Unsung hero who reached for the sky gets another chance to fly high again

Grandson of aviator pioneer Robert Blackburn, Robert (L) and his daughter Amy on the site where the Blackburn wing will be built at Bowcliffe Hall.
Grandson of aviator pioneer Robert Blackburn, Robert (L) and his daughter Amy on the site where the Blackburn wing will be built at Bowcliffe Hall.
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Robert Blackburn was the first Yorkshireman to design and build a powered aeroplane. Now his family home is being restored. Chris Bond reports.

IF you go for a stroll in Roundhay Park today you might spot the odd person flying a kite, but a century ago people came here in their droves to see an altogether different kind of aircraft.

Huge crowds flocked to Soldiers’ Field, in north Leeds, to witness some of the world’s earliest planes take to the skies, albeit often only fleetingly. Nowadays, of course, we take air travel for granted, but for centuries mankind had dreamt about building flying machines and here they were being flown over the Broad Acres.

The man behind these historic flights was Robert Blackburn, widely regarded as one of the most important figures in early aviation history. Blackburn, who came from Kirkstall, was the first Yorkshireman to design and build a powered aeroplane and much of the test flying was done at Filey and Brough, as well as Roundhay Park. He founded the Blackburn Aircraft Company in 1914, the same year that he carried out the world’s first scheduled flight between Leeds and Bradford, with the mayor of Leeds among the passengers.

Yet for all his achievements, Blackburn has become something of a forgotten figure while the likes of Amy Johnson and Louis Bleriot, both friends of his, are household names. It’s something that Leeds-born entrepreneur Jonathan Turner, who heads the Bayford Group, hopes to go some way to changing by restoring Bowcliffe Hall, Blackburn’s former ancestral home at Bramham, near Wetherby.

The centrepiece of this £5.5m restoration of the 200 year-old hall and its 50 acre estate, is an ambitious new conference centre, called the Blackburn Wing, in honour of the Yorkshire aviator.

The building, which should be ready by next summer, will be the shape of an aircraft wing and clad in copper with a glass front to resemble an old aircraft. “It’s unique and there’s nothing like this anywhere else, it will be the world’s best tree house,” says Turner.

As well as being the Blackburn family home for many years, Bowcliffe Hall has played host to many notable guests including Winston Churchill, Amy Johnson and Lord Northcliffe, and Turner wants to pay his own tribute to a man he feels has been overlooked. “The more I learned about him the more impressed I was. He was an entrepreneur and he should be up there with people like the Wright brothers, or Louis Bleriot and all those famous aviators we knew growing up, but not many people have heard of him,” he says.

“This won’t be a museum dedicated to Robert Blackburn and I’m not a member of his family, but for me as a proud Yorkshireman he’s one of our unsung heroes and what I’m trying to do is put him on the map. People will 
come here from Newcastle, London and Manchester and they will get to know who Robert Blackburn is.”

Blackburn’s story is certainly a fascinating one. He was a young engineer inspired by the Wright brothers’ experimental flying machines when he completed his first flight in 1910. It was in a monoplane that he designed, piloted and only a minute later crash-landed on to a beach near Saltburn, in North Yorkshire. Although he wasn’t airborne for very long it made him the first Yorkshireman to have designed and built a powered aeroplane. The following year a redesigned monoplane carried out a more successful flight over the coast at Filey, where you can find a Royal Aeronautical Society plaque celebrating his life.

Blackburn’s wife, Jessica, was herself one of the most colourful personalities of the early British aviation industry. She was one of the first women to fly in a British monoplane before the First World War, taking her maiden flight in Roundhay Park, which was the test location for Blackburn’s new aircraft.

The park was an ideal location as the aircraft were built at Olympia Works on nearby Roundhay Road – now the site of a Tesco supermarket – and hauled up the hill by horse and carts. Blackburn Aircraft estbalished itself as one of the leading aviation companies in Britain up until the 1950s, designing and building a long line of successful aeroplanes included the Mercury monoplane, the Kangaroo, the Beverley, and the Buccaneer.

In the early days you perhaps had to either be brave or foolish to go up in a plane given the number of crash landings, not to mention aborted take-offs. “Lots of these planes crashed in Leeds and around and about and that’s why he then went to Filey,” says Turner. “There’s still an old ramp where they used to take off and test fly so that if they didn’t work, or conked out, they landed in the sea.” At the same time, though, it was pioneers like Blackburn, along with the courageous test pilots who climbed into the cockpit, who paved the way for the sophisticated world of air travel we enjoy today.

Turner’s plans for Bowcliffe 
Hall have been welcomed by members of the aviator’s family and this week his grandson, Robert Blackburn, and great-granddaughter, Amy, returned to the family’s former home to dig the first sod of what will become the Blackburn Wing.

Blackburn is delighted to see the restoration work underway. “It’s extremely exciting to see Bowcliffe Hall regenerated in a way that preserves the past, because Yorkshire is well know for valuing its heritage, you can see that all over the county.” He’s pleased, too, that his grandfather’s name is being celebrated once again. “His was one of the big four aviation manufacturing companies up to the Second World War. But he was quite a modest individual and he perhaps wasn’t one for self-aggrandisement even though he was extremely well known in his day.

“If you talk to a lot of people almost one in three families, particularly around Leeds, will have had some connection with Blackburn aircraft, because it was a very large employer not only there but also at Brough. So what Jonathan is doing is fantastic because it does strike a chord with my grandfather’s name being remembered in lots of other places.”

He was the only one of the major British aviation manufacturers of his day who wasn’t awarded a knighthood and within a few years of his death in 1955 his company was taken over by Hawker Siddeley, which later became part of British Aerospace.

Blackburn was just three when his grandfather died and has no memories of him, but his grandmother who lived to the ripe old age of 101, helped paint a colourful picture. “She was a walking receptacle about the early days. It was her money that went in to setting up the Blackburn company and a lot of the stories she told sounded fantastical,” he says.

“The early aircraft really were these wonderful flying machines and Blackburn specialised in the monoplane while others at the same time were developing triplanes. All through those early years there were a lot of sensational flying contests that took place.”

Newspapers, including the Yorkshire Post, commissioned competitions pitting Yorkshire aircraft against those made by rivals in Lancashire. “This was the era before TV and tens of thousands of people would turn up to see these contests.”

Today, the aviator’s great-granddaughter has followed in his footsteps by studying engineering at Leeds University, just as he did. But for his grandson it’s about more than just family pride and reminding people about Robert Blackburn’s many achievements.

“It’s not about making ourselves seem more important, I think it’s a vehicle for encouraging our contemporary history. I went to Roundhay Park a couple of years ago and saw there was nothing in the visitors centre about early flying, when for years it had been the main thing going on in the park. So something like this is hopefully a vehicle around which people can value and understand their recent history, which otherwise they might not know about.”