochester? We could and we did want to fly!

It was reported that in 1933 that 87,339 people cleared customs at Croydon airport on their way to and from the Continent, Africa, and the Far East (The Bystander, 17 Jan. 1934). Later in the year, day shopping trips to Paris were being advertised. There were also internal flights. A round trip from Croydon taking in Whitstable, Herne Bay, Dover and Hastings cost 32s 6d, for a party of 6 to 8 people, and the Short’s Scion was used as a ferry between Rochester and Southend and for flights to Scotland. (The Bystander, 17 Jul. 1934).

Concluding Thought

The achievement of the aeroplane constructors of Rochester and the heroism of Sir Alan Cobham who undertook many pioneering flights from Rochester, were celebrated in the Pageant of Rochester in 1931. The pageant celebrated the city’s 1,800 years of history. A song of glory composed for the festival ended with praise for Alan Cobham “whose seaplane here was made: who from Rochester to Africa set out quite unafraid. He conquered all the elements, making air history”.(Daily Herald, 22 Jun. 1931).

Ninety years on and we seem to have lost the knowledge and in turn the pride, concerning  the contribution that a Rochester based company and the townspeople of Rochester contributed to developing the civil aviation service that we take for granted today. 

Geoff Ettridge

30 March 2022

Additional sources

A Brief History of Rochester Airport. The Royal Aeronautical Society (Medway Branch) 1979

A Short History – A History of Short Bros Aircraft and Activities in Kent, 1908 – 1964. J M Preston. 1978

Australia and Back. Sir Alan Cobham KBE. 1926

Short Brothers – The Rochester Years. Philip MacDonald. 2019