incorporating Wessex Wheels, the regional motoring magazine

Home Page
Features Index
Forest Railway
Quay Tramway
Airfield Racing
Cruise Ships
Your Letters
Garage Tales
Out of Town

About Us
Search the Site

Archive 42

Flying Boats

"I will design boats that fly rather then aeroplanes that float." So said Noel Pemberton-Billing, eccentric founder of Supermarine, whose name will always be associated with the immortal 'Spitfire' fighter of World War 2 fame. Supermarine will also be remembered for its pioneering construction of flying boats, such as the 'Southampton'.

n the south coast of England, Southampton is well-known for its transatlantic ocean liners. But, in the late Thirties, and later the early post-war years, the area was renowned for luxurious flying boats that matched the liners in almost every respect, with the added advantage of being a faster means of travel, if you could afford the fare! Catering was prestigious 'silver service' and long haul flights were often restricted to daytime flying with overnight stops en-route at first class hotels.

   Flying mostly over water, the view from the observation ports on the promenade deck was said to be spectacular at a cruising height of 1,000 feet or less. But what brought this novel means of transportation into being in the first place? General unreliability of aircraft engines at the time was probably one of the reasons (it was safer to ditch on water and be towed into port if an engine failed) and, of course, lack of suitable runways in many parts of the world for large long-distance aircraft. The 'free' availability of 'water runways' across the globe solved these problems at a stroke.

   Much earlier, in 1919, Supermarine had made several attempts to introduce a flying boat service from Southampton to Bournemouth, and even Le Havre on the other side of the channel, but each service was discontinued after only a short time. No further commercial attempts were made until a Supermarine subsidiary company (The British Marine Air Navigation Company - BMANC - jointly owned with Southern Railway) opened a weekly service to the Channel Islands and Cherbourg. This service operated until 1929 using Supermarine Sea Eagle flying boats.

   1924 saw four small British airlines: Instone Airlines, Daimler Airways, Handley Page Air Transport and the aforementioned BMANC, join forces after the British Government offered a 1m subsidy for them to merge into a single national airline and so, in March of that year, Imperial Airlines (IAL) was born. IAL made little impact on the international scene for the next ten years until the Government announced the 'Empire Air Mail Scheme' with Southampton and flying boats an important part of this strategy. The cost of the venture was underwritten by the Board of Trade with a hearty subsidy being paid to Imperial Airways.

A typical scene in the late 1940s as this flying boat
gradually gains height.

   The following year (1935) IAL commissioned Shorts to design and deliver 28 Imperial (Empire) 'C' class flying boats to replace their aging fleet of landplanes. Each flying boat was given a name beginning with 'C' and the new aircraft were to carry a cargo of mail and passengers in splendid luxury. In July 1936, the first Empire flying boat 'Canopus' emerged from Short's Seaplane Works at Rochester on the Medway. Forty-two Empire flying boats were built by May 1940 (the last being 'Cleopatra') and consisted of thirty one S23, eight S30 and three S26 'G'. An S25 variant later entered service with the RAF as the legendary 'Sunderland'.

   The Empire Air Mail Service operated between Southampton, Durban in South Africa, India and Sydney, Australia - later to Auckland, New Zealand until 1950, but was suspended for the duration of the Second World War. Routes were also opened to Alexandria, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as other outposts of the old British Empire.

   Flying boat operations were initially run from Berth 101 in Southampton Western Docks, later moving to a new terminal at Berth 108. IAL also rented Supermarine facilities at Hythe on the western shore of Southampton Water for use as a maintenance base until the service was axed in November 1950. Today the buildings at Hythe remain, as does some of the old terminus in the Western Docks.                                               To be concluded.



Back to Current Features


Ash Honda
Fleetsbridge Buildings
Great Western Indust Cntr
Dorset  DT1 1RD
Tel: 01305 251844
Visit website

Horizon Motor Co
1-13 Charminster Road
Dorset  BH8 8UE
Tel: 01202 294341
Fax: 01202 295285
Visit website

Horizon Motor Co
397-399 Ringwood Road
Dorset  BH12 4LT
Tel: 01202 740270
Fax: 01202 736102
Visit website

Seward Lindsays
143 Belle Vue Road
Dorset  BH6 3EN
Tel: 01202 423222
Fax: 01202 417657
Visit website

Westover Jaguar
West Quay Road
Dorset  BH15 1JF
Tel: 01202 668833
Fax: 01202 668969
Tel: 01305 266797
Visit website

Olds St Martins
55 Bridport Road
Dorset  DT1 2NQ
Tel: 01305 265555
Fax: 01305 260732
Visit website

Westover Land Rover
21 Bailey Drive
Barrack Road
Dorset  BH23 2BN
Tel: 01202 462222
Fax: 01202 464060
Visit website

Lexus Poole
West Quay Road
Dorset  BH15 1JF
Tel: 01202 667575
Fax: 01202 667570
Visit website

Magna Motor Co Ltd
Haven Road
Canford Cliffs
Dorset  BH13 7LP
Tel: 01202 701222
Fax: 01202 701106
Visit website

Wey Valley Mazda
680 Dorchester Road
Dorset  DT3 5LD
Tel: 01305 812683
Fax: 01305 812492
Visit website