Boxes on Wheels

Brownsfield Mill, by the Rochdale canal just off Great Ancoats Street, was built in 1820-5 as a spinning mill, but by the 1880s was already home to various small traders, making umbrellas, prams and other items. One such trader was William Payne, a wood-turner and chair maker originally from Berkshire, who settled there in 1889. Another was Humphrey Verdon Roe, who made surgical dressings and “Bull’s Eye” braces.

Brownsfield Mill in 2008

In the early 1900s, Humphrey let his younger brother, Edwin Alliott (who always preferred his second name) use his workshop for making experimental model aeroplanes, and later full-sized ones, William Payne often supplying the timber. William’s grandson, Jack Whitehouse, would occasionally hang around his grandad’s workshop, and many years later recalled Alliott as a very friendly young man, asking how he was getting on at school, and so on.

With help from his brother, in 1909 Alliott founded a company that was to become world-famous: A.V.Roe & Co, shortened to AVRO. Some of his early designs, including the “Bull’s Eye” triplane, which was the first successful all-British aeroplane, were fabricated in Ancoats. After being disassembled they were taken by horse and cart to London Road station, to be sent by train to places like Brooklands for assembly and testing.

Newton Heath branch

In 1910, the firm moved to larger premises at Clifton Street, Miles Platting. By then, young Jack had left school and found work on the railway, but Alliott offered him a job as a wire splicer: early multi-wing planes needed a lot of wire bracing, to give strength while keeping the weight down. Three years later an even larger works at Newton Heath was acquired, at the corner of Briscoe Lane and Ten Acres Lane, in an extension originally built for Mather and Platt.

Jack (who by the way was my grandad) was photographed here, with the splicing team, in 1914; he is at the back, second from the left

The First World War, of course, established Avro as major aircraft designers and manufacturers, and the experience Jack gained with them led to his being recruited into the Royal Flying Corps as a rigger, making netting and other ropework for reconnaissance balloons, which were still very much in vogue. After the war, he was offered his old job back at Avro, but said he preferred being in the open air. He went back to the railway, first as a shunter and eventually as a goods guard.

Avro’s went from strength to strength, with premises at Woodford, Yeadon and Hamble being used at various times. In 1939 another huge works was built at Greengate, Chadderton, although the Newton Heath works was retained until 1947. One of the best-known aircraft of the Second World War, the Avro Lancaster, was designed here, around half of the 7,000 built coming from Chadderton. Another famous design followed just after the war: the Vulcan bomber, also designed at Greengate.

BAE Greengate, Chadderton

AVRO became part of Hawker Siddeley Aviation in 1963, during which period my uncle, Albert Robinson, worked in the offices at Chadderton. In 1977, the year he retired, the merged company was acquired by British Aerospace (later BAe Systems), who continued making aviation equipment until 2011.

I have not discovered what became of the Miles Platting works, but the other three buildings mentioned are still standing. Brownsfield Mill, after many years housing small businesses, is now an apartment block. The Briscoe Lane works, once used by the Co-operative Wholesale Society as a repair depot for their vehicle fleet, acts as a clothing warehouse, and the huge Chadderton plant is now home to Mono Pumps and Kitbag Ltd (sports clothing).

“Bull’s Eye” triplane

The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester has an example of a “Bull’s Eye” triplane, although this is actually a replica, built from original drawings in 1964 for the film “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”.

In the 1950s, my grandad was interviewed by a reporter from the Manchester Evening News, recalling the pioneering days in Ancoats, so perhaps I should let him have the last word:

“Those machines looked for all the world like boxes on wheels, but we thought they were wonderfully up-to-date then.”

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A much more complete history of AVRO, its sites and products, can be found at their heritage centre in Woodford, Cheshire. Click here to view their website.

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Meet the author: John Poulton

‘Head Hunted’ is John Poulton’s latest novel set in a fictional Lancashire school. September term starts with the head teacher suddenly deciding to retire. The search for a replacement takes place over the ensuing academic year but it’s not as straight forward as you might expect.

Internal candidates competing for the role each believe they are the perfect choice but who, if any, will win? If jousting was fashionable things might have been easier. The wide-ranging mix of personalities is just as you might find in any work situation but the ‘behind the scenes’ view of school life from the vantage point of the staff room is less familiar. The entertaining plot has a good pace with plenty of humour and the occasional shock.

Although the author has 30 years’ experience to draw from he is more than ‘a retired teacher’.

At the age of 16 John left school to become a telephone engineer. With access to cash he spent his late teens living life; going abroad and enjoying a thriving Manchester music scene. As a young adult he became an amateur actor, learned to play guitar, joined a band and volunteered as a youth leader.

“So what prompted the change of career?” I asked.

“The idea was put to me by a monk on a seaside coach trip to Bournemouth. It had never crossed my mind until I had a chat with him. He just suggested it and ‘the lights came on’. I knew I was going to go for it.”

So, in his early twenties, John returned to education. After studying A levels in the evenings, he gained entry to Southampton University and, with a degree in Theology, completed his training at Cambridge University. In 1988 he took a post teaching RE and theatre studies.

“What aspect of teaching did you enjoy the most?” I asked him.

“The interaction with people and the ‘penny drop’ moments of wonder when a kid ‘got it’. I’m naturally gregarious and extraverted (a show off) and being in front of people plays to my strengths. I like to communicate.”

Over the years, John has become an accomplished classical guitarist, singer/songwriter, qualified hypnotherapist and travelled extensively. Inspired by a trip to Africa, he became chair and trustee for the Rwanda Group Trust charity.

He currently spends time helping to care for his elderly father, cycling and walking, while music, theatre, travel and writing remain his life-long hobbies; the latter being expertly combined on his own travel blog website – ‘Should I Go 2’. 

He has also written three other books:

  • Missing the Bus – a memoir of his early life
  • The Luck of the Crane – a novel set against the backdrop of the Rwandan Genocide
  • Atheists for JesusJesus for Atheists – a short theological textbook setting out known historical facts about Jesus

“Do you have a favourite?” I asked.

“I like each of them for different reasons. ‘Missing the Bus’ was for my mum, so it’s special.

I’m proud of ‘The Luck of the Crane’ because I feel passionate about Rwanda and what its people went through.

I’ve always wanted to explain the points that are presented in ‘Jesus for Atheists’. Again, I’m passionate about that and it’s closely linked to my teaching vocation. It’s a discussion I’ve had so many times and just thought I’d write it down.

My favourite book is ‘Head Hunted’ right now, though. I suppose I’m looking back with rose coloured spectacles, but we had such a laugh, both in class and in the staffroom. I’m celebrating those memories.

I always wanted to write a humorous book and ‘Head Hunted’ gave me that opportunity.”

‘Head Hunted’ is self-published and available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.

If you’re planning a holiday and need ideas, John’s travel blog ‘www.shouldigo2.com’ is definitely worth a look. Just click the image below.

A Covid jab journey

It’s a freezing cold January morning, thick fog, a demolition site next door but me and my Dad are on a mission. Newton Heath Health Centre here we come! It’s Covid vaccination time and nothing’s going to stop us.Truth be told, we were a wee bit anxious. It’s not his usual surgery so the building is unfamiliar. The road to it was blocked off but we faithfully followed the diversion signs and arrived with 5 minutes spare. Perfect!

Cheerful yellow vested volunteers looked after us from the moment we arrived, guiding us to a parking space close by and showing us where to go. Once inside our hands were sanitised and we took a place on a marker.

From there, it was a bit like being on a conveyor belt; moving smoothly from one area to the next. A recess marked for social distancing, a waiting room with seats set apart and a row of masked faces behind computers; safe and separated, checking details, signing you in.

All doors are open for a free flow of air and fewer ‘touch points’. It’s bustling but calm, everyone getting on with what they had to do.

Short wait, then a trip down the corridor into a treatment room.

Coat off and one arm stretched out. The nurse was lovely.

“Is that it?” Dad asked. “That was quick.”

The sticker with the time on wouldn’t stick to his jumper so I stuck it on the back of my hand instead. It wasn’t necessary, just a precaution; someone was carefully monitoring when it was time for each patient to leave. 15 minutes passed quickly; it would have been quiet if not for Dad. He was chuckling.

“What’s tickled you?” Don’t know why I was whispering.

“I had a shave this morning, specially. Could have a beard behind this mask and no-one would know.”

We thanked everyone we spoke to; the nurse, the guides, the clerks and the volunteers in the car park. We’d have thanked the window cleaner if he’d been there. Then back home, to get warm again.

Found out later that my neighbours, an old friend of my Dad’s and Dena, local Pride of Britain Award winner no less, had all received their vaccine at the same centre on the same day. They all felt the same, it couldn’t have gone better.

Dad’s 90. He’s lucky to be amongst the first to receive the vaccine and he’ll be followed by millions of other people, all around the world.

Given the choice he’d have wanted me to have it first. But I’ll bide my time, do my best to stay safe and wait for the call.

It’s tiny thing; a little vial of liquid and a needle so fine you can’t feel it, yet it can save your life.

I rang Dad the next morning to check he was ok. “How are you feeling?”

“Just fine.” Then he added. “No, I’m better than fine. I’ve watched on and felt helpless all year. Now I feel I’ve done my bit.”

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