Pioneers in Aviation: The Rolls in Rolls-Royce

Charles Stewart Rolls
Charles Rolls, the co-founder of Rolls-Royce.

Rolls Royce has always been a double sided company, the luxury cars, and the aero engines. Set up by Charles Stewart Rolls, and Frederick Henry Royce, Rolls-Royce Limited was incorporated on march 1906. Starting out as a luxury car manufacturer, they quickly developed a reputation for superior engineering quality. They reportedly developed the “best car in the world”. Henry Royce had already been running an electrical and mechanical business since 1884, and built his first car, the Royce 10 in his manchester factory in 1904. He met C.S.Rolls, an owner of a car dealership, and he was impressed with the quality of the cars. A set of cars (branded rolls-royce) were made, and sold exclusively by C.S.Rolls. This started their partnership. Rolls-Royce Limited set up its first factory in Derby, after an offer of cheap electricity from the city council.

Rolls Royce Racing
Charles Rolls, sits in the back of the 20-horsepower Rolls Royce during the 1905 TT race.

Rolls could be described as a pioneer aviator. As an accomplished balloonist, he made over 170 balloon ascents. He was also a founding member of the Royal Aero Club in 1903, and was the second person in Britain to be licenced to fly by them. That same year he won the Gordon Bennett Medal for the longest single flight time. By 1907 though, he started getting interested in flying, and tried to get his then partner, Royce, to design an aero engine. With Royce not convinced, Rolls, in 1909 bought one of six Wright Flyer’s built by the short brothers. He made more than 200 flights, one of which, on the 2 June 1910, he became the first person to make a non-stop double crossing of the English channel by plane. For this 95 minute flight, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club.

Rolls flying
Rolls in the plane he flew across the channel twice in.

On 12th July 1910, Rolls was killed in an air crash at Hengistbury Airfield, Southbourne, Bournemouth. He was 32 when the tail of his Wright Flyer broke off during a display. He was the 11th person to die in an aeronautical accident, and the first ever Briton. A statue of him is in St Peter’s school which was built on the site of Hengistbury Airfield.

Death of Charles Stewart Rolls
Photograph on the front page of the Illustrated London News, 16 July 1910, showing the wreckage of the plane crash which killed Rolls