During a long life, British aviation industrialist, Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith (1888-1989) was a race car driver, yachtsman, speed record holder, balloonist, pioneer pilot, and engineer.
Thomas Sopwith was born January 18, 1888, into a family distinguished for several generations in engineering and business. As the eighth child, and first boy, he was named Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith. What he began in 1913 would grow to become half of the British aerospace industry in the post-World War II era. However, he avoided public prominence throughout his life.
Sopwith did not distinguish himself academically in the private schools he attended as the son of a reasonably well-off family. While still young he lost his father in a hunting accident. He went on to study engineering and his elder sisters began to make good marriages for themselves. Though not rich, he inherited an income and the unshakable support of his sisters. With a friend, seventeen-year-old Thomas began a business in the motor trade that soon grew into a successful Rolls-Royce dealership. It was the first instance of what proved to be a remarkable soundness of judgment in business.
He enjoyed motor racing, speedboats, and sailing yachts, as well as ballooning, which then was stylish and put him in contact with prominent people. Returning home aboard his yacht in the summer of 1910, he discovered that there was an airplane nearby. He took a ride aloft and immediately caught, as he said, the "flying bug."
The "Flying Bug" Leads to the Camel
After too few lessons he bought a primitive airplane and tried to fly. His subsequent crash landing was not unusual. Soon he possessed Britain's 31st aviator's certificate and an expensive hobby. Wishing to recoup expenses, a solution lay in winning some of the easy money then offered as prizes. Quickly he captured several distance prizes. The following year, 1911, he made a successful American tour.
With his winnings he started his first aviation business, a flying school. Among his important, well-placed students was Major Hugh Trenchard, later "father of the Royal Air Force" (RAF). However, the lack of a good aircraft led Sopwith to build his own. He was relatively successful selling them in the small prewar market and won the 1914 Schneider Trophy. However, no one was prepared for World War l's demand. Thomas Sopwith had nearly completed his career as a pilot but had just begun his life as an airplane engineer and industrialist. His company went from ten employees to several thousand. Despite the enormous and disruptive growth, he created a flow of new airplanes of which the remarkable Camel was the most famous. By the end of 1918, 18,000 Sopwith airplanes had been built.
The Armistice brought a depression, and peacetime offered no compensating uses of aircraft. He paid off creditors and liquidated the Sopwith company. He started a new small company building motorcycles under the Hawker name, after pilot Harry G. Hawker. As aviation recovered, Sopwith would become a behind-the-scenes chairman in a successful industrial empire.
The Hurricane in World War II
The Hawker Aircraft company was successful with several metal biplanes in the mid-1920s; however, modern monoplane designs were rebuffed. The company became an ever more successful exporter while supplying the RAF with a majority of its inventory. Sopwith added enormously to his aviation holdings in the 1930s by purchasing Avro, Armstrong Whitworth, and other major firms. Acquisitions of such size were, he said, the most frightening moments of his career. Almost equally bold was his next decision. He recognized the inevitability of war and began building a new monoplane fighter without a government order. In World War II the extra months of Hurricane fighter production helped save England. His wartime factories also produced airplanes of enduring fame, including Britain's best bombers, the Lancaster, and the Allies' first jet fighter, the Meteor.
As always, Sopwith remained in the background and deflected any attention to the managers of his industrial groups. Even as chairman he spoke little unless it was necessary, but behind the scenes his influence and probing questions tended to settle matters. He was known for his charming manner and could be very convincing. All admired his ability to select the most able managers, delegating to them control of individual companies. He always described his successes in business and so many fields as "pure luck."
Sopwith was best known publicly as a yachtsman. In 1913 he held the world powerboat speed record at 55 miles per hour. In 1934 he sought to win the America's Cup for Britain but lost in a questionable decision. Trying again in 1937, he was fairly beaten. He had long been moving in the highest social circles, having married Beatrix Hore-Ruthven, of Irish nobility, in 1914. Following her death, he married Phyllis Brodie in 1932 and had one son, Thomas Edward.
Another War, Another Fighter Plane
Following "England's finest hour," the postwar years were a disappointment. British aviation suffered particularly. Government decisions injured the home industry, which also suffered from too many small firms. In the 1960s the government ordered the firms to merge. His companies, called the Hawker Siddeley group, had created some of the finest postwar fighters and bombers, even created the "jump-jet," a whole new type of airplane. In the 1982 Falkland Islands War the Harrier jump-jet, a single seat V/ STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing), played an important part in Great Britain's defeat of Argentina. Still, individually, British firms lacked the depth needed to compete with America and had more than their share of problems, including the Hawker Siddeley group. Sopwith's competing factories merged along with outsiders to form one of two major British combines. His group was one of the largest in the world, with a combined employment that reached 130,000. Finally the government dictated a single state-owned aviation company and Hawker Siddeley became a non-aviation firm. However, by 1963, at 75 years old, Sopwith had retired as chairman and assumed an ever smaller role.
Usually engaged in several interests, he never gave work undivided attention, interspersing hunting, travel, and other diversions. Honors, politics, or office of any sort played little role for him, although he was knighted in 1953. He died January 27, 1989.
Further Reading on Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith
Until almost the end, Sopwith resisted biographers, with two significant exceptions. His years through approximately 1920 are covered in Sopwith—The Man and His Aircraft by Bruce Robertson (1970) and his complete life appeared in Pure Luck: The Authorized Biography of Sir Thomas Sopwith, 1888-1989 by Alan Bramson (1990). The influence of Sopwith can be indirectly seen in the many books on British aircraft, but the common biographical sources are weak.