Geoffrey Hollis, from the Hatfield Local History Society, looks at the life of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland - one of the world's leading pioneers in aviation.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: The statue to Sir Geoffrey de Havilland at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield.The statue to Sir Geoffrey de Havilland at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield. (Image: Alan Davies)


One man transformed Hatfield from a small town into an industrial centre of excellence: Sir Geoffrey de Havilland.

His working life spanned the earliest days of powered flight, through two World Wars, to pioneering jet passenger planes.

Geoffrey was born in 1882 into an upper middle-class family which could trace their line back to the Normans. His father was an eccentric, bad tempered clergyman. He had better luck with his mother and her father, a successful farmer, who subsidised his daughter and grandchildren.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: A close up of the statue of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland in Hatfield.A close up of the statue of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland in Hatfield. (Image: Alan Davies)

Geoffrey and his elder brilliant brother Ivon were both keen electrical and mechanical engineers from boyhood.

Together they built dynamos, steam engines, and eventually motorcycles and cars. Geoffrey trained for three years at Crystal Palace Engineering School, then worked for a couple of engineering firms making engines and cars.

Ivon designed the Iris, an innovative motor car, in 1905 but suddenly died of influenza – the first of several tragedies to hit the family.

In 1908 Wilbur Wright toured Europe showing his heavier-than-air flying machine.  Geoffrey was enthralled. 

“I was seized with an ambition to design and build my own aeroplane and nothing was going to hold me back.”

His grandfather stumped up £1,000 (£150,000 today), and a young apprentice Frank Hearle was hired. Geoffrey created a twin propeller biplane, with an engine of his own design, made out of timber, piano wire and doped fabric sewn by his new wife Louise. 

Hangars were bought at Seven Barrows, grass downland in Hampshire near his family home.

In December 1909 all was ready. Geoffrey knew how to build planes but not how to fly them. This ignorance nearly cost him his life: on the first – and only – flight of this plane he pulled back too hard on the control stick causing it to stall and crash. Luckily he was only slightly concussed.

Undeterred, he redesigned the plane, making it lighter and simpler. The following summer he got it to fly safely a few inches above the ground for twenty yards - “the most important and memorable moment of my life”.

After many weeks of trials he managed to take off, climb a hundred feet, circle the field and land. A little while after he was so confident of the plane and his skill as a pilot that he added a seat and took up Louise, his wife, with their young son in her arms.




This was the beginning of a tremendous career. Within two years a British altitude record of 10,500 feet was achieved in an aircraft of his design piloted by younger brother Hereward.

He sold it to the newly created Royal Aircraft Factory, then joined them to design and test planes. He was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps.

In May 1914 he was recruited by Airco, in Hendon, where he designed aircraft, all designated by his initials DH, which were tested in combat in World War One. By 1918 one third of Allied aircraft were designed by him.

In 1920 Airco collapsed, so he formed the de Havilland Aircraft Company, manufacturing at Stag Lane Aerodrome, Edgware.




He was financed by a wealthy amateur pilot, Alan Butler, who in 1923 became the Company’s Chairman, which he remained until 1950 (when de Havilland employed 20,000 people). 

Many aeroplanes were designed there, tested by Geoffrey, including the revolutionary family of Moth biplanes using its own Gipsy engines.

In 1930 the Company bought farmland near Hatfield, initially for its Flying School. In 1933 it started manufacturing there too, with Frank Hearle as Works Manager.

In 1934 the wooden framed DH.88 Comet Racer brought tremendous publicity by winning an Air Race from England to Australia.




During WW2, the company developed this Comet into the versatile and rapid DH.98 Mosquito - the so-called Wooden Wonder. At first the RAF were sceptical but when they watched it outpace a Spitfire they were won over. 7,781 were built; 75,000 people including subcontractors worked on DH products during the war.

In 1943 another tragedy: his youngest son, John, died when two Mosquitos collided in clouds over St Albans.

In 1944, a friend Frank Halford, who had designed the Gipsy engine, joined. His first gas turbine was the Goblin powering de Havilland's first jet, the Vampire.

In 1946 a third tragedy: his dashing son Geoffrey, who had carried out the first flights of the Mosquito and Vampire, was killed when an experimental jet, the DH.108, broke up in a dive attempting to break the Sound Barrier.




Yet another tragedy followed. After the loss of Geoffrey Jr, Louise suffered a breakdown which de Havilland believed led to her death from cancer in 1949. She was buried alongside her two boys in a Tewin churchyard.

In 1952, David Lean made a film The Sound Barrier whose leading character (played by Ralph Richardson) was clearly based on de Havilland senior. He was portrayed as a driven man, prepared to sacrifice test pilots including his own son-in-law to break the barrier. 

Doubtless this was an exaggeration but photos of de Havilland always show him unsmiling and focussed.




This determination and ambition created the DH.106 Comet, the world’s first jet-powered passenger aircraft, introduced in 1952.

Geoffrey controlled the de Havilland Company until it was bought in 1960 by the Hawker Siddeley Group. He was described as ambitious, and autocratic, but far from arrogant, “driving a Morris Minor and holding doors open for lowly apprentices”.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Sir Geoffrey de Havilland's autobiography Sky FeverSir Geoffrey de Havilland's autobiography Sky Fever (Image: Supplied by Geoffrey Hollis)

In 1961 he wrote an autobiography, Sky Fever, which is a good read. He had been knighted in 1944 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1962.

He died in May 21, 1965 aged 82 of a cerebral haemorrhage. His ashes were scattered from the air over the site of his first flight, Seven Barrows.

His statue – seated and staring into the distance - was erected in 1997 on the College Lane Campus of the University of Hertfordshire.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: The statue to Sir Geoffrey de Havilland at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield.The statue to Sir Geoffrey de Havilland at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield. (Image: Alan Davies)

This had started life as Hatfield Technical College, built on land donated to Hertfordshire County Council by Butler.

To find out more about this great man visit the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at London Colney - a truly fascinating place.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Hatfield aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland.Hatfield aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland. (Image: Alan Davies)


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