British & Colonial Aeroplane Company Ltd.
Bristol Aeroplane Company Ltd.
Bristol Aircraft Ltd


What was to become the Bristol Aeroplane Company was founded in Bristol, Somerset, on 19 February 1910, by Sir George White (b. Kingsdown, Bristol, 28 March 1854 – d. Stoke Bishop, Bristol, 22 November 1916), chairman of the Bristol Tramway and Carriage Company, along with his son Stanley and his brother Samuel, to commercially exploit the fast-growing aviation sector. In 1904, the year White was knighted, he read an article in the Bristol Daily Mercury about the Wright brothers’ recent flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He kept tabs on the developments in heavier-than-air flight and, in 1909, had the opportunity of seeing Wilbur Wright flying in the South of France. In 16 February 1910 he announced to a meeting of the Bristol Tramways shareholders that he proposed, at his own financial risk, to invest in aviation. On that same day the companies of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, the Bristol Aviation Company, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, and the British and Colonial Aviation Company were registered by him. White started trading as the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company. Unlike most aviation companies at the time, which were started by enthusiasts with little financial backing or business ability, British and Colonial was from its outset well-funded and run by experienced businessmen. Sir George established the business as a separate company from the Bristol Tramway Company because he considered that such a venture would be seen as too risky by many shareholders, and the new company's working capital of £25,000 was subscribed entirely by Sir George, his brother, and his son. Nevertheless, as might be expected, the affairs of the two companies were closely connected, and the company's first premises were two former tram sheds at Filton deemed suitable for aircraft manufacture, leased from the Bristol Tramway Company. Additionally, key personnel for the new business were recruited from the employees of the Tramway Company, including George Challenger as chief engineer and works manager. A flying school was also established, with premises at Brooklands, managed by Archibald R. Low, and also at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. These flying schools came to be regarded as some of the best in the world by 1914, when 308 of the 664 Royal Aero Club certificates issued to date had been gained at the Company's schools. Also in February 1911 Deutsche Bristol-Werke was established at Halberstadt, Germany, to operate a flying school and build Bristol airplanes. This arrangement canceled on June 23, 1914, the company having been renamed Halberstädter Flugzeugwerke GmbH in September 1913. This company went on to produce Halberstadt aircraft under the design leadership of Burkhardt and Voigt.

The Company's initial manufacturing venture was to be a licensed and improved version of an aircraft manufactured in France by the Société Zodiac, a biplane designed by Gabriel Voisin. One example was bought and shipped to England to be shown at the Aero Show at Olympia in March 1910, and construction of five more was started at Filton. It was then taken to Brooklands for flight trials, where it immediately became apparent that it had an unsatisfactory wing-section and insufficient power, and even though Bristol fitted it with a new set of wings it could only manage a single brief hop on 28 May, after which it was abandoned. Work then began on designing a successor and drawings were prepared by George Challenger for an aircraft based on a successful design by Henri Farman. Construction was authorized for twenty examples and the first made its initial flight on 30 July at Larkhill, piloted by Maurice Edmonds. The first batch equipped the two training schools as well as demonstration aircraft, and the aircraft, nicknamed the Bristol Boxkite went on to become a commercial success, 76 being built in all. Many served in the Company's flying schools and examples were sold to the War Office as well as a number of foreign governments.

Although satisfactory by the standards of the day, the Boxkite was not capable of much further development and work was started on two new designs, a small tractor configuration biplane, and a monoplane. Both of these were exhibited at the 1911 Aero Show at Olympia but neither was flown successfully. At this time both Challenger and Low left the company to join the newly established aircraft division of the armament firm Vickers. Their place was taken in June 1911 by Pierre Prier, the former chief instructor at the Bleriot flying school at Hendon, later joined by Eric Gordon England. In January 1912 the Romanian engineer Henri Marie Coandă arrived from France and was appointed as chief designer, Gordon England leaving later that same year. Also at this time a seperate and highly secret design office, the "X-Department", was set up to work on the ideas of Dennistoun Burney for naval aircraft. Frank Barnwell was taken on as the design engineer for this project, taking over as Bristol's chief designer when both Coandă and Prier left the company in October 1914 to return to France. Meanwhile, the company expanded rapidly, opening a second factory at the Brislington tramway works, employing 200 people by the outbreak of the First World War.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 led to orders being placed for the Barnwell designed Scout. Partly as a result, Barnwell returned from service in France in August 1915, his skills as pilot being of considerably less value than his ability as a designer. One of his first decisions was to recruit a technical assistant to work with him on new projects. He interviewed Leslie G. Frise, who had just graduated from Bristol University, and persuaded him to resign his R.N.A.S. commission to join the Company; together in September 1915 they laid out the preliminary design of a twin-engined local defence two-seater to a War Office requirement. This, the T.T.A., promised to fulfil all the requirements, and was smaller than the F.E.4 designed at Farnborough to do the same job. The first T.T.A. was flown to Upavon on 11 May for trials by A.LD. pilots and was better than the F.E.4's performance in spite of the reduced power available, but the design was adversely criticised on other grounds and not recommended for squadron service. Despite this setback, in 1916 work was started the Bristol F.2A, eventually developed into the highly successful F.2B Bristol Fighter, one of the outstanding aircraft of the 1914-18 war and a mainstay of the R.A.F during the 1920s: it remained in service until 1931. Another aircraft designed at this time was the Bristol Monoplane Scout. Although popular with pilots, the success of this aircraft was limited by the War Office prejudice against monoplanes and only 130 were built. It was considered that its relatively high landing speed of 50 mph made it unsuitable for use under the field conditions of the Western Front, and the type's active service was limited to the Near East.

By the end of the war, the Company employed over 3000 at its production works at Filton and Brislington. Its products had always been referred to by the name 'Bristol' and this was formalized in 1920, when British and Colonial was liquidated and its assets transferred to the Bristol Aeroplane Company, Ltd. At this time the Company, acting under a certain amount of pressure from the Air Ministry, bought the aero-engine division of the bankrupt Cosmos Engineering Company, based in the Bristol suburb of Fishponds, to form the nucleus of a new aero-engine operations. There was already a good working relationship between Bristol Aircraft and Cosmos, the Cosmos Jupiter having been first flown in a prototype Bristol Badger in May 1919. The Jupiter engine eventually proved enormously successful. During the inter-war period the aero-engine division was more successful than the parent company and Bristol came to dominate the market for air-cooled radial engines. Apart from providing engine for almost all Bristol's aircraft designs, the Jupiter and its successors powered an enormous number of aircraft built by other manufacturers. The most successful product during this period from the airframe side of the company was the Bristol Bulldog fighter, which formed the mainstay of Royal Air Force fighter force between 1930 and 1937, when it was retired from front line service. Also during this time Bristol developed a preference for steel airframes, using members built up from high-tensile steel strip rolled into flanged sections rather than the light alloys more generally used in aircraft construction.

On 15 June 1935 the Bristol Aeroplane Company became a public limited company. By this time the Company had a payroll of 4200, mostly in the engine factory, and was well positioned to take advantage of the huge re-armament ordered by the British Government in May of that year. In August 1938 Frank Barnwell was killed flying a light aircraft of his own design, and was succeeded as Chief Designer by Leslie Frise, aided by Archibold Russell, who had joined the stress office of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in May 1925 as a 21-year-old Bristol University graduate. By the time war broke out in 1939 the Bristol works at Filton were the largest single aircraft manufacturing unit in the world.

Bristol's most important contributions to the RAF during World War II were the Blenheim and the Beaufighter. In 1940 two shadow factories was set up in the Weston-super-Mare area for the production of Beauforts and Beaufighters, one at Oldmixon on the western boundary of the airport and one at Banwell. Also an underground factory was built by Alfred McAlpine at Hawthorn in 1940 to accommodate the company's experimental department.

At the end of WW2, Bristol, like other aero engineering and manufacturing industries, possessed a huge surplus of skilled labour and were faced with the need to find some alternative products until a new aeroplane market emerged. A move into the quality car market was agreed, and to this end the rights had been acquired in respect of the BMW pre-war car models and engines as war reparation. The engine developed from this project found its way into many successful motor cars manufactured by other companies, such as Cooper, Frazer Nash, and AC, and in 1954 and 1955 powered the Bristol 450 sports prototype to class victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Pre-fabricated buildings, marine craft, and plastic and composite materials were also early post-war activities, but these were eventually sold off. More significantly when the war ended was the setting up of a separate helicopter division.

The Bristol Aeroplane Company's Helicopter Division had its roots in 1944, when the pioneering helicopter designer Raoul Hafner, released from the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE), came to Bristol along with some members of his team. The Helicopter Division started out at the main Bristol Aeroplane Company site in Filton, but from 1955 it was moved to the Oldmixon factory in Weston-Super-Mare.

The Helicopter Division produced two successful designs that were sold in quantity. The first, designated the Type 171, was sold to air forces around the world. This was followed by the tandem rotor civil helicopter, the 13-seat Type 173, five examples of which being built for evaluation purposes. Although no airlines ordered the Type 173, it led to a family of military designs, of which the Type 192 went into service with the RAF as the Belvedere.

The attempted post-war renaissance of British civilian aircraft as defined by the Brabazon Committee report led, in 1949, to the Brabazon, at the time one of the largest aircraft in the world. Ill-conceived, it was cancelled in 1953. Hardly had the design begun when Frise resigned to become Technical Director of Hunting Aviation, leaving Russell to succeed him as Bristol's Chief Engineer. Under his leadership, the turboprop-powered Britannia airliner proved a huge success, and it and the Freighter were produced in quantity during the 1950s.

Another post-war activity was missile development, culminating in the production of the Bloodhound anti-aircraft missile. Bristol Aero Engines also produced a range of rocket motors and ramjets for missile propulsion. In 1952, Bristol reviewed their facilities and determined that its growing rocket motor business would benefit from relocation and by 1953 work had moved to the old shadow factory at Banwell.

In 1954, MacDonald Brothers Aircraft of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, was purchased by the Bristol, becoming their Canadian division. The company was an important supplier of accessories for jet engines, building the exhaust pipes for the Avro CF-100 Canuck and later becoming the primary maintenance depot for the aircraft. During the 1950s and 60s Bristol built on their experience in precision sheet metal work to become a major supplier of hot section components for various engine manufacturers.

In the late 1950s the Company undertook supersonic transport (SST) project studies as the Type 223, which were later to contribute to Concorde. Also in the 1950s a research aircraft, the Type 188, was constructed to test the feasibility of stainless steel as a material in a Mach 2.0 airframe, but many problems led to its delay and by the time the aircraft flew in 1962, the Company was already part of BAC.

In January 1956 the Bristol divisions were reorganised into three separate companies: Bristol Aircraft Ltd., Bristol Aero Engines Ltd and Bristol Cars Ltd., each being wholly owned by the Bristol Aeroplane Company Ltd.

In June 1960, Bristol Aircraft merged with Vickers and English Electric to form the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) , with Hunting acquired soon after. At the same time, Bristol Aero Engines merged with Armstrong Siddeley to form Bristol Siddeley. In a final step of rationalisation, on January 1, 1964, the four constituent operating companies were merged into a single unit, and Bristol Aircraft Ltd. became the Filton Division of BAC.

Like the parent company, the Bristol Helicopter Division was merged with the helicopter interests of Westland, Fairey and Saunders-Roe to form Westland Helicopters in 1960.

Bristol Aero Engines was merged with Armstrong Siddeley in 1958 to form Bristol Siddeley. In 1966 Bristol Siddeley was purchased by Rolls-Royce, this purchase also including the Canadian subsidiary, now renamed Bristol Aerospace. In June 1997 Rolls-Royce sold Bristol Aerospace to Magellan Aerospace of Canada, and it is today the last remaining use of the original Bristol name.

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V1.3.0 Created by Roger Moss. Last updated February 2017