The Supermarine aviation company was started in 1913 in a disused coal yard on the banks of the River Itchen in Woolston by Noel Pemberton-Billing, an eccentric property developer, inventor, yachtsman and aviator, and Hubert Scott-Paine, a motorboat enthusiast. The stated purpose of the new company was to “build boats that fly rather than aeroplanes that float”, hence the name 'Supermarine', which was an inversion of 'submarine'. Although the company was to go through many formal changes and was taken over by Vickers in 1928, the distinctive title 'Supermarine' was to remain until the company's demise in 1963.

The company was effectively taken over by the government during World War One, and Pemberton-Billing, because he disagreed with aspects of government policy, relinquished his control to take up a career in politics, leaving Scott-Paine as head of the company. While under government control the company produced the first British flying boat fighter, the bi-plane Baby.

In 1917 Reginald J Mitchell joined the firm, initially as an assistant to Scott-Paine, but becoming Chief Designer in 1919. In 1923 James Bird, who had joined the company in 1916, bought out Scott-Paine and became the company’s managing director.

Over the next twenty years Bird and Mitchell presided over the design and construction of a range of successful commercial and military flying boats, a series of seaplanes that broke world speed records and won the prestigious Schneider Trophy outright (image 3), and the Spitfire fighter. This is widely regarded as the world's most successful aircraft programme in the history of aviation. Mitchell died in 1937, aged just 42, and was succeeded as Chief Designer by Joe Smith.

The Supermarine factory was bombed in September 1940 with the loss of more than a hundred lives. Spitfire and other aircraft production was then dispersed to other parts of the country, and the design office and administration team were relocated to Hursley Park near Winchester.

After the war, Hursley Park continued as the headquarters of Supermarine, a base from which the company entered the jet age by designing three generations of jet fighters, the Attacker, the Swift and the Scimitar. It was also involved in developing the first commercial hovercrafts.

Supermarine essentially ceased to exist in 1957, when Hursley Park was closed and operations transferred to other Vickers-Armstrong’s sites at South Marston and Weybridge. The completion of the last Scimitar aircraft at South Marston was in 1963.

1. Supermarine Factory, Woolston.

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Aerial view of the factory, 1919

2. Supermarine Factory, Woolston

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Photograph, 1935

3. Supermarine S6B.

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The Supermarine team with the S6B at Calshot after winning the Schneider Trophy in 1931

see also

External links:

Further reading:

Supermarine Aircraft since 1914, by C. F. Andrews and E. B. Morgan. (HS/ph)
Never a Dull Moment, by Denis Le P. Webb. (HS/ph)
R. J. Mitchell, by Gordon Mitchell. (HS/ph)
Supermarine (Archive Photograph Series), by Norman Barfield. (HS/ph)


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