Alliott Verdon Roe

(1877 - 1958)

Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe was born on 26 April 1877 in Patricroft, Eccles, Lancashire, the son of Edwin Hodgson Roe and Anna Sophia Roe (née Verdon). Although his father had hoped Alliott would follow his profession as a doctor, Roe left home when he was 14 to go to Canada where he had been offered training as a surveyor. When he arrived in British Columbia he discovered that a slump in the silver market meant that there was little demand for surveyors, so he spent a year doing odd jobs, and then returned to England. There he served as an apprentice with the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. He later tried to join the Royal Navy to study marine engineering at King's College London, but, although he passed the technical and mathematics papers, he was rejected for failing some of the general subjects. As well as doing dockyard work, Roe joined the ship SS Jebba of the British & South African Royal Mail Company as fifth engineer on the West African run. He went on to serve on other vessels, finishing his Merchant Navy career as third engineer aboard the SS Ichanga. It was during these voyages that he became interested in the possibility of building a flying machine, having observed the soaring flight of albatrosses.

In 1902 Roe became a draughtsman in the motor car industry, but was keenly interested in flight and built many models in his spare time. In 1906 he took the post of Secretary to the Aero Club, but this was only to last a few days. Following a letter Roe had written to The Times, George Davidson gave him the post of draughtsman on the Davidson Air-Car monoplane he had designed. Davidson was financed by Lord Armstrong (of Armstrong-Whitworth) and it was decided to build the machine in America. Roe went out to Colorado in April 1906 and there created drawings for the Davidson machine. After disagreements about the design of the machine and problems with his salary, Roe, who had been sent back to Britain to deal with patenting the design, resigned.

Roe then began to build a series of flying models, and won a Daily Mail competition with a prize of £75 for one of his designs in 1907. With the prize money, he set out to design and built his own real aircraft. He set up shop in the stables behind the surgery belonging to his brother, Dr Spenser Verdon Roe (1874 – 1941) in Putney, London, the completed machine being taken to Brooklands, near Weybridge, for testing. There, the Roe 1 made short hops on 8 June 1908, but his flights were not registered officially by the Royal Aero Club and Lord Brabazon took the honour of gaining the first RAeC Aviator's Certificate.

After encountering problems with the management of Brooklands, Roe found a new site at Walthamstow Marshes in East London (now part of the Lee Valley Regional Park) where he adapted two railway arches as a workshop. The resulting Triplane, erected with the assistance of E V B Fisher and R.L. Howard Flanders and fitted with a 9 h.p. JAP engine, created history on 13 July 1909 when the short ‘hops’ officially became ‘flights’, and by July 23 it had flown 900ft and A.V. Roe was recognised by the Aero Club as the first Englishman to design, build and fly an all-British aeroplane.

In November 1909, facing eviction from Walthamstow Marshes, Roe moved, first to Old Deer Park, Richmond, Surrey and then to Wembley Park, Middlesex. By now, Roe’s funds were getting low. His brother Humphrey Verdon Roe (b. 18 April 1879; d. 25 July 1949) was himself a successful businessman and owner of Everard and Company of Brownsfield Mills, Manchester, so, on 1 January 1910, with financial assistance from Humphrey, the private firm of A V Roe and Company was founded. The fledgling company was given engineering space at Brownsfield Mills and from then the company products were marketed under the trade name Avro. Meanwhile, the management of Brooklands had undergone a change and this enabled Roe to leave Wembley Park and return there. It was there that he gained his RAeC Aviator's Certificate on 26 July 1910, flying his Triplane.

In early 1911 Roe built a tractor biplane, the Type D, one of which was fitted with floats, the first English seaplane. The Type D created considerable success for the Avro Company, leading as it did to the extremely successful Type 504.

Roe also set up a flying school at Brooklands but, with its increasing popularity as a flying centre, Roe was forced to leave Brooklands and moved the school to Shoreham, a site adjacent to the River Adur which made it ideal for both land or water machines.

By early 1913, orders had grown considerably and this enabled the firm to reform as a limited company on January 11, 1913. By the following April they had outgrown Brownsfield Mills and moved into larger premises in Miles Platting. The outbreak of World War I saw a bigger surge in orders and even these new premises were inadequate. Fortunately, the nearby company of Mather & Platt had just completed a new extension and these premises were rented to become the Park Works of A.V. Roe. In order to have its own works, however, a large piece of land adjacent to the Park Works was acquired, although this, the Newton Heath Works, was not completed until the end of 1919.

In 1916, Roe purchased land in Hamble for the establishment of an aircraft factory on what became known as the South airfield. Land was also purchased in 1916 for the building of 24 houses for employees. Production and test flying started there late in 1917.

In 1918, Verdon-Roe was appointed an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).

The end of World War I saw an immediate cancellation in military orders resulting in severe financial problems. All main production moved to Manchester and, on a very much reduced staff, Hamble became an experimental aircraft department. In August 1920 68.5% of the company's shares were acquired by Crossley Motors who had an urgent need for more factory space for vehicle body building. In 1928 Crossley Motors sold Avro to Armstrong Siddeley Holdings Ltd., and the same year, Roe resigned from the company he had founded.

One of Roe's persistent interests was the application of aerodynamics to the motor-cycle, and in 1922 he produced a monocar, a single-track vehicle in which the rider had a bucket seat. The first model, with a Barr and Stroud sleeve-valve engine, had small outrigger wheels for stability at low speeds. These were discarded in the later "Uno," which had much larger wheels with the springing actually inside that at the front.

Having resigned from Avro, Roe was looking for a new venture and in November 1928, he, along with John Lord who had resigned from Avro at the same time, became joint managing directors of S E Saunders of East Cowes, Isle of Wight. At an Extraordinary General Meeting on 3 July 1929, the company name was changed to Saunders-Roe. Roe concerned himself more with the financial health of the company rather than its technical side. Roe had faith in the commercial future of flying boats and pressed Saro to invest in this type of aircraft.

Following large investment from the Aircraft Investment Corporation, on 6 February 1931 the board of Saunders-Roe was reconstituted, with Roe as chairman and joint managing director with Lord. He resigned his joint managing directorship on 14 November 1934, remaining as chairman until 1937, when he became honorary President until his death.

Roe was knighted in 1929. In 1933 he changed his surname to Verdon-Roe by deed poll, adding the hyphen between his last two names in honour of his mother.

Another interest of his later years was monetary theory and the possibility of reform to reduce the burden of debt upon the economy and to establish the prerogative of the State over currency creation; he was a vice-president of the Economic Reform Institute.

Sir Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe, OBE, Hon. FRAeS, FIAS died on 4 January 1958 at St Mary's Hospital, Portsmouth.

Biography References
  1. Avro Aircraft Since 1908, A.J. Jackson (Putnam, 2nd Ed., 1990)
  2. Avro - The History of an Aircraft Company, Harry Holmes (Crowood, 2nd Ed. 2004)
  3. Trials, Troubles and Triplanes, Philip Jarrett (Ad Hoc Publications, 2007)
  4. From Sea to Air - The Heritage of Sam Saunders, A.E. Tagg & R.L. Wheeler (Crossprint, 1989)

V1.4.4 Created by Roger Moss. Last updated August 2020