Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith

(1888 - 1989)

Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith was born on 18 January 1888 in Kensington, London, the eighth child and only son of Thomas Sopwith and Lydia Gertrude Sopwith (née Messiter). He was educated at Cottesmore School in Hove and at Seafield Park engineering college in Hill Head.

When he was ten years old, on 30 July 1898 whilst on a family holiday on the Isle of Lismore, near Oban in Scotland, a gun lying across young Thomas's knee went off, killing his father. This accident haunted Sopwith for the rest of his life.

His first business project on leaving college was to set himself up, in partnership with Phil Paddon, a boyhood friend, as a consultant to the fledgling motor trade. Later they opened a showroom at 1 Albemarle Street, off London's Piccadilly, and sold Rolls-Royce cars. A combination of business success and the inheritance left him by his father allowed Sopwith to follow many interests—yachting, speedboats and a little motor racing. In November 1904 was the 'Hatfield 100 Mile Reliability Trial', an event held for three-wheelers, which he won in a Pearson, beating nine older and more experienced drivers. On 27 September 1906 he was the youngest driver in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race when he competed in a two-cylinder Peugeot belonging to Charles (later Sir Charles) Friswell.

By the time Sopwith was in his teens the sport of ballooning was well established and fashionable, and his first ascent was in C S Rolls' balloon Venus on 24 June 1906. Together with Phil Paddon he bought his own hot air balloon from Short Brothers, which they named Padsop. On 8 September 1906 he made a two-and-a-quarter hour flight from Chelsea to Eynsford, Kent. With him, as passenger, was Claude Grahame-White.

In 1910, Sopwith and his friend V. W. Eyre, bought a 166-ton schooner called Neva that at one time this had belonged to Princess Henry of Battenberg. Wishing to add a motor, they enlisted the help of Fred Sigrist, who worked at the Parsons' Motor Company in Southampton.

Sopwith became interested in flying after hearing of American John Moisant flying the first cross-Channel passenger flight. Sopwith went to Brooklands where he paid £5 for being given two circuits over the racetrack with Gustave Blondeau in a Farman. His first aeroplane, which he bought new for £630, was a Howard T Wright Avis monoplane. Although he had had no previous instruction, after taxying around, he flew his Avis at Brooklands on 22 October 1910, covered 300 yards, then pulled back on the stick, raised the nose too high and, while trying to land, stalled and caused serious damage to the Avis in the ensuing crash. He soon improved, and on 22 November was awarded his Royal Aero Club Aviator's Certificate, flying his own Howard Wright Biplane at Brooklands.

Although he had only ten hours solo flying experience, on 24 November Sopwith flew non-stop over a closed circuit for a distance of 107 miles which he covered in 3 hours 12 minutes, winning the Michelin Cup for the longest non-stop flight by a British pilot in a British machine. On 18 December 1910, Sopwith won a £4000 Baron de Forest prize for the longest flight from England to the Continent in a British-built aeroplane, flying 169 miles in 3 hours 40 minutes. In doing so he became the sixth pilot to cross the English Channel.

In 1911 Sopwith bought a Martin & Handasyde Type 4B monoplane with a 50-h.p. Gnome rotary engine, and then he acquired a 70-h.p. Blériot monoplane in France. William R Hearst, the famous American newspaper proprietor, inspired a competition for the first east-west trans-American flight, starting from New York, So in early 1911 Sopwith set up a team to travel to America, with Dudley Sturrock as manager and Fred Sigrist looking after the maintenance with Harry England and Jack Pollard, another early pioneer who had only recently been employed at the Howard Wright Company. The Blériot and the Howard Wright biplane were shipped out while Sopwith and his sister May crossed on another liner.

The Blériot was made ready at Hempstead Plains airfield on Long Island, but the following day Sopwith crashed at Mineola in severe turbulence while taking Nelson Doubleday of the famous publishing firm for a flight. Fortunately, neither was seriously injured. Sopwith, being a man of means, immediately ordered another Blériot from France, but, meanwhile, the Howard Wright biplane had arrived and on it he gave one outstanding performance after another. The Sopwith team continued to travel around the country for most of 1911, making exhibition ights and participating in several aviation meetings, winning some prize money, but the transcontinental ight was not attempted. At Chicago Sopwith won $14,000 in prize money and at Boston, together with Claude Grahame-White, he took most of the prizes on offer. At one point during the tour, the Wright brothers filed a Bill of Complaint in the court, aimed at preventing Sopwith from further flights in America on the grounds that his British-designed-and-built Howard Wright biplane infringed their patents. The relationship was put on a friendly basis after Sopwith ordered an American Burgess-Wright machine.

The Sopwith party returned to England in October, with the Blériot following. It was accompanied by the new Burgess-Wright biplane and the components of the Howard Wright that had been wrecked after engine failure forced a landing off Manhattan Beach. The American competitions were a happy venture for Sopwith. He had won a large, appreciative audience, had competed against some of the finest pilots in the world and, on many occasions, won. He had broadened his flying experience and his substantial winnings were able to recharge his flagging bank balance.

The money that Sopwith won during the various competition flights in Europe and the USA enabled him to set up the Sopwith School of Flying, started at Brooklands in February 1912 and offered a greater range of instructional machines than any other similar institution. The two-seater Blériot was own alongside the Howard Wright monoplane, which had been rebuilt, the Burgess-Wright biplane that was modified for instructional work and the Martin & Handasyde monoplane. These were later joined by a Henri Farman biplane. F P Raynham was hired as instructor and this enabled Sopwith to pursue both his competition interests. When Raynham later left to join the firm of L H Flanders, his place was taken by E W Copland Perry.

Fred Sigrist was in charge of the aeroplanes. Australian Henry Kauper worked as a mechanic and he introduced Harry Hawker to Sigrist, who engaged Hawker to work on the Sopwith-Wright biplane.

By 1912 Sopwith had decided to stop giving flying instruction or entering air competitions in order to concentrate on establishing himself in an industry which he believed would, apart from its sporting aspects, have a major role to play in travel, commerce and warfare. Sopwith had been encouraged in such an aim during the year when he had own two aircraft built by Coventry Ordnance Works, in part of the Military Trials in August Larkhill to decide on suitable aircraft for the RFC. They were so unsuccessful - one engine would not run at all - that he became convinced he could do better himself.

A first attempt at aeroplane construction was made, and on 4 July 1912 Sopwith took to the air in the Sopwith-Wright biplane. The machine, constructed under Sigrist's supervision, was intended for instructional work, and Sopwith soon demonstrated its ability to carry two passengers. With the success of the hybrid School Biplane behind him, Sopwith decided to abandon flying tuition and concentrate on aircraft manufacture. Premises were needed and in December an empty skating rink at Kingston was acquired. The Sopwith Company, as it was first known, was thus established some 7 miles from Brooklands, to where its future products could be taken for assembly and test-flying. The first designs of the new company were a three-seater biplane and a flying boat.

In March 1914 the fledgling company was registered as a limited liability company, with the name The Sopwith Aviation Company Ltd. Following the outbreak of WWI, more than 130 examples of the Sopwith Tabloid were ordered and used for scouting by both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. It was the forerunner of some very successful Sopwith fighters and probably the earliest single-seat, tractor type fighter in the world. The company went on to produce more than 18,000 World War I aircraft for the allied forces, including 5747 of the Sopwith Camel single-seat fighter.

The Ministry of Munitions had concluded, in July 1917, that aircraft production could be made more efficient if it was centralized. This led to the idea of National Aircraft Factories (NAF) where machines could be produced on a massive scale under government direction and control of raw materials and components. National Aircraft Factory No. 3 was planned for Richmond and Sopwith was asked to manage it. He was, however, a believer in private enterprise and recognized the potential problems of state intervention. Consequently, he declined the offer and events proved him correct.

Sopwith was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1918 New Year's Honours.

The Armistice brought reductions and cancellations of orders and Sopwith's turned its attention to the potential civil market, both at home and overseas, but could do little in the face of competition from the large stocks of cheap war-surplus machines that were available. Diversification seemed the only answer and the firm was re-registered as the Sopwith Aviation & Engineering Company Ltd, reflecting its intended production of ABC motorcycles and car bodies. The company might have survived in this form, had it not received a massive and cruel bill for Excess Profits Duty from the Treasury. Sopwith decided that voluntary liquidation was the only answer, but first ensured that all of the company's creditors were paid in full. The works at Kingston and Ham were closed, effectively from 3 September 1920.

Less than six weeks later, Sopwith was back in business, but his new company did not bear his name. In making a fresh start, it was considered wiser to sever links with the liquidated company and so the H G Hawker Engineering Company Ltd was registered on 15 November 1920.

Sopwith was chairman of the Hawker companies, the original name being changed, more appropriately, to the Hawker Aircraft Company in 1933. He went on to create the Hawker-Siddeley Aircraft Company, which was an amalgamation of some of the great companies in British aviation - Hawker, Armstrong Siddeley, Armstrong Whitworth and A V Roe.

In 1927 Sopwith commissioned yacht builders Camper and Nicholsons to build a luxury motor yacht he named Vita. She was sold in 1929 to Sir John Shelley-Rolls who renamed her Alastor. During World War II the Royal Navy commandeered her to ferry provisions to Navy vessels moored at the entrance to Strangford Lough. In 1946 a fire gutted her and she sank in Ringhaddy Sound in Strangford Lough.

Sopwith challenged the America's Cup with his J-class yachts, Endeavour, in 1934, and with Endeavour II in 1937. Both yachts were designed by Charles E Nicholson. Sopwith funded, organised and helmed the yachts. He did not win the Cup but he became a Cup legend by nearly winning it in 1934. He was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1995.

In 1937 Sopwith received the yacht Philante, also built for him by Camper and Nicholsons. At 1600 tons, it was the largest private diesel yacht ever built in the UK. During the War the ship was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and used as a convoy escort vessel, HMS Philante. After the war the vessel was returned to Sopwith and he sold her to Norway in 1947, to be used as a royal yacht for the Norwegian king.

Appointed Knight Bachelor in the 1953 Coronation Honours for his services to British aviation, Sopwith was an active chairman of the Hawker-Siddeley group until his retirement in 1963. After the nationalisation in 1977 of the aviation interests of what was by then Hawker-Siddeley, he continued to work as a consultant to the company until 1980.

Sopwith's 100th birthday party was held at Brooklands, scene of his earliest flying exploits, but it was decided that he should remain at his home, Compton Manor in King's Somborne, Hampshire,where a small family gathering would be held.

Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, CBE, Hon FRAeS died on 27 January 1989 in King's Somborne, Hampshire.

Biography References
  1. Pure Luck - The Authorized Biography of Sir Thomas Sopwith, Alan Bramson (Patrick Stephens, 1990)
  2. Sopwith Aircraft, Mick Davis (Crowood, 1999)

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