The Barnwell Brothers

Harold Barnwell (1878 - 1917)

Frank Barnwell (1880 - 1938)

The Barnwell Brothers 

Richard Harold Barnwell (born 1878) and Frank Sowter Barnwell (born November 23, 1880) were originally from Lewisham , Kent, but in 1882 their parents Richard and Ann (nee Sowter, which explains Franks unusual second name) moved the family to Elcho House, Balfron, Stirlingshire. There, younger brother Archibald Statham, (b. 29 Mar 1882, d. 1970, Christchurch, Hants), twin sisters Elizabeth and Amy (b. 1886) and the youngest Dora (b. 1891) expanded the family and in 1889 Richard became managing director of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co., Ltd., of Govan. All three boys were educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh following which Frank served a six-year apprenticeship with the Fairfield company from 1898 to 1904. At the same time he attended evening classes at the Technical College and spent the winter months from 1900 to 1905 at Glasgow University. He first went to Glasgow University in 1900 to study Natural Philosophy and Chemistry, then returned for his second session in 1902 studying Naval Architecture and Engineering and took his degree of B.Sc. in engineering in March, 1905. He shared with his brother Harold a practical interest in aviation. Their first types were biplane gliders, of which little is recorded, though it is believed that two were built from 1905 at their parent's home in Balfron.

After graduating, Frank spent a year in the U.S.A., working in the hull-draughting department of an American shipbuilding firm. There he also met the Wright brothers before returning to Scotland in 1907. Meanwhile, Harold’s and Archibald’s careers immediately after leaving Fettes College are little recorded before 1907, although it is known the Harold took an apprenticeship, presumably also at Fairfields. In 1907 the two brothers acquired the business and premises of John Simpson and Co. of Causewayhead, between Stirling and Bridge of Allan, and there formed the Grampian Engineering and Motor Company, Ltd. This allowed them the funds and facilities to pursue their real passion, aviation. Frank joined them upon his return and there they built their first powered aircraft. This lightly built biplane was a single seater pusher powered by a 7 h.p. Peugeot engine. It did not fly when tested in 1908 at Cornton Farm, Causewayhead. Next was a monoplane with an airframe designed by Frank, while Harold designed the engine. The machine was completed in December 1908 and reached 25 mph on the ground but would not lift off.

The next effort by the Barnwell brothers was constructed by their Grampian company and was a large canard biplane that had a Humber Tourist Trophy engine driving two pusher propellers by chains. This biplane had a bicycle form of landing gear and Harold succeeded in flying for eighty yards on 8 July 1909, but the machine was damaged on landing. After repairs and with the wingspan reduced to 45ft further trials were carried out on 8 September 1909 using a starting rail. A height of 25ft was reached before the machine was damaged beyond repair on 10 September 1909.

Early in 1910 Frank became engaged to Marjorie , the daughter of Lt.-Col. Charles Sandes, of Stirling, and reverted, no doubt for financial reasons, to shipbuilding, and therefore the Barnwells sixth and last machine was a design by Harold alone, built by the Grampian company, including the engine. It was a single-seat tractor low wing monoplane of conventional layout. The sloping radiator with an air intake above the engine crankcase provided a windscreen for the pilot. The axle of the substantial undercarriage with central skid was wire braced to the body.

On 14 January 1911 at Causewayhead, Harold made the longest flight of any Scottish aircraft or pilot to that date, and followed this on 30 January 1911 with a flight reaching a height of 200ft, but damaged the machine on landing. For these flights the J.R.K. Law Prize of £50 was awarded by the Scottish Aeronautical Society. (14 January 1911. 600 yards at a height of 50ft: 30 January 1911 distance 1 mile, endurance 1 min 2 2/3 sec) The damaged machine was repaired and further flights were carried out at Cambussdrennie Farm, Blair Drummond on 16 August 1911 and 13 October 1911, but these were the last to be reported. From this point, the brothers took separate, though very similar paths.

Harold Barnwell 

Harold, having visited Brooklands with his brother late in 1911, remained there, qualifying for his Royal Aero Club certificate No. 278 on 3 September 1912 in a Bristol biplane at the Bristol School. Subsequently he joined the staff of the new Vickers School of Flying and by mid-1913 Harold was both instructing and test flying for Vickers.

Harold and Captain Herbert Wood, manager of Vickers aviation department were in accord on and soon Harold was advising on matters of design. Appointed chief test pilot in 1914 following the closure of Vickers flying school at Brooklands, in his spare moments from testing production Gunbuses Harold took it upon himself the task of designing and constructing a small high-speed scout without the knowledge or approval of his employers, "borrowing" a Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine from Vickers' stores to power the aircraft.

Barnwell attempted a first flight of his design, nicknamed the Barnwell Bullet, in early 1915, but the aircraft crashed and was wrecked, possibly due to a miscalculated centre of gravity. This accident exposed the existence of the machine to Vickers management, who handed over the design to Rex Pierson which was developed into the E.S.1. This was to eventually lead to the Vickers F.B.19 which was produced in modest numbers.

From this point Harold concentrated on test flying. A crash in the Vickers F.B.11 cost him five weeks in Crayford hospital, but it was the F.B. 26 that was to cost him his life. Harold Barnwell died on 25th August 1917, while test flying the prototype Vickers F.B.26 Vampire night fighter at Joyce Green, Kent. He had previously not been in very good health, and had only just returned after a fortnight's holiday, when he accepted an invitation to try the machine.

At the inquest it was stated that he had been up three times previously on the day of his death at another aerodrome, and the machine which fell had been flown just before the accident. Mr. Barnwell looped the loop several times, and evidently tried to "roll" the machine. He came down to the ground level to take a ground spring and went up to about 1,200 feet. He then took a spin of three turns and came out of it. He stalled the machine and started spinning again. From the second spin the machine never recovered, and it crashed to the ground at an estimated speed of 150 to 200 miles an hour, being completely smashed. Mr. Barnwell was found among the wreckage dead, and his safety belt was broken. It is thought Mr. Barnwell must have fainted in the air, as he did nothing to save himself. Capt. Harold Baker, R.F.C., who had previously flown the machine, said he had spun both ways and found it answer perfectly. A verdict of "Death from Misadventure" was returned.

Harold was buried near Brooklands in St Mary's Churchyard, Byfleet, Surrey. The grave is marked by an unusual obelisk type of memorial with a simple inscription recording the date and location of his death and that the monument was funded by his brothers and sisters.

Frank Barnwell 

In 1910 Frank Barnwell had returned to shipbuilding for a short time, but the lure of aviation was strong and in 1911, now married, came back to his first love. Frank and Harold visited Brooklands to assess their prospects and Frank applied to both A.V. Roe and the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co. It was the latter that had the good fortune to reply first and Frank took up an appointment in Bristol as a draughtsman in December 1911.

When Frank Barnwell joined the company there was no person in the firm who was designated as chief designer. Up to the end of November 1911 the company had built some 66 aircraft which had been designed by various individuals: Challenger, Grandsiegne, Prier and Gordon England had all tried their hands. Barnwell’s first task at Bristol was a remarkable one. A naval officer, Lt. C. D. Burney, R.N. (later Sir Dennistoun Burney), had produced proposals for an aeroplane that could be carried aboard submarines. The Burney aircraft itself was a revolutionary conception, but could hardly have been realized with the techniques and materials of its day. Its inventor proposed that it should be an inflatable aeroplane made of rubberized fabric; when deflated it was to be stowed in a small container in the submarine. For undercarriage it had three long legs, each of which bore a set of hydrofoils, and there was a marine propeller between the main legs. The aircraft was to be accelerated by means of the marine propeller alone until the hull had risen on to the lowest hydrofoil; then, with hull clear of the water, the pilot was supposed to engage the airscrew and take off, Lt. Burney interested the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co. in his ideas in October 1911. The Admiralty was also interested in the project and required that its development should be carried on in secrecy. The cottage that was No. 4 Fairlawn Avenue was therefore set aside as a special drawing office for the work. It was designated "X" Department by the firm, and Frank Barnwell was placed in charge of it just after Christmas 1911. His responsibility was the translation of Lt. Burney's ideas into a practical aircraft. In this task he was assisted by Mr. Clifford W. Tinson.

The results achieved with this curious contraption were not very successful and came to an abrupt end in 1913 when the X.3 piled up on a submerged sandbank after being towed (to assist its take-off) by a destroyer—which let go a little early. But this was no reflection on Barnwell, who had been given little if any freedom of action on the basic design. By that time the British and Colonial company had a chief designer in post: he was Henri Coanda, who had joined the firm in March 1912. At no time, however, did Coanda have any control over "X" Department: Barnwell and Tinson pursued their activities independently of the Filton House drawing office. This might have been because "X" Department's work was secret and Coanda was not a British subject; but even when the Burney experiments ceased, Barnwell and Tinson retained their independence.

No adequate explanation has ever been given of the connection between the Coanda-designed S.N.183 and the tiny Barnwell designed single-seat biplane which emerged in February 1914. It has been said that the incomplete fuselage of S.N.183 was turned over to Frank Barnwell with authority for him to design a new aircraft round it; but the truth is that his single-seater owed nothing to the Coanda design. While work was proceeding on the little biplane it retained the works number S.N.183, however —a fact which, coupled to the ostensible "development" of the Coanda fuselage, suggests that the Bristol management may have wished to test Barnwells capabilities as a designer without giving offence to Coanda. (A fact which is probably relevant is that Coanda's father was Rumanian war minister at that time, and the company supplied at least thirteen aircraft to Rumania.)

The new single-seat biplane had a humble beginning. The design calculations were made by Barnwell in a penny exercise book, and all the drawings were produced by him and Tinson in a manifold book. Simple carbon copies of the drawings were sent to the construction shops, and the aeroplane was quickly built. When completed it was given the new works sequence number S.N.206. By now, in the summer of 1914, Barnwell and Tinson had been absorbed into the main organization under Coanda.

Two further were built, designated Scout B, and delivered to the then Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough in August 1914. Subsequently a number of Scout Ds were ordered and did great service in the Middle East up to as late as 1917. A solitary Scout C, privately owned and flown, survived throughout the 1920s and was finally dumped on a Yorkshire scrapheap in 1930. In this way a private venture, started almost casually, brought Barnwell into the front line of contemporary designers and provided a most valuable Service aircraft.

Before and during the early part of the First World War it was War Office policy to confine all aeroplane design for the R.F.C. to the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough—the industry being regarded as merely producers to official drawings. Meagre initial orders for the Scouts relegated the firm's design and technical staff to a minor role with no creative opportunity, and it is not surprising that Barnwell left to join the R.F.C. He was commissioned on December 9th as Second Lieut, (on probation), Special Reserve, supplementary to Regular Corps. By October 1915 he had risen to the rank of Captain.

Barnwell got his wings at the C.F.S. in March 1915 (aged 35), and was appointed to No. 12 Squadron, in which he did much flying. When, in December 1925, at the age of 45, he applied to join the Institution of Aeronautical Engineers (which made him an honorary member), he had logged 360 hours of solo flying as a pilot of 35 different types of aircraft— and that did not include several variants with different types of engine.

During 1915, the appalling losses of the gallant R.F.C., culminating in an outcry in Parliament and violent attacks from the Press, led to more effective War Office recognition of the essential need to support non-official designs, as had earlier been encouraged by the Admiralty for the R.N.A.S. under its then First Lord, Mr. Winston Churchill. One result was the release from the R.F.C. of Barnwell "on indefinite leave without pay" to rejoin the firm in August 1915 as chief designer, Coanda having left on the outbreak of war. He selected as his principal assistant a young graduate in mechanical engineering of Bristol University—L. G. Frise—released from a commission in the R.N.A.S.

Barnwell, with his Service experience, addressed himself to two requirements—a single-seat fighter and a two-seater to replace Farnborough types for artillery observation and offensive patrol. The resultant single-seat fighter, the M.1, was a monoplane in a streamlined fuselage. In September 1916 the first of the five prototypes ordered was flown by F. P. Raynham at a speed of 132 m.p.h. To the disappointment of the firm and others, its landing speed of 49 m.p.h. was decreed to be too high for the Western Front and so only another 125 were ordered. Barnwell's original two-seater concept was based on a 120 h.p. Beardmore engine, the pilot (in front, with a Lewis gun on the starboard longeron and his eyes level with the upper centre section) having a minimum blind spot. The observer/gunner was placed immediately behind him on a seat which could be folded out of die way when he had to stand up to operate his gun. When the prototype came to be built, however, as the F2A, the more powerful 190 h.p. Rolls-Royce engine had become available, and was fitted. The forward-firing synchronized Vickers gun was mounted on the centre line, just ahead of the pilot's windscreen, and fired through a tunnel in the upper fuel tank, where it was kept comparatively warm by the engine. Barnwell had sent young Frise to an Army machine-gun school for a fortnight's course on the Vickers gun to learn its habits. In it’s finally developed form as the F.2B —affectionately known as the Brisfit—achieved a reputation akin to that gained by later by the Spitfire and Lancaster. It continued to be of good service in the R.A.F. throughout the 1920s, completing its career about 1928/29 on the North-West Frontier of India.

Not long after his return to Bristol, and conjunction with William H. Sayers, Barnwell wrote the book “Aeroplane Design”, published by McBride in 1916, based on pre-war lectures at the Royal Aeronautical Society, something he was to continue doing for many years. In recognition of his great services Barnwell was invested with the O.B.E. in 1917, to which was added the Air Force Cross the following year. In December 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the R.Ae.S., which he had joined as a member on March 4th, 1914, and in January 1917 he was appointed to a committee to consider the future of the Society.

The aftermath of the Armistice in 1918 had a shattering impact on British aviation in a drastic financial retrenchment, the unloading of vast war stock on a shrunken market, and industrial upheaval. The aircraft industry was left to fend for itself, with meagre orders and the completion of a few of the prototype aircraft which had been started before the Armistice—that is, those that had not been cancelled.

The firm was renamed the Bristol Aeroplane Co., Ltd., on December 31st, 1919. Despite the courage and enterprise displayed by it under the leadership of Sir Henry White Smith (founder of the S.B.A.C.) and Sir Stanley White, Barnwell was clearly unhappy. There was a lack of the satisfaction of seeing his design effort materialize in useful production, so, in October 1921, he resigned and took a technical commission as a Squadron Leader, Technical, in the Royal Australian Air Force, joining an experimental section for aircraft design and development at Randwick led by Squadron Leader Lawrence Wackett. However, his zest for creative activity did not receive the expected outlet, so in October 1923, just two years later, he returned to Bristol and was re-appointed chief designer, with Frise as his assistant and Tinson again as his chief draughtsman. W. T. Reid, who had been chief designer during Barnwell's absence, had recently resigned to join the Canadian Vickers Co.

The first designs by Barnwell following his return from Australia were the little Brownie monoplanes entered for the 1923 Lympne competitions. This was the start of a continuing series of designs culminating in the Blenheim, which, together with Beaufort derived from it, were to be Barnwell's posthumous contribution to the Second World War. Including design-studies which did not come into prototype being, Barnwell in all laid out over 150 types at Bristol within 26 years.

In the middle of 1936, which marks the first stage of the pre-war expansion of the aircraft industry, Barnwell was appointed chief engineer, the entire drawing office coming under the domain of Frise as his chief designer, with four technical assistants—A. E. Russell, J. M. Radcliffe, H. W. Dunn and C. W. Tinson.

In 1937, with great reluctance but in his own interest, the firm persuaded Barnwell to cease to fly solo any of their aircraft. He was then 57. But nothing in life would stop him from flying, and in 1938 he designed and built—privately, at his own expense, and helped by a few friends—a little low-wing single-seater monoplane of 750 lb all-up weight, the BSW Mk.1, with a 25 h.p. Scott Squirrel two-stroke engine. In it he made a satisfactory preliminary flight in July. Minor adjustments were made to the controls and, in spite of endeavours to dissuade him, he took it up for the second time on August 2nd, 1938. As the aircraft began the first turn of a circuit, it stalled and spun in; he was killed instantly.

Frank and Marjorie Barnwell had three sons who all lost their lives in the Second World War:

Flight Lieutenant Richard Antony Barnwell, RAF of No. 102 Squadron RAF died aged 24 on 29 October 1940.
Pilot Officer John Sandes Barnwell, RAF of No. 29 Squadron RAF died aged 20 on 19 June 1940.
Pilot Officer David Usher Barnwell DFC, RAFVR, of No. 607 Squadron RAF died aged 19 on 14 October 1941.


A silver granite sculpture, with a 3 ft wingspan, set atop a 10 ft cairn at Causewayhead, yards from the site of the Grampian Motor and Engineering Company, commemorates their pioneering flights. A plaque, commemorating the centenary of the first flight has been erected in Balfron. Some artifacts from the Barnwells' days were uncovered before the Grampian Engineering and Motor Company closed in 2003. An original wing strut is on display at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum.

Biography References

  1. Flight, 7 Sept 1912
  2. Flight, 30 Aug 1917
  3. Flight, 11 Aug 1938
  4. Flight, 19 March 1954
  5. Flight, 26 September 1958
  6. Automotor Journal, 13 April 1907
  7. British Aircraft Before The Great War, Michael H. Goodall and Albert E. Tagg (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001)
  8. Vickers Aircraft Since 1908, C.F. Andrews and E.B. Morgan (Putnam,1988)

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