A chapter of aero engine history has closed in the UK where the final large machine tools have been moved out of Rolls-Royce’s original Main Works site in Derby, and up the hill to its modern Sinfin Moor manufacturing facilites.
There’s no getting away from the sheer history that permeates the walls of the old factory that was the company’s original site, set up in 1906 by Henry Royce and Charles Stewart Rolls. Traditionally built from red brick with the ‘north light’ windows set in the vertical faces of its saw-tooth roof to let in the most natural light, the famous single-storey site churned out engines, engine parts and cars for more than 100 years.
Rolls (left) and Royce (right)
Inside the empty shell of the factory, Rolls-Royce historians have rediscovered the site of Henry Royce’s design office on the shop floor and traced the outline of the specially-built fireplace in the brickwork. Built in an attempt to warm up his office, and fend off the chronic breathing problems from which he suffered, it was later bricked up when the office was dismantled. Royce moved to the south of France for the climate, but insisted on personally signing off on all drawings which were constantly shipped to and fro between Derby and his house in Le Canadel.
As well as Silver Ghost cars (the chassis was the basis of Lawrence of Arabia’s armored car in World War 1) the factory made a series of famous engines. These included the Eagles that powered Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown’s 1919 trans-Atlantic flight in a modified Vickers Vimy IV. The 16 hour flight was the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic.
The famous façade will be preserved
The Main Works was also one of the sites for Merlin production, making it an obvious target for German bombers during World War 2. Fearing the worst, the local artist Ernest Townsend was commissioned in1939 to help disguise the factory when viewed from the air. Remarkably the faint lines outlining the camouflaged areas were still visible on the roof when I toured the old site late last year. To some extent the precautions worked, and to the company’s amazement the site escaped any attacks during the Blitz and for almost the first three years of the war.
The faint lines of the roof-top camouflage can just be seen
However on the morning of July 27, 1942, just as the workers were changing shifts, a single German bomber appeared from nowhere and hit the factory site in a hit-and-run raid. The attack left 22 people dead and many more injured. Commemorative services have been held every year on that day at the site of the actual bomb blast in the center of the factory.
A new facility, opened up the hill as part of a $260 million company wide site re-investment plan, has now taken up all the duties of this historic site which until late 2007 was still making parts for Trent engines.
(Factory pictures by Guy Norris)