The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Ltd was founded in February 1910 by Sir George White, chairman of the Bristol Tramway and Carriage Company, along with his son Stanley and his brother Samuel, to commercially exploit the fast-growing aviation sector.
Unlike most aviation companies at the time, which were started by enthusiasts with little financial backing or business ability, British and Colonial was from its outset well funded and run by experienced businessmen. Sir George established the business as a separate company from the Bristol Tramway Company because he considered that such a venture would be seen as too risky by many shareholders, and the new company’s working capital of £25,000 was subscribed entirely by Sir George, his brother and his son.
Nevertheless, as might be expected, the affairs of the two companies were closely connected, and the company’s first premises were two former tram sheds suitable for aircraft manufacture at Filton leased from the Bristol Tramway Company. Additionally, key personnel for the new business were recruited from the employees of the Tramway Company, including George Challenger as chief engineer and works manager. A flying school was also established, with premises at Brooklands, then the centre of activity for British aviation, where Bristol rented a hangar, and at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, where in June 1910 a school was established on 2248 acres of land leased from the War Office. These flying schools came to be regarded as some of the best in the world by 1914, when 308 of the 664 Royal Aero Club certificates issued to date had been gained at the Company’s schools.
The Company’s initial manufacturing venture was to be a licensed and improved version of an aircraft manufactured in France by the Societe Zodiac, a biplane designed by Gabriel Voisin. This aircraft had been exhibited at the Paris Aero Salon in 1909 and had impressed Sir George by the quality of its construction. One example was bought and shipped to England to be shown at the Aero Show at Olympia in March 1910, and construction of five more was started at Filton. It was then taken to Brooklands for flight trials, where it immediately became apparent that it had an unsatisfactory wing-section and insufficient power, and even though Bristol fitted it with a new set of wings it could only manage a single brief hop on 28 May, after which it was abandoned. Since the machine had been sold with a ‘guarantee to fly’ Sir George succeeded in getting 15,000 francs compensation from Zodiac. Work was then begun on designing a successor. Drawings were prepared by George Challenger for an aircraft based on a successful design by Henri Farman whose dimensions had been published in the aeronautical press. The drawings were done in little over a week, and Sir George authorised the construction of twenty examples.
The first to completed was taken to Larkhill for flight trials, where it made its first flight on 30 July piloted by Maurice Edmonds, proving entirely satisfactory. The first batch equipped the two training schools as well as demonstration aircraft, and the aircraft, nicknamed Bristol Boxkite went on to become a commercial success, 76 being built in all. Many served in the Company’s flying schools and examples were sold to the War Office as well as a number of foreign governments. The Company expanded rapidly, employing 200 people by the outbreak of the First World War. The chief designer (styled chef technique) from January 1912 until October 1914 was the Romanian engineer Henri Coandă. Coandă was succeeded by Frank Barnwell, who was to become one of the world’s foremost aeronautical engineers.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 Britain’s military forces possessed just over a hundred aircraft and the RFC consisted of only seven squadrons equipped with a miscellany of aircraft types, none of them armed. Official War Office policy was to purchase only aircraft designed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and Bristol had already built a number of their B.E.2 two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. However, pressure from the pilots of the R.F.C and R.N.A.S led to orders being placed for the Bristol Scout, and a second factory was set up in premises belonging to the Bristol Tramway Company at Brislington in Bristol. Barnwell returned from France in 1915, his skills as pilot being of considerably less value than his ability as a designer. At this time Leslie Frise, newly graduated from Bristol University’s engineering department, was recruited by Barnwell.
The first project he worked on after his return, the Bristol T.T.A., was designed in response to a War Office requirement for a two seat fighter intended for home defence against Zeppelin raids. This was not successful, but in 1916 work was started the Bristol F.2A, which was developed into the highly successful F.2B Bristol Fighter, one of the outstanding aircraft of the 1914-18 war and a mainstay of the R.A.F during the 1920’s: it remained in service until 1931.. Another aircraft designed at this time was the Bristol Monoplane Scout. Although popular with pilots, the success of this aircraft was limited by the War Office prejudice against monoplanes and only 130 were built. It was considered that its relatively high landing speed of 50 mph made it unsuitable for use under the field conditions of the Western Front, and the type’s active service was limited to the Near East.