Some Random Reflections on the 1920s

I was fascinated to read, in your September issue, the “Memories of the Austin Whippet”, as I cut my internal combustion teeth on the Anzani engine fitted to the aircraft mentioned, some years before the machine came into the possession of Air-Commodore Pearson. My own air-baptism occurred when the Headmaster of our North London school took us to Hendon in June 1912 to see the first “Aerial Derby”. From the top of an old LGOC B-type ‘bus we looked down on the diminutive aircraft in the field beyond the railway lines below Greyhound Hill, at the top of which our ‘bus was parked. We did not see many aircraft flying near us but, having bought a copy of Flight, priced at one penny, we learnt to distinguish between monoplanes, biplanes, tractors and pushers. For my part I was “hooked” and for the next fifty years was an avid reader of Flight and The Aeroplane. Alas, C.G.Grey and his version of The Aeroplane, are no longer with us.

This first “Derby” was won by the then little-known T.O.M. Sopwith. His win was not without incident as, although first past the winning line, he was disqualified as it was thought he had not rounded the turning points correctly. He lodged a protest and after a lengthy enquiry by the Royal Aero Club officials was adjudged to have flown the course correctly. Flying a Bleriot monoplane with 70 h.p. Gnome rotary engine his speed for the 81-mile circuit round London worked out at 58.5 m.p.h.

Personally, by 1917 I was “in the thick of it” — as a shop boy in a furniture-factory building Avro 504 wings. My particular job was to get up at some unearthly hour and light the fires for heating the glue pots, so that when my “comrades” arrived, an hour later, all was ready for the day’s work. My duties also took in those of the tea boy, which necessitated carrying tea cans on a long broom handle to and from the coffee shops outside the works, there being no such things as works canteens or “breaks” in those days. For these humble duties, and providing I had not upset any of my mates, they usually made a “whip round for the boy” and this generally far exceeded my actual wage. Socialism was very popular and we had a Welshman who led the assembly shop in singing “The Red Flag”. For my part I hadn’t a clue of what it was all about but not wishing to be unpopular, and liking the tune, I used to join in lustily. Unfortunately I crossed the path of the work’s foreman one day while in full song, and got a hearty clip on the ear. After this I was careful where I sang; but I still like the tune! It may, or may not, surprise the present generation to know that we had strikes and stoppages in those days when our efforts on the Western Front and elsewhere were at a pretty low level. Nothing, it seems, ever changes.

With the Armistice, jobs in the aircraft world were few and far between and, much to my horror, I found myself as a junior clerk in a Savile Row Solicitor’s office. Just around the corner in Clifford Street was the Royal Aero Club and although not a member I met, or should I say passed, most of the well-known flying personalities of the day, in the street.

By the end of 1922 I had accumulated sufficient cash to be interested in an advertisement which promised to teach me to fly for £75 “all in”. Having been shown an Avro 504K in a field at Kingsbury, with an assurance that the Flying School was moving to Hendon aerodrome within a few days, I invested £5 as a deposit. Unfortunately several other hopefuls had fallen for the same patter and when sufficient mugs and cash had been found our would-be instructor disappeared (a year or two later he reappeared at Bow Street and “got” eight months in the “Second Division”).

A “fiver” in those days was a fortune and several of us combined in a hunt to find the miscreant who had diddled us. One of my own enquiries led me to a Mews off the Edgware Road, near Marble Arch, and here I encountered a Captain C.P.B. Ogilvie. His name has often occurred in aviation fringe-events, starting in the early ‘twenties. As an Irishman he had all the fascinating attributes of his race. He always sported highly-polished cavalry boots and cord breeches, a somewhat horsey jacket, cap and, in general, was a most amusing character. He claimed that he was an ex RFC/RAF pilot with many hours flying over the Western Front. Others have told me that he was no pilot but, quite recently, someone said that they had seen his name in the Royal Aero Club’s records of Pilots’ certificates. When we met he assured me that he had nothing to do with the Flying School fiddle, beyond lending the Avro for publicity purposes.

His real trade was as an electrician and he earned, I think, his bread-and-butter by employing a youth who went around to the many large town houses whenever they were in trouble with bulbs or fuses. His headquarters were in Polygon Mews, originally built to house the horses and carriages of the local wealthy but now, in the ‘twenties, mostly used as garages. The Mews consisted of a narrow cobbled roadway with vehicle accommodation on each side. Over the garage space was a small flat and it was here, in 1923, that I made my first acquaintance with Chris Ogilvie. I had little difficulty in locating his premises as the tail-end of an Avro 504 was protruding well into the roadway. I was captivated by Ogilvie’s charm, and the wealth of aircraft material he appeared to have. Aside from his electrician’s business he traded in whatever aircraft or materials he could acquire, as he said, at the right price.

He had acquired what was left of the British Aerial Transport Company’s aircraft after they had gone into liquidation. These machines included two BAT FK26 cabin aircraft and two BAT FK23 Bantam single-seat fighters. I think he also had the Nieuport Nighthawk used by the Nieuport and General Aircraft Co., and used by them for demonstrations and racing before they, in turn, also went into liquidation. Again, when the Austin Motor Co. despaired of getting into the post-war Civil Aviation market he bought their Whippet G-EAPF and Kestrel G-EATR. Originally these machines had been stored in the Grahame-White hangars at Hendon but were later moved into a canvas hangar on de Havilland’s recently acquired aerodrome at Stag Lane. As D.H.’s own business developed, Ogilvie’s machines were pushed out into the open. When Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation, flew in on a visit he told D.H. that the machines “made the place look untidy” and Captain (later Sir), Geoffrey de Havilland, despite a sympathetic understanding, gave instructions that the machines must be moved.

Fortunately, part of the old Aircraft Manufacturing Co’s works, which had built the de Havilland war-type aeroplanes before going into liquidation, was available just down the Edgware Road at the Hyde. The part vacant had been taken over by an indoor tennis club but the space unsuited for actual courts was let to Ogilvie for a nominal sum. Those who own Jaguar cars and take them to Henly’s Hendon servicing depot, should appreciate the hallowed atmosphere wherein the famous de Havilland aircraft of WW1 were built!

At the time of my meeting Ogilvie “Mr. Soames”, my Savile Row employer, had, with my complete concurrence, decided I was not the type of which Solicitors were made and so, as a self-employed model maker producing scale-model aircraft for the 1924 Wembley Empite Exhibition, I had time to foster my association with Ogilvie and his aviation activities. When the move to the Hyde was made most the aeroplanes already mentioned had been sold, leaving only the Whippet, Kestrel, and a couple of Avro 504s. However, there were many wings and tail surfaces, for many types, available. As liquidation stocks were now non-existent Ogilvie was finding his best market was for aero-engines and, of course, Avro 504 spares for the joy-riding concerns, then much in evidence. I have never known why people came to him for such things with the Aircraft Disposal Company around and anxious to get rid of all Government surplus.

There was a constant stream of well-known pilots to the Mews, all wanting odds and ends for their cars or aeroplanes and I well remember the visits of Colonel G.L.P. Henderson, a well known fighter pilot. [He ran the Brooklands Flying School, prior to 1928— Ed] He usually arrived in a highly-polished aluminium open four-seater car into which he had fitted a Rolls-Royce Falcon aero engine. He regarded this as a “town car” as it was complete with mudguards, lights, running boards — and an almighty exhaust note. However, he usually left the engine “ticking over”, as he said that it was a b ….. to start.

Of Ogilvie’s aeroplanes at this period, the only airworthy machine was the Whippet. When someone showed interest in its purchase it was towed, behind his open Ford-T truck, up the road from the Airco works to Stag Lane where, by arrangement with de Havilland’s, he was allowed to fly the aircraft. In addition to the open truck he also had another Ford-T with two-seater “racing” body. Both Fords were, of course, painted bright Irish green. I never saw Ogilvie pilot an aeroplane but, when this was necessary, he usually arranged for a friend, Jim Phillips, to be on hand. However, Herbert Sykes sometimes flew the machine.

Eventually, Ogilvie talked me into buying a single seater Sopwith Pup. As he pointed out “the Pup is a wonderfully easy machine to fly and once you have learnt you will have your own machine for flying around. And, after all, all the early pilots taught themselves to fly”. As mentioned, Ogilvie had charm and for the princely sum of £25 I acquired Pup G-EBAZ from Herbert Sykes. Sykes, during the war, had been chief test-pilot with the Whitehead Aircraft Company of Richmond and Feltham, which had built Pups under licence. With the Arrnistice, and Whitehead’s closure, Sykes bought a pub and became “mine host” at a hostelry in Erith. He used the Pup to fly around Woolwich and district and dropped leaflets which invited the finder to “Come and sup with Psyche at the White Hart, High Street, Erith”. Eventually he tired of these activities due, I understand, to police interest in his low flying and so he told Ogilvie that he wished to get rid of the machine. After I had bought it he flew it from Erith and landed on the small field at the back of the Airco works, where it now joined company with Ogilvie’s collection. This delivery flight was made on May 13th, 1923, but subsequent events with this machine are, as they say, “another story”.

On one occasion Ogilvie had business with someone at Brooklands and asked if I was free to go with him. I jumped at the opportunity as although I knew it well by reputation I had never been there, it being well outside the radius of action of my push bike from North London. Ogilvie appeared to know many of the locals, having supplied bits and pieces for their cars, motorcycles or aeroplanes. He introduced me to L.C.G.M. le Champion who, at that moment, was having trouble with water leakage from a very large engine fitted to a very large car. As he was about to test the car on the Track he asked if I would like a ride. Thus I had my one and only “dice” round this famous old racing circuit. Actually, I don’t think we went very fast as, if I remember, the cylinder jackets soon started to leak again, but I still remember the sheer exhilaration of being windswept on the famous Track, in a real racing car and driven by a well-known racing driver. I think le Champion was either the British agent for, or actually used, Continental tyres, as he gave me one of their 1924 diaries and I still have this. Friends have since told me that the car was probably his Isotta-Maybach. [I would think both quite possible — Ed.]

Until my meeting with Ogilvie I had never played with anything more mechanical than a bicycle but he soon had me washing down the Anzani, changing plugs, setting contact-points and cleaning filters.

However, in September 1924 I became “respectable” by joining the small staff in de Havilland’s Stag Lane drawing-office, then located in an old wooden army hut and, with fixed hours of employment, I saw less of Ogilvie. When the indoor tennis club went phut he rented one of the old original wooden hangars on the Hendon ‘drome. Here he stored the Sopwith Scooter monoplane, which had been bought by a theatre entrepreneur who proposed to use it at theatre garden parties and other publicity purposes. In spite of the fact that the machine had, more or less, been flown exclusively by Sopwith’s famous test-pilot Harry Hawker, for aerobatics, test flying and demonstrations, the Civil Aviation authorities would not now renew the certificate-of-airworthiness until certain of the flying wires were duplicated. Ogilvie, having in mind my new design-office status, enquired if I could produce drawings and parts which he would fit to the aircraft. Until my arrival in the DH drawing office their lowest form of life had been their first premium apprentice but, with my arrival, “Bish” became upgraded and I took over his odds-and-ends role and we became friends. With an opportunity to do a spot of original design, and earn a few bob on the Scooter project, I consulted with my side-kick and we undertook the commission. I think we consulted every senior in the office but stopped short at consulting “the Captain” himself. Eventually our scheme was approved, the parts were made at Stag Lane, and a new C of A granted. I have often wondered if my friend of those days remembered these early beginnings, and which took him on to becoming the firm’s Chief Designer, with the wonderful DH Mosquito etc. to his credit.

Reverting back to the Scooter, this machine started life as a Sopwith Camel. The airframe and engine were “acquired” by Hawker and the Parasol wing designed for him by friends in the Sopwith DO. He used it as a hack, with Service markings, from July 1918 but after the war it received the temporary civil marking K-135, later replaced by the new registration G-EACZ. Unfortunately, Hawker was killed, in July 1921, while testing his entry for the 1921 “Aerial Derby”. After his death the Scooter was stored, but eventually sold and flown by the well-known Brooklands character Dudley Watt, generally known, I think, as “Dangerous Dan”.

After our Scooter dealings I lost touch with Ogilvie but undoubtedly the Whippet was sold, as I remember it being flown as a private run-about by F.O. Soden. I think he was posted to India and the machine was then, possibly, acquired by Air-Commodore Pearson.

In passing, if Ogilvie had run his aircraft acitivities on a more rational basis it is possible that he may have made a fortune, as R.J. Coley, of Kingston-upon-Thames scrap fame, started around the same time. Like Ogilvie, he bought up any surplus aircraft or material available and when he died, a few years back, it is said that he left a fortune well in excess of several aircraft pioneers put together! Ogilvie seems to have reappeared, in the thirties, with premises in Willesden and then had some Bristol F.2b Fighters in his possession. Later, one hears of him at the Primrose Garage, Radlett but still with his RFC Jacket and Wings as a treasured possession. It is thought that he died in the ‘fifties. He has his little niche in aviation history as whenever the Shuttleworth Sopwith Pup is mentioned, it is usually recalled that it was converted, by Shuttleworth’s, from a Sopwith Dove “obtained from C.P.B. Ogilvie of Watford”.

In January 1927 I preceded Air-Commodore Pearson’s move to the Southampton area when, with little work at Stag Lane, I joined the design-staff of A.V. Roe & Co., at their Hamble experimental works. Thus, again, many of Mr. Pearson’s memories find echoes in my own thoughts, and photo album.

Like Air-Commodore Pearson, I also took my Royal Aero Club certificate with the Hampshire Aeroplane Club, going solo in October 1929, my instructor being W. H. Dudley, then assistant to the famous (to me infamous), Fl.Lt. F.A. Swaffer. I quote “infamous” as after an hour’s dual the Chief decided to check my progress. He enquired how far I had got and I replied “on turns”. Once safely air-borne the earphones barked “Turn”. Gently putting the machine, Avro Avian G-EBVI, on a bank which would probably have taken us over France. I was somewhat shaken when everything exploded into a wild stomach-crunching vertical turn and a voice I can still hear, told me that I was “flying like a f…… nun”. After Swaffer left the Club Dudley became CFI and was joined by H.A. Marsh. Both had been with 41 (F) Squadron, RAF, on AW Siskins, and were perfect gentlemen, both on the ground and in the air. Alan Marsh later joined us at the Cierva Autogiro Co., but lost his life when the Air Horse crashed in June 1950.— P.T.C.