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85. Bristol Fashion


There’s a wonderful book called Bristol Fashion by John Pudney, published in 1960, all about the early days of the B&CA complete with great illustrations by David Gentleman. There are copies available on eBay if you’re interested.

A chapter on Frank Barnwell really brings him to life with wonderful reminiscences, mostly related to his total inability to fly an aircraft, and his inability to recognise the fact.

As for Barnwell, it says ‘The line of Barnwell crashes is too long to be enumerated.’, and mentions a trip he made to the front in France in a F2B to see at first hand what the pilots thought of it. He took a passenger with him on one leg, and in the crash Barnwell broke both ankles, and thereafter walked with a limp. History doesn’t relate what happened to the passenger.

Frank Barnwell in 1914 on joining the RFC

Frank Barnwell in 1914 on joining the RFC

In 1919 he took the flying surfaces from a Badger – a proposed development of the F2B fighter – and made up a cheap slab-sided fuselage for experimental work. The whole thing cost £250 to build and was known as the Badger X, (and unofficially as Barnwell’s weekender).

The Badger X

The Badger X

It became the first aircraft to appear on the UK civil register as G-EABU on 30 May, by which time Barnwell had turned it over on the golf course adjacent to the Filton airfield. He was left unharmed but angry, hanging from the straps, and he got even angrier when someone released his straps before getting hold of him, and he landed on his head!

The Bristol all-metal MR1

The Bristol all-metal MR1

Later that year, he crashed the MR1 – the first all-metal airframe produced by Bristol and a development of the F2B – into a tree at Farnborough, successfully decapitating the tree and writing the airframe off in the process.

Bristol Brownie G-EBJM (known as Jim) - the aircraft Barnwell crashed.

Bristol Brownie G-EBJM (known as Jim) – the aircraft Barnwell crashed.

In 1927, a lightweight two-seater called the Brownie, built for the Lympne ultralight trials and much modified as a prospective basic trainer for the Air Ministry, had been allocated to Barnwell as his personal runabout. He flew it in all weathers, on one occasion remaining in view for over an hour from Filton as he battled enormous easterly headwinds over the Cotswolds. In March 1928, he crashed it at Farnborough, only yards from his decapitated tree.

But despite this blind spot, the overwhelming impression that Barnwell left was that rare combination; a dedicated, hard-working genius who remained affable, modest and approachable throughout his life. The fact that he was known throughout the works as ‘the Old Man’ or ‘Daddy’ indicates the respect and love he inspired, and it also makes the point that the Scout was probably the only aircraft design that made it into production that was purely Barnwell; the M1 monoplane and the F2B Fighter were designed with the help of a young Bristol graduate called Leslie Frise.

Barnwell’s reputation was made entirely with the B&CA, later to become Bristol Aircraft. He left the company twice; once in 1914, when he was frustrated at the Ministry’s lack of interest in anything other than Royal Aircraft Factory designed machines, and he joined the RFC (though popping back to Filton once a week to check on progress); and once, in 1921, when the aviation industry was at its lowest ebb, he joined the Australian Air Force as a technical expert. But he wasn’t appreciated there, and was back in his old post a couple of years later.

In all his crashes, he’d escaped serious injury, but in 1938, having been banned from flying company’s aircraft, he’d designed his own lightweight runabout, called the BSW1, which he’d had built by the local Aero Club. It stalled and spun on its second flight, and Barnwell was killed at the scene. He was 58. His brother, Harold, had been killed flying in 1917. His three sons, all pilots, were killed flying in 1940 and 1941.

Frank Barnwell

Frank Barnwell

An obituary at the time of his death in 1938 was penned by his friend C M Poulsen, who was editor of Flight International. Poulsen says:

‘There may be designers who are greater technicians in some particular sphere and on some particular aspect of aircraft design, but it can be said quite truthfully that there is no designer who has had the confidence and loyalty of his entire staff to a greater degree. It is literally true that there was not one member of the Bristol staff who would not do anything in the world for Capt. Barnwell. Service was given him, not through fear, for Barnwell was the most gentle of men, but because everyone felt that it was a privilege to be allowed to work for him.

‘In his work Capt. Barnwell was one of the neatest and most methodical men. It did not matter whether he was doing an elaborate calculation or merely a simple memorandum; they were all written in his peculiar large, neat handwriting and carefully filed away.

‘As an example of how Barnwell worked, perhaps I may be permitted to quote a personal experience. I had been worrying him for many months to write me an article for our monthly technical supplement, The Aircraft Engineer, but he had been far too busy to spare the time. Then one day I received a letter from him informing me that he was doing an article and that I should be receiving it after the Easter holidays. It duly arrived, and I found it to be written entirely in his own handwriting, and all the charts and graphs done by himself. He had spent the Easter holidays doing it at home. I had naturally assumed that in the archives of the Bristol company there would be much material which could be turned into an article, with very little trouble, by his assistants. But no, that was not Barnwell’s way. He set to work and did the whole thing himself from A to Z.

‘It has been my good fortune to know Frank Barnwell since about 1913 or so, and before that I was privileged to count among my friends his brother, Harold Barnwell, who was chief test pilot to Vickers and lost his life in a flying accident in 1917. Although very dissimilar in appearance and in many other respects, the two brothers had in common a charm which made one treasure their friendship. Frank was rather shy and retiring and would never suffer the limelight of publicity to be pointed in his direction. If asked to write an article or deliver a lecture he usually refused because, as he said, there were lots of people much better qualified than he. And that was not a pose; he meant it quite sincerely. He was modest to a fault.

‘Born at Lewisham in 1880, Frank Sowter Barnwell was educated at Fettes School, Edinburgh. He served his apprenticeship with a shipbuilding firm and remained in that industry for some years, including a period in America. By 1908 Harold and Frank Barnwell had begun to experiment with aircraft design and construction, and their first monoplane was built near Stirling by the Grampian Motor Co. No great success was achieved with this machine, nor with the next one, built and flown in 1909. By 1911, however, they had produced a monoplane with which Harold made several flights and on which he had more than one crash. That machine, a monoplane, had a flat-twin Grampian engine of about 40 h.p.

‘About this time the brothers decided to abandon their personal ventures, though not adventures, and Harold joined Vickers, while Frank joined the Bristol company, then called the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co. Harold became chief test pilot and Frank chief draughtsman. With the exception of a short absence in Australia after the war, Frank Barnwell remained with the Bristol company until his death.’

He retained his honorary title of Captain in the RFC, and had also been awarded the OBE and the AFC, as well as being a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

And finally, in Bristol Fashion, there’s one story relating to the Scout which I’d never come across before. Apparently one was being flown during the retreat from Mons in 1914 by Charles Gordon Bell, an eminent pre-war flier. For reasons which aren’t explained he landed up upside down in a tree. A senior staff officer with a plumy accent inspected him hanging from the seat belt and said ‘Have you had an accident?’ to which Bell, who was famous for his stutter and his occasional use of a monocle, said ‘N-n-no, I always l-land like this, you damned fool.’ To which the officer responded ‘What do you mean talking to me like that? Don’t you know who I am?’ And Bell replied ‘N-no, I don’t, and what’s m-m-more, I don’t care, and if you th-think you can come round here playing the c-comic policeman there’s my number on my t-t-tail, and you can damn well b-b-bugger off.’ Bell went on to become the only ace flying a Scout, with 5 victories between the middle of September and the end of November 1915. He was killed on a test flight in July 1918.


From → History

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