Sep 15

Sir Sydney Camm 1893-1966

By Mark Norman

Sir Sydney Camm, CBE, FRAeS was an English aeronautical engineer who contributed to many Hawker aircraft designs, from the biplanes of the 1920s to jet fighters. One particularly notable aircraft he designed is the Hawker Hurricane fighter.  Wikipedia  For centuries an Englishman could reasonably expect to continue in his father’s footsteps; following the rhythmic plodding of the beasts drawing the plough or cross the workshop threshold into a lifetime of craftsmanship. England was a pleasant, pastoral land, peopled by folk who liked a fight. Even the first plumes of smoke from the infant stationary steam engines late in the Eighteenth century about to herald an end to the way England went about daily life, failed to significantly alter this time honoured tradition for another century.

Artisan followed artisan, baker followed baker, clerk followed clerk. The working man’s house was small; the continual arrival of children forcing the eldest boys to leave in their early teens to start work or join the army or navy; the eldest girls were usually in service at the local manor house by their 16th birthday. And when that boy was 23 and his girl 21, they’d marry to continue the process. Nearing the end of Victoria’s reign, steam was leaving the rails and factories and roaming about the countryside on giant, solid metal wheels; trampling out a way of life and tradition, leaving only rutted ground and ribbons of sulphurous smoke. It was into this world that one Sydney Camm was born, it is said on 8 August 1893.  A carpenter’s son, he was one of twelve children. The house must have been bursting at the seams. He had obviously inherited his father’s work ethic and love of wood but rather than steam, his passion would be flight. Queen Victoria died in 1900. Steam was king, but some men were looking skyward. Master Sydney was a boy of ten when the Wright Flyer made its first powered flight on 17 December 1903. Inspired he took up model glider building as a hobby and at the tender age of 14 he started a woodworking apprenticeship.
Camms First Plane

Camms first plane

Ankle Biters with attitude

                At the outset of The Great War Camm joined a firm called Martinsydes as a woodworker. His penchant and talent for design saw him being taken under the wing of their head designer, so escaping the horror of the fighting. The war saw the real birth of the aeroplane and Camm was there. He left them in 1923 to join Hawker Engineering Company which had taken over Sopwith Aviation Company. Two years as a senior draughtsman saw him promoted to Chief designer. He had found his calling and England a saviour. This was the era of the biplane, of depression and the rise of the Evil Empire. His first design, a biplane christened Hawker Cygnet appeared in 1924. Today it would be classified an ultra light weighing 375 pounds, it reached 132 kmh or 78 knots, carried two and was of a boxed steel tube construction under fabric.

Replica built in a man’s lounge at Old Warden, Bedfordshire.

  The following year he developed the trademark Hawker metal tube construction that would go on to be the skeleton of all his designs until the jet age. These were jointed pipes that did away with welding and were cheaper to manufacture.
      At one time in the thirties more than 80% of the RAF’s planes were Hawker. The definitive and last fighters of the fabric biplane era was the Hart family, the most well known probably being the Hart and the Fury. They used the Rolls Royce Kestrel engines and were the height of fashion but the last of the breed.

Hawker Hart

Hawker Fury replica
        The Fury prompted the RAF to always give their fighters ferocious names.By 1934 however Camm’s thoughts had turned to a monoplane. The quest for speed was on amid reports of Germany’s rearming. It was obvious to designers that biplanes had reached the limit of their speed envelope, yet the RAF was unmoved. He was a frequent visitor to the Air Ministry in his private capacity. Slowly he and Mitchell of Vickers-Armstrong and Spitfire fame were able to overturn the RAF’s negativity toward monoplanes, tantalising them with estimates of speeds up to 330 mph at a time when biplanes were achieving a hundred less. The last biplane in RAF service was the Gloster Gladiator, later of Malta fame. Design started in 1934 in secret, as a private venture based on the Fury. There was a lot at stake with massive orders on the cards. Financial help came from the Air Ministry; the prototype flew in November 1935 in the hands of George Bulman. In his Trilby he snapped the new fangled canopy shut and opened the power. The plane took off gracefully, cleared the hedge at Brooklands with ease, banked as the new fangled undercarriage retracted and then vanished over out of sight. Twenty minutes later they were backand landed safely. “The canopy’s a bit low,” Bulman noted, “But otherwise, it seems we have a winner.” Bulman was Hawker’s chief test pilot and had test flown everything Camm produced starting with the Cygnet in which he’d won numerous races. Slightly eccentric, he always wore a Trilby on every type’s maiden test flight.

In her element

Original two bladed prop

It had taken all of ten years to go from two                      wings to one; from 86mph to 330 mph.
As long as there are Anglo Saxon, Christian, English speaking men left in the United Kingdom, they will compare the Hurricane and the Spitfire. Whatever your view-point, the Hurricane was a bit of a ‘One Trick Pony.’ When war was declared in 1939 the RAF had 497 Hurricanes on strength.   History shows that most of these planes were sent to France where they fought furiously with the French Air Force against the Luftwaffe until France fell. Many machines were destroyed in the air and as many on the ground. The stage was set. Yet by August 1940 the RAF had 2309 Hurricanes on strength. As the war dragged on the production of Spitfires increased as did the type’s development, to the detriment of the increasingly less capable Hurricane. Interestingly a fabric covered plane was heavier than the stressed metal ones. But Sydney Camm was a perfectionist. Each new design was a logical progression. Hurricanes were exported to the Soviets and used by the Allies as expendable fighters launched off merchant ships as the type’s importance waned, even though it was developed into a tank buster with some success. But Camm wasn’t finished. The time was nigh to unleash a mighty sword; almost the ultimate in piston power. The next plane off his drawing board rejoiced in a name that still strikes fear and loathing in the German Military, the Typhoon followed by the Tempest. Four bladed piston furies belching death and destruction on many a hapless Panzer.



                Most potent of all the piston fighters, the Fury ended an era with a deafening roar. The Fury was not a financial success only being used by the RAF, Fleet Air Arm and the Iranian Air Force, hence the nickname, Bagdad Fury. After the war Camm studied jet propulsion, waiting until the early ‘50s before introducing the Hunter.

Sea Fury


                P1127, which emerged from the Flying Bedstead, was his last work. At Dunsford the Harrier, née Kestrel, was first flown in 1960, tethered to the ground with steel hawsers. It was to be the crowning glory of a career that had spanned almost six decades. The Harrier went on to win the Falklands war. Sydney Camm was knighted in 1953. Sir Sydney Camm was also involved in that most ill fated British post war plane, the TSR 2, of which he said, “All modern aircraft have 4 dimensions; span, length, height and politics. The TSR simply got the first three right.” It never flew.


TSR2 @Duxford

              Life’s day will soon be o’er, all storms forever past, we’ll cross the great divide, to glory, safe at last. We’ll share the joys of heaven- a harp, a home, a crown, the tempter will be banished, we’ll lay our burden down. So it was that a humble genius, who lived all his life with his wife and family in a council house, never straying more than a few miles of his birthplace, whose aircraft had spanned the globe and served Britain in her times of need, died in 1966.

House 10 Alma Rd

His gravestone

              A plaque of remembrance affixed to his house, was stolen.   Copyright  Mark Norman October 2011


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  1. George

    ….And ask some heritage fans to make some comments to the planning department email?

  2. Mark Norman

    Thank you for firstly reading the article and then taking the time to respond.

    Even though the piece was written is a metered style intended for entertainment and not pure academia, we nonetheless strive for a high degree of accuracy.

    We will re-check our sources.

    What this space…”

  3. George

    Sydney did not live in a council house all his life. He moved to Thames Ditton, lived in Sugden Road and then a very nice, large ‘Directors’ home, ‘Carradale’, 29 Embercourt Road that a developer wants to demolish in the next few weeks. If that seems inappropriate for a commoner knighted in 1953 as News Chronicle 1941’s, ‘The Man Who Saved Britain’, send comments to tplan@elmbridge.gov.uk ref: app 2014/3620

  4. ~Ed

    Sterling stuff, thanks Mark!

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