Rockets and Planes and Hovercraft

Mild-mannered David L. Williams admits he became a little irate when he overheard a visitor on a cross-Solent ferry claiming: “They have never made much of anything on the Isle of Wight.”

That was when David (pictured above) was prompted by the Friends of Carisbrooke Castle Museum and decided to prove the unknown critic wrong, and reveal just how many incredible inventions have come from the Island. Initially, he was asked by the Museum Friends to give a talk about the famous Island firm J. Samuel White, but found very little in the museum store room relating to the shipbuilding company.

So instead he broadened his search to take in the Island transport industry in general. After the talk someone suggested to David that he should use his vast knowledge to write a book, but it was only when he heard the ferry passenger criticising the lack of industry here that he set about the task.

“That was the main motivation behind the book,” he said. “But I was also concerned that industry on the Island has been allowed to decline so badly in recent years. I worked in Island industry from the mid-1960s, and there were boat yards all the way down the River Medina when I was a lad. There were also a lot of engineering apprenticeships. Sadly, that has all changed now, but it would be good for the Island if some of it was reinstated.”

David, who lives in Newport, used the knowledge he had picked up working for a variety of Island engineering companies to compile the book, which reveals a fascinating insight into what has been produced over many years right here on our doorstep, with special emphasis on the unusual!

Just a few of the amazing inventions that were produced on the Isle of Wight include the world’s first hovercraft; the only all-British rocket and satellite to reach space, and the Thrust 2 record-breaking jet-engine car.

David said: “One of the biggest surprises to me is just how little is known, or acknowledged, about John Ackroyrd from Ryde. He should be one of the most famous people on the Isle of Wight because he designed a production electric car, which was built up at Somerton long before anyone else thought about it.

“He also designed Thrust 2, and balloon capsules for Sir Richard Branson to fly across the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as the biggest static helium inflatable ever built.

“I was also surprised to discover how many world speed records are attributed to the Island. There are five world water speed records going back from 1910 – including the first Bluebird craft, driven by Sir Malcolm Campbell. But the biggest surprise for me was the fact that designers and builders on the Island produced a craft that broke the world sailing speed record only a few years ago. There were several local companies involved, with the craft  — the Vestas Sailrocket 2 – being built at what was part of the former GKN works in East Cowes.”

The campaign to break the sailing water speed record reached a successful conclusion in November, 2012 off Walvis Bay, Namibia. Over a 500-metre course Vestas Sailrocket 2 was eventually clocked at speeds of 65.45 knots (121.21 km/hour) and 68.01 knots (125.95 km/hour).

“I suppose it is difficult for some people to associate so much industry with the Isle of Wight,” David admitted. “When  visitors come here they think the only industry we have is tourism. But we have had so many clever people, and another inspiration for me was the fact that I have always had a great interest in water craft and aircraft. So  I concentrated solely on transport-related subjects of one form or another, or objects and devices that were related to transport.”

David’s historical insight begins as long ago as long as the early 1800s, when George III was on the throne, and the famous White family began to transfer its boatbuilding business from Broadstairs in Kent to Cowes, establishing the shipyard that took Island shipbuilding into the modern age. In those early days clipper ships were designed and built by Joseph White.

During his research, David found it virtually impossible to select the one most amazing feat attributed to the Island. Instead, he picked out several, saying: “One was certainly the fact that Saunders Roe, then the British Hovercraft Corporation, put Black Arrow, the only all British space rocket and satellite, into orbit in October, 1971. They used just five rockets in all, which makes it even more incredible when you consider how many the Russians and Americans built and tested.

“The second was the design and construction of Thrust 2 to break the world land speed record at over 633 mph in 1983. It was built by a small group of people in a broken down, old shed at Fishbourne, which was an incredible achievement.

“The third was the Islander aircraft’s production record for the greatest number of civil aircraft in this country. There are something like 1,300 aircraft of that type built, and even now they are still being built, albeit only in ones and twos“This country still needs to make things to sell abroad, and it is sad that the Isle of Wight is no longer doing that like it used to, and still could. Shipyards around the world are still producing ships – not just Third World countries – so why is Britain as a maritime nation, not building ships?”

David also reveals in a brief summary that over the years covered by ‘Made on the Isle of Wight’ 17 torpedo boats, 106 destroyers and frigates, more that 2,250 fixed-wing aircraft, more than 100 hovercraft, and over 1,200 lifeboats have been produced here. There have also been numerous other ships, and hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes, including the famous Cockleshell canoes.

Although much of the remnants of the J. Samuel White Engineering Works were recently destroyed by fire, the company’s distinctive hammerhead crane still stands out prominently on the Cowes skyline. And across in East Cowes, the massive Union Jack doors of the Columbine works, bears witness to the monster flying boats and hovercraft that once emerged from them.

The old rocket testing site at High Down, in West Wight, remains on top of the cliffs, facing the sea, and is open to visitors. Meanwhile, alongside Bembridge Airport, the Britten-Norman aircraft assembly works can still be seen, and to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Islander flight a restored Islander is due to go on static display in 2017 at Bembridge, thanks to the efforts of the Britten-Norman Aircraft Preservation Society.

David added: “I didn’t include anything electronic about the Island, such as radar, because of limited space, so I hope the people that worked in those industries will forgive me. But maybe that will come in another book one day.”


*Made on the Isle of Wight – From Torpedo Boat to Spacecraft, by David L. Williams
from The History Press is now on sale, priced £20. 

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