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The cradle of aviation

PUBLISHED: 15:38 24 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013

The Hon. Charles Rolls flying the Short-Wright Model 'A' on 12 December 1909

The Hon. Charles Rolls flying the Short-Wright Model 'A' on 12 December 1909

2009 will see many celebrations to celebrate the centenary of British aviation. In one corner of Kent, a weekend of flying will commemorate this milestone

Known as 'the cradle of Kent aviation', Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey was the first place to attempt powered flight. Although it was the Wright Brothers who are acknowledged to have been the first to fly a powered aircraft when they flew a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 1903, in the UK, the first fledgling steps in flight were carried out at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey.

It was here that two brothers, Eustace and Oswald Short, later joined by their elder brother Horace, set up a factory to build aircraft. They became known as Short Brothers and had originally been constructing balloons for the war office at a site known as Battersea Arches in London.

Influenced by the European visit of Wilbur Wright, who began giving demonstration flights in France, their thoughts turned to powered flight.

The European agent for the Wright Brothers, Griffith Brewer, who was a prominent member of the Aero Club in the UK, had suggested to the Wrights that they allow Short Brothers to build their aircraft in the UK.

By November 1908, the company of Short Brothers had been set up with a capital of £600 and had been contracted to build six Wright Flyers, all of which were bespoken by Aero Club members, plus a glider for the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls.

The company immediately began to design and build both the glider and the first of the Short Biplanes, which were copies of the Wright Flyers.

Griffith Brewer, meanwhile, had found an unobstructed area of level marshland between Leysdown and Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey. It was here that Short Brothers erected several aeroplane sheds and began to build their own designed aircraft, as well as the Wright Brothers' aircraft.

Frank McClean, yet another member of the Aero Club, duly purchased a farmhouse which lay half a mile away to be used as a clubhouse. Named 'Muswell Manor' he also purchased the surrounding several hundred acres of land known as Shellbeach from which to fly the aircraft being built by Short Brothers. Wilbur and Orville Wright visited Shellbeach on May 4 1909 and were pleased with the standard of workmanship being put into building the flyers.

By August 1909, the company was employing 80 craftsmen and building aircraft for such aviators as Charles Rolls, the car manufacturer, and also J T C Moore-Brabazon, later to become Lt Col J T C Moore-Brabazon MC, a specialist in aerial photography during the First World War.

The first Short No 1, ordered by Frank McClean, proved unsuccessful, but Shorts No 2, built more along the Wright Brothers' design, was flown by Moore-Brabazon with such success that on October 30 1909 he won The Daily Mail's £1,000 prize for the first flight in the UK of one mile in a closed circuit by an all British combination of pilot, aircraft and engine.

Further success was to follow for the Short Brothers and members of the Aero Club. As the club grew, Frank McClean became more and more interested in furthering British aviation, to the extent that he purchased a large area of land below the village of Eastchurch. This enabled Short Brothers to leave the rather restricted area of Shellbeach and move to this new landing ground.

The extra space allowed them to build a real factory of corrugated iron and to continue to build aircraft for the Aero Club members, thus making Eastchurch one of the major centres for British aeronautical development.

In 1910, the club was granted the prefix 'royal' by His Majesty King George V, stating that from henceforward the club would be known as 'The Royal Aero Club of Great Britain.'

In November of the same year, the club offered the Admiralty free instruction in flying for naval officers. This generous proposal was given by Cecil Grace, a new member of the Aero Club, on aeroplanes lent by Frank McClean. Out of 200 volunteers, four were chosen to be pioneers of the Royal Naval Air Service.

This took Short Brothers into the design and development of seaplanes, which made Eastchurch inconvenient. They looked for a waterfront site and found one just below Rochester Bridge, on the River Medway.

In September 1940, The Chatham News reported that: 'Messrs. Short Brothers, the world-famous manufacturers of aeroplanes, and who have made Eastchurch famous, have entered into negotiations for the acquisition of Tower Field, Rochester, where almost immediately they will proceed with the erection of aeroplane works'. With the move to new premises, Eastchurch was taken over by the navy as a war station and Short Brothers moved their entire operations to Rochester.

From those fledgling steps at Leysdown, Shellbeach and Eastchurch, flight in Great Britain went from strength to strength. There is a memorial in Eastchurch village which records the milestones of flight which proved successful in this little area of Kent. It was indeed 'the cradle of aviation', a birth that saw Short Brothers become one of the largest and most prolific aircraft manufacturers in war and in peace.

The centenary of flight in the UK is to be commemorated on the exact date that the first powered flight took place at Shellbeach, Leysdown.

Saturday 2 May will see a VIP reception at Muswell Manor with several flypasts and a commemorative unveiling of several plaques by bodies such as the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Royal Aero Club.

Sunday 3 May is public day, when members of the public will be able to visit and watch flying displays by The Spirit of Kent and other flying clubs.

Both events will be a fitting tribute to those early aviation pioneers who flew firstly and foremost at Shellbeach and latterly at Eastchurch.


A short history of aviation 1909-2009


• First pilot's licence issued from Muswell Manor Club House


• In 1909, aircraft manufacturers Short Brothers constructed the first factory in the world to manufacture aircraft


• The first British-built aeroplane flown by a British aviator


• The first circular mile was flown in an aircraft built by Short Brothers and flown by British aviator John Brabazon


• Icarus II - first pig in the world to be taken up in an aeroplane


• Famous pioneer aviators, the Wright Brothers, visited Muswell Manor


• 2 May 2009 VIP reception at Muswell Manor with flypasts and unveiling of several plaques by bodies such as the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Royal Aero Club


• 3 May 2009 members of the public will be able to visit Muswell Manor and watch a flying display by such aircraft as The Spirit of Kent and visitors from the Tiger Club at Headcorn.

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