Captain Sir Geoffrey De Havilland

Geoffrey de Havilland was the second son of Charles de Havilland, the curate of Hazlemere near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. He was born on 27 July 1882 , three years after his brother Ivon. Their father gained his own parish in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, shortly afterwards, and it was here that Geoffrey spent most of his childhood. His sisters Ione and Gladys and his younger brother Hereward were born in Nuneaton.

Geoffrey’s mother disliked living in towns so they moved to a parish at Crux Easton, Hampshire, where the family could return to a rural life. They moved in 1896 but not before Ivon and Geoffrey had installed the first of many generators in the rectory to provide electricity. The two brothers were very close and together they developed an interest in mechanics.

Like his father before him, it was expected that when Geoffrey left St Edward’s School, Oxford, aged 17, he would train for the clergy. His interest in mechanics, however, showed him that another career could be open to him. In 1900 he began training at the Crystal Palace Engineering School and, after various adventures with Ivon in motor cars, they began to build their own, hoping to compete in the 1903 Gordon-Bennett Race. The car was not finished so they could only spectate.

The Crystal Palace school provided Geoffrey with a sound grounding in mechanical engineering and he built his own motorcycle. After three years he moved to an apprenticeship at Willans & Robinson of Rugby, Warwickshire. While there he constructed a second, more successful, motorcycle which eventually passed to his brother, Hereward, and ran for many years. Indeed when short of money he sold the drawings and patterns for £5 to two student friends who went on to form the Blackburne motorcycle company.

1905 saw Geoffrey move again. He became a draughtsman at the Wosleley Tool & Motor Car Company at Adderley Park, Birmingham, but became bored and left after a year. Ivon had worked for the Daimler Motor Company in Coventry before designing the Iris car which was manufactured at Willesden, London. This was unveiled at the 1905 motor show shortly before he died. Although his life was short Ivon had introduced Geoffrey to a number of people who would assist him in the future.

Geoffrey resumed work by designing buses for the Motor Omnibus Construction Company in Walthamstow. While there he met a young engineer from Cornwall, Frank Hearle, who worked in the bus garage at Dalston. They moved into a flat in Kensington together in 1907 with Ione as housekeeper. She later became Mrs Hearle.

When Wilbur Wright demonstrated his aircraft at Le Mans in 1908, Geoffrey de Havilland decided that his future lay in aviation. He enlisted the assistance of Hearle, borrowed £1000 from his maternal grandfather and began to design his own aeroplane. Soon afterwards Geoffrey became engaged to Louie Thomas. She had been governess to his younger brother and sisters and companion to his mother. They married in May 1909 and Louie was soon assisting in the construction of the aeroplane. The first aircraft was unsuccessful, but the second flew in the Spring of 1910. Indeed so confident was he in his design that he gave flights to Hearle, Louie and his young son, Geoffrey Raoul, who was only 8 weeks old at the time.

The success of the aeroplane resulted in it being bought by the British Army’s Balloon Factory at Farnborough, Hampshire, in 1911 and de Havilland was taken on as aircraft designer and pilot. In the following year the factory became the Royal Aircraft Factory and de Havilland joined the Special Reserve of the Royal Flying Corps. Geoffrey’s second son, Peter Jason, was born 13 May 1913. The year also saw de Havilland involved in a major crash. In 1914 he was made Inspector of Aeroplanes, but was not pleased by this change and resigned to join the Aircraft Manufacturing Company.

When World War One began in 1914 de Havilland was called up. His crash injuries prevented him from going overseas so he was sent to carry out patrols off the east coast of Scotland. He was recalled, however, and returned to work at Airco. He produced a number of successful designs which were a valuable contribution to the war effort. Royalties were paid for each aircraft built to a de Havilland design and he quickly became prosperous. He bought a large house in Edgware where John, his third son, was born on 17 October 1918. The pressure of work, however, took its toll and de Havilland suffered a nervous breakdown late in the year. In an effort to find peace the family moved to Balcombe in Sussex, but de Havilland had overlooked the problems of commuting and so returned north, this time to a house in Stanmore, Middlesex.

The end of the war brought many changes in the aircraft industry. Airco was sold to the Birmingham Small Arms Company so de Havilland set up his own company, the de Havilland Aircraft Co, with assistance from many of his former colleagues. He concentrated on civil aircraft. At first they were for airlines but soon new designs were built for private owners. The private light aeroplane market was largely created by de Havilland and the company’s reputation grew quickly. The Moth series of biplanes was one of their most successful products. The pressure of business, however, meant that de Havilland had to reduce the amount of test flying he did and also employ more designers as aircraft became more complicated.

As he grew older de Havilland became increasingly unhappy flying in aircraft with open cockpits so he incorporated enclosed cabins. He used one, a Puss Moth, to commute from the factory at Stag Lan , Edgware, to a family cottage at Crux Easton, Hampshire. He had initially taken his wife on aerial safaris in Africa in an open Gipsy Moth, but she preferred the later visits in an enclosed aircraft.

When World War Two started the company was producing Tiger Moth and Dragon Rapide biplanes. Their most important contribution, however, was the Mosquito. This was one of the fastest and most versatile aircraft of the war, but it brought tragedy to the family when John de Havilland was killed in 1943 whilst on a test flight. Many other members of de Havilland’s family also worked for the company.

When the war finished the de Havilland company was working on a number of new aircraft. Some were very advanced and at the forefront of research. On 27 September 1946 Geoffrey de Havilland Jnr was undertaking a practice flight in the DH.108 when the aircraft broke up near Gravesend in Kent. The cause of the disaster was attributed to stress loads as it approached supersonic speed. Geoffrey Jnr’s death affected the whole of the de Havilland company. He was buried with his brother, John, in Tewin churchyard near Hatfield. The boys’ mother died shortly afterwards.

Geoffrey de Havilland re-married in 1951 to Joan Mary Mordaunt. They had met in Kenya and shared a love of wildlife. Geoffrey’s increasing age and the complexity of modern aircraft design reduced his direct contribution to the aircraft company, but he became President of the de Havilland Group. In 1959 his younger brother, Hereward retired as Managing Director of the Airspeed Division further diminishing the family’s participation.

When the de Havilland Group was acquired by Hawker Siddeley in 1960 Geoffrey’s role in the company ceased. He wrote his autobiography in 1961 and referred to “the friendly and co-operative atmosphere” in the de Havilland company which contributed to its growth. His work in the aircraft industry was recognised on several occasions. He was awarded the OBE in 1918, the Air Force Cross in 1919 and the CBE in 1934. He was knighted in 1944 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1962. Many Learned Societies acknowledged his achievements by the presentation of medallions.

On 21 May 1965 Geoffrey de Havilland died at the Watford Peace Memorial Hospital. After cremation his ashes were scattered over Seven Barrows in Hampshire where he had made his first flight.