As Europe prepared itself for total war in 1914, Manchester not only offered its men to the front line. It also manufactured an array of commodities, from munitions to biscuits, through its already well established industrial economy. This article explores a well-known local business at the time named AV Roe and Company (AVRO), which was opened by Alliot Verdon Roe and Humphrey Verdon Roe. The AVRO 504 and later models played a part in strategic bombing and training during the war.

Brownsfield Mill, Ancoats. Rochdale Canal Lock 83. Copyright Chris Allen,
Brownsfield Mill, Ancoats. Rochdale Canal Lock 83. Copyright Chris Allen.

AVRO was established in 1910 and its first site was in Brownsfield Mill, situated on Great Ancoats Street. As the world’s first enterprise to be registered as an aeroplane manufacturer, unsurprisingly it aroused great interest and wonder amongst contemporaries. An article in The Manchester Guardian from January 1914 described an AVRO aeroplane at a recent aviation display as ‘probably the most efficient aeroplane ever designed, and is, to our pride of Manchester manufacture’. The aircraft on display that day could reach a height of 1,300 feet per minute, and travel at 130 miles per hour.

In 1913 AVRO moved to a manufacturing space in Miles Platting, and later Newton Heath. Many of the training and defence planes in use during WWI would have been assembled in these local workshops.

By 1914 the British government had seen the potential of the aeroplane and feared the possibilities of enemy technology, so the relatively new concept of aerial warfare was included as part of British military strategy. Thousands of aircraft were ordered by the War Office, including an initial order of 13 (a large order by 1914 standards) AVRO 504 biplanes with 80hp Gnome engines for use by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service). 

AVRO - Finest Of All advert.
AVRO – Finest Of All advert.

 Tragically the AVRO 504 was one of the first aircraft to be shot down on 22 August 1914 by the enemy, piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Vincent Waterfall. However, three months later it was to feature in a major successful raid on the German Zeppelin works in Friedrichshafen. The Zeppelin airship was considered by many in both public and military circles with trepidation. These ‘gaseous monsters’ could as reported by sensationalist press stories, drop both bombs and men in their hundreds of thousands over British cities. The destruction of the Friedrichshafen plant would therefore be a symbolic triumph.

In November 1914, four AVRO 504s each equipped with 20lb bombs were flown over Lake Constance situated on the German border, and detonated their cargo onto the plant. The lead pilot Commander Briggs was shot down and was met by some hostile locals on the ground. After a short altercation he was later taken to hospital, whilst the other pilots managed to escape to France. It is now debatable amongst contemporary historians how much damage the attack caused to the works, however the Manchester Guardian in 1914 reported the ‘bombs thrown completely wrecked the only workshops equipped with the indispensable tools and machinery for the repair of the airships.’ It is clear that irrespective of the damage the mission caused, it was used as propaganda on the home front to influence public opinion. Additionally, the AVRO aircraft’s speed, endurance and ability to carry a rifle, machine gun or explosives had rendered it the machine of choice for a round trip to Friedrichshafen by Commander Briggs and his fellow aviators.

AVRO - Nothing Better advert.
AVRO – Nothing Better advert.

As the war progressed, the AVRO 504 aircraft was adapted several times for use as a training plane and was one of the primary trainers during this period. The 504C was also used for reconnaissance and as an anti-Zeppelin aircraft, plus a small number were from 1917 used as part of the RFC Home Defence Squadron. The 504 variants were produced in large numbers so that by the end of the war, 8,340 planes had been produced by AVRO and its subcontractors. The company was still experimental during this time, and the performance of many of the planes was so poor production had to cease. However, successful modifications included greater-powered engines (100hp-300hp), conversion into a passenger plane and the fitting a speaking tube so trainer and trainee could communicate. These changes set a precedent for later systems in later fighter and training aircraft.

The end of the war led to the cancellation of several contracts and the business experienced financial demise, so many of its employees had to be laid off. However, AVRO undoubtedly left a legacy in the history of aircraft production for warfare, and the Manchester company in its later more prosperous form went on to produce the iconic Lancaster Bomber during World War Two. 

Avro 504 aircraft airborne - 3/4 front view. Archives+ GB124.DPA/2083/48
Avro 504 aircraft airborne – 3/4 front view. Archives+ GB124.DPA/2083/48


This blog post was written by Jess Dodd, a volunteer at Archives+.


Brownsfield Mill, Ancoats. Wikimedia Commons. Copyright Chris Allen, 2008.,
I. Castle , London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace (2008)
R.Jackson, Avro Aircraft, (1995)
‘A.V.Roe & Co. Ltd’, The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester (2009), [accessed March 2015].
‘Nothing Better’, The Historic British Aviation Advertisements Archive: 1900-1970, [accessed March 2015].
‘The Finest of All’, The Historic British Aviation Advertisements Archive: 1900-1970, [accessed March 2015].
‘Avro 504’, History Learning Site, [accessed March 2015].
Avro 504 aircraft airborne-3/4 front view, Manchester Archives+ Flickr, [accessed March 2015.]
‘The British Air Raid’, The Manchester Guardian, 27th November 1914, pg. 7.
‘Looping the Loop in Manchester’, The Manchester Guardian, 2nd January 1914, pg. 8.