Thomas Sopwith had a remarkable career as a pioneer of aviation, designing and producing the iconic planes for the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, the Hurricane fighter plane in the Second and the world’s first jump-jet in the 1960s.
And if that wasn’t enough, Sopwith was also an accomplished yachtsman who challenged for the America’s Cup in the 1930s.
Sopwith was born in 1888, the eighth child and only son of Thomas Sopwith Senior, a civil engineer. When he was ten years old and on a family holiday in Scotland, a gun that was lying across his knee went off, killing his father, and this accident was to haunt him throughout his life.
His first interest in things mechanical was in motorcycles and in 1904 he was one of the four medal winners in the 100-mile Tricar trial. Sopwith was also an expert ice-skater and was a member of the Great Britain national ice hockey team that won the gold medal at the first ever European Championships in 1910.
Sopwith’s interest in flying began when he witnessed the first cross-Channel passenger flight in 1910 and having taught himself to fly and took to the air later the same year, only to crash after a flight of just 300 yards. But he persevered and was awarded Aviation Certificate No 31 by the Royal Aero Club in November 1910.
Within a month of receiving his certificate, Sopwith won a £4,000 prize for the longest flight from England to the Continent and he used the money to set up the Sopwith School of Flying. He then raised more funds by giving demonstrations of stunt flying in America until in 1912 he could afford to establish the Sopwith Aviation Company.
Fewer than 100 people worked at the factory at the outbreak of the First World War, but when the war ended Sopwith employed more 2,000 producing planes with very non-martial names, such as Snipe, Pup, Dolphin, Salamander, Cuckoo and Buffalo.
But the most famous model was the Sopwith Camel, so called because of the hump-shaped covering over its machine guns. The Camel shot down more enemy aircraft than any other allied fighter during the war, most famously when downing Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
The Camel became entrenched in popular culture as the plane flown by Biggles stories starting with ‘The Camels are Coming’ published in 1932 and, of course, it is also flown by Snoopy in his imaginary battles with the Red Baron in the Peanuts cartoon strip.
Punitive anti-profiteering taxes after the war all but bankrupted Sopwith and his company was reduced to making pots and pans instead of aircraft, but he re-entered the aviation business a few years later in partnership with the Australian pilot Harry Hawker. Together they developed the Hawker Hurricane which was the backbone of the RAF during the Second World War.
After various incarnations, the company became Hawker Siddeley and Sopwith remained as a consultant until 1980. In the 1960s, the company was responsible for the development of the Harrier, the world’s first vertical take-off plane.
Sopwith led a remarkable and occasionally eccentric life. For example, in the early days of his career, he was always accompanied by a brown bear called Oonie who would cause chaos in the factory because it developed a taste for eating aircraft wings because it liked the flavour of the sago-based dope that was used to stretch the Egyptian cotton fabric tight across the frames.
Sopwith was knighted in 1953 for his contribution in two world wars and he died in 1989 at the age of 101. Below is a documentary on his life broadcast in 1984.