September 2016

I am Oliver White and have worked with BMIHT Archive, latterly as a volunteer, since I retired from the BBC in the 1990s. During that time, I have spent several years poring over old glass plate negatives taken by the photographic department of the Wolseley Company, trying to identify the subjects and create a catalogue so that the images can be more widely shared. Not all the negatives are exciting, but from time to time I have come across some intriguing pictures, such as the one I’ve chosen for this Document of the Month.

Wolseley test an aero-engine in 1918

Why This Document?

I like this image because there is so much going on, and it is interesting to speculate on what everyone is doing and why.

Like the other British motor manufacturers, Wolseley stopped making cars during both World Wars. In the second conflict they predominantly made mines and universal carriers – popularly known as 'Bren Gun Carriers'. But in World War One, they were given the task of supplying munitions, we have many excellent pictures of women filling shells. The firm’s engineering expertise, however, was also put to use making V8 aero engines, mainly Renault and Hispano-Suiza under licence.

This photograph, probably taken in early 1918, shows an Hispano V8 as fitted to the very successful SE5 fighter, the most successful fighter in the Allied fleet. This excellent engine powered over 5000 SE5 planes (as well as other aircraft) of which something over 500 were built by Wolseley itself. It would go on to be the inspiration for Wolseley’s post-war range of overhead camshaft car engines.

We can deduce the date from the 'Royal Flying Corps' insignia on the men’s shoulders. The words '91 Squadron RAF' have also been scribbled on the dash-board which tells us that this engine was intended for a Sopwith Dolphin plane which should have been supplied to that unit. But in fact this new squadron never received any aeroplanes because it was reallocated to wireless telegraphy training.

This particular engine is about to be tested in a 'mock' aircraft. The brave young man at the 'sharp end' is about to start it up by swinging the prop. Let us hope that if the engine exploded the ‘chain mail’ caught the red hot bits! It is difficult to tell what the others are up to, particularly the chap holding the steering wheel. After all, it isn’t going anywhere …

This detail shows clearly that the test is a joint effort between the Royal Flying Corps (identified by their peaked caps and the badges on their jackets) and the Royal Naval Air Service (wearing white flat caps and with an anchor insignia on their uniform)

Beyond the engineering, this picture has great human interest and affords us a rare glimpse of the RAF in its infancy. The men in the centre of the picture are wearing uniforms which carry the words 'Royal Flying Corps', which was originally formed as the air arm of the British Army when aeroplanes first came into military use during World War One. To the right and left are personnel wearing naval uniforms and hats. Such was the success of aircraft in combat, that the Royal Flying Corps was merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force, better known by its initials 'RAF'. The uniforms, together with the dashboard scribble, therefore tell us that this photograph was taken right on the cusp of this important moment in history.