Alliott Verdon Roe & G&W

Alliott Verdon Roe, The Groves & Whitnall Connection...

Long ago, goes the story, a young Horwich Loco Works apprentice, famed, among other things, for his madcap escapades, rode a bicycle up the steps of Bolton Town Hall and also of the Mechanics' Institute, Horwich. The legend is not quite correct. Actually the young man, whose name was Alliott Verdon-Roe, sat on the cycle and jumped sideways up the steps, but he always rode down steps rather than carry his beloved cycle.

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"That young man will fly yet," commented those who knew him and admired his spirit -- and they were right. A. V. Roe did more than fly. He rose from his apprenticeship at Horwich to build a mighty aircraft company which bore his name, and produced such aircraft as the Avro Vulcan delta jet bomber. Alliott was born in 1877, the fourth child of Edwin Hodgson Roe and Annie Sophia Verdon in Patricroft. When only 14 he went out to British Columbia to learn surveying, but returned to England a year later and began his apprenticeship at the L&Y Railway Locomotive works, Horwich.

He later recalled: "Apprentices at the works at that time received 5s (25p) a week for the first year, rising to 15s (75p) for the fifth year. Work started at 6am and finished at 5.30pm. When the starting buzzer ceased blowing a shutter would go down, and those still outside would have to wait 15 minutes before starting work - but an hour's wages was deducted from their wage packets." He wasn't an outstanding apprentice, either. In fact, when his apprenticeship was almost complete he received an offer from Bolton Electric Tramways, who were just laying down their lines, but a bad reference from his Works Manager, Mr Hoy, lost him the job.

Below: Taken From The Book: The World of Wings and Things! By Alliott Verdon-Roe

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The reference read: "Mr Roe served three years in the Fitting Shop and two years in the Erecting Shop. I know nothing against his general conduct." When A.V.'s father wrote asking why Mr Hoy had given such a poor reference, the manager replied: "I hardly know what to say about your son; he seemed more interested in cycle racing than in engineering, and I think he would make a better professional racing cyclist than an engineer." Sir Alliott commented later: "I felt it was a great injustice. I had worked on and had gained certificates in all subjects I had taken at the Institute."

However, the testimonial was a fitting tribute to his cycle prowess for, besides riding up and down steps, he could lap the track of the old Horwich racecourse, now covered by the Old Lord's housing estate, at a speed which left most of his competitors standing. One of his friends of those earlier cycling days, Tom Green, who became a surveyor to Horwich Council, later recalled of how, on June 8, 1908, he and his wife were at Blackpool and met Alliot (who had left the Works many years previously and moved away from the area) outside his hotel, widely excited after flying 100ft in the plane he had built himself, basing the design on his model plane which, the year before, had won top award in a Daily Mail competition. He had become the first British subject to make a flight over English soil in an English-built aeroplane, even though it consisted of travelling at a height of only two feet above the ground. However, his short flights were not registered officially by the Royal Aero Club, and Lord Brabazon took the honour of registering first.

After Alliot's flight, Mr Robert Blakemore, father of a principal of Horwich Technical College, rushed into the test shop of the Horwich Loco Works - where the apprentice had worked - and shouted: "He's done it; he's flown 100ft." Mr Blakemore senior had definite views on his apprentices. "They were all mad, but young Roe was the maddest of the lot," he used to say. While he was still at Horwich, "young Roe" was always inventing things, and the general impression was that he would either do something brilliant, or kill himself. There was no end to his talents, it seemed. Soon after starting at the Works he joined Horwich Harriers and thoroughly enjoyed cross country running; amateur dramatics also interested him and in 1892 he played the princess in the Horwich Mechanics' Institute production of Dick Whittington.

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Above: The Avro 504 Aircraft

It was in 1910 that he and his brother Humphrey, who died in 1949, founded the firm of A.V. Roe and Co Ltd, which produced in 1912 the first all-enclosed aeroplane in the world. Avro planes were used to bomb the Zeppelins at Friedrichshafen in a famous raid just after the outbreak of the First World War, and Commander Bigsworth was flying an Avro when he brought down the first Zeppelin. The plane was so good that it became a standard trainer after the war, and soldered on until 1940. However, after the First World War, military orders dried up to a trickle, and even with new designs orders were small. The civil market was hotly contested, and Avro's most successful aircraft was the "Avro Avian".

Even before this a considerable financial investment had been made in the company by the Groves family of Groves and Whitnall Ltd, the Manchester brewers. In 1920 Crossley Motors bought three fifth of the shares in the company, and in 1928 control passed to the Armstrong Siddley Development Group. As a result, both of the Avro brothers, Alliot and Humphrey, joined the flying-boat company of SE Saunders, forming the firm to be known as Saunders-Roe Ltd, which produced a series of well know aircraft culminating with the "Saro Princess" (a Flying Boat). They also built the very successful "Skeeter" helicopter and the experimental rocket fighter the SR-53. Alliot was knighted in 1929. Even towards the end of his life, when he retired to Hampshire, he continued inventing, and at the age of 79 he was experimenting with the "bicar" - a 192cc twin cylinder, water cooled, low-sitting, 60mph form of transport, which he believed had many advantages over the popular "scooter".

He died two years later in 1958, having left the advice for trainees: "Those who have not won prizes should not be downhearted; one never knows what one can do until one tries. Great opportunities lie ahead for those who persevere." Perhaps it can be said also for those who get a poor testimonial from their bosses. Strange to think that, had he not been given such a bad reference at Horwich, Alliot might have spent his life as a Bolton Council employee!

Source: Bolton Evening News Archives