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25 March 2016. Bristol


On the centenary of Bunnie’s only chance to fire his guns in anger, we headed off to the home of Sir George White so that Stephen Saunders could record an interview with him about the origins of the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company.

Sir George is an incomparable source of information, and tells the story of his family in a compelling manner that led Stephen to suggest the possibility of a separate film altogether.

It’s a story of huge national importance, complete with family relationships, tensions and fallings out.

The first baronet (also Sir George) came from very humble working class origins, yet made an enormous fortune in the nineteenth century developing transportation links, mostly in and around the Bristol area, but elsewhere too. These involved trams, trolley buses, coaches, and trains.

His humble origins kept him in close touch with the people who worked for him, and he pioneered pensions for them (which he paid for himself), and he also endowed hospitals in France and Bristol.

When he found out about aviation, he understood immediately its military importance and set about planning an aeroplane manufacturing company that would be capable of mass manufacture. The first two British manufacturers were set up with £500 and £600 capital respectively; British & Colonial had no less than £25,000, increased to £200,000 within a couple of years. This was no get-rich-quick enterprise; like much of his other work in this decade, it was driven by philanthropism. Indeed, it took many years before the family saw any sort of return on their investment.

In 1916, Sir George died unexpectedly at the age of only 62, and was succeeded by his son Stanley. Unlike his father, Stanley was painfully shy and retiring, and hated public speaking. But he shared with his father the drive for public service; he understood his good fortune in being born to such wealth, and the responsibility of paying this back.

So he shouldered the huge responsibility of manufacturing aeroplanes for the war effort. He shouldered the even more daunting responsibility of finding work for as many of his employees as possible in 1918 when all military contracts were cancelled. And he successfully led the company through the lean interwar years, the expansion for WWII, and into the jet age until 1954.

His grandson clearly regards him as an unsung hero, and it would be very hard to disagree with him.

Frank Barnwell's grave. Also listed are his three sons, all killed flying in the early years of WWII, and his poor widow Marjorie, who survived until 1966, and whose views on aviation aren't recorded.

Frank Barnwell’s grave. Also listed are his three sons, all killed flying in the early years of WWII, and his poor widow Marjorie, who survived until 1966, and whose views on aviation aren’t recorded.

We took advantage of the lovely Good Friday weather to visit the grave of Frank Barnwell, designer of the Scout, and to see his house a couple of hundred yards away, which is now a hotel.

Frank Barnwell's house, with Sir George White showing us round.

Frank Barnwell’s house, with Sir George White showing us round.

But perhaps the highlight for me was the chance to view stereoscopic glass slides through a French-made viewer housed in a beautiful mahogany cabinet. showing pictures of the first flight of the Scout prototype, and of the trials of the Bristol-Burney machine. The photographs, taken in 1912 and 1913, were the simply entrancing, and jumped out of the viewer in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced from any other sort of still photograph ever. I would love to reproduce the pictures, which are a unique record of that period, but I’ve no idea, even today, how one would do them justice.

It was a wonderful day, and we are very grateful to Sir George for his time and trouble in assembling this and all the other relevant memorabilia for us, and to Lady Joanna for the limitless tea and cakes she kept providing!

Now I’ve got to work out how I’ve put on 9lb in the last two weeks, and, more importantly, how to shed them again…


From → History

One Comment
  1. What a great man was Sir George!
    My admiration and respect to him.

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