The hot air balloon, invented in the eighteenth century and developed further in the nineteenth, proved that flight was possible. However, the balloon was cumbersome and invariably, master of the aviator. Something was needed whereby the flyer controlled the means of flight. It was that particular something, that two local brothers strove to perfect throughout their lives.
In 1882, Richard and Ann Barnwell, moved from Lewisham, (now a part of South London), to Elcho House, in Printers Row, Balfron. Richard had found a post with Fairfield Shipping and Engineering based at Govan. By 1889, he would become managing director. As was common of the times, Ann and Richard produced a large family. Three boys were later followed by three girls.
The oldest, Harold, was born in 1878, followed two years later by Frank. Both were educated at Fettes, and subsequently served long apprenticeships with Fairfield. Less is known of their younger brother Archibald; doubtless though, he too, passed through Fettes.
Frank was clearly academic. During his apprenticeship he attended evening classes at Technical College and later graduated from Glasgow University in March 1905, with a B.Sc. in Engineering. After graduating, Frank went to the U.S.A., working on hull design for an American shipbuilding firm.
Meanwhile, Harold had completed his apprenticeship. Archibald’s post-schooling is unknown, but possibly he took a course in commerce, for in 1907, he and Harold founded the ‘Grampian Engineering and Motor Company’ from a large hut at Causewayhead, Stirling. Frank joined the brothers after his return. They wasted no time in building their first powered aircraft, and dragging it to nearby Cornton Farm. It failed to fly. Next, came a monoplane with an airframe designed by Frank, whilst Harold devised an engine. In December 1908 it taxied along a field at 25 mph, but again, would not lift off the ground.
The next effort by the Barnwell brothers was a large biplane. In July 1909, Harold flew some eighty yards, but damaged the plane on landing. Further trials were carried out in the September, and a height of 25ft was reached before the machine crash-landed and proved beyond repair.
Early in 1910 Frank became engaged to a lady named Marjorie Sandes. A few weeks later, The Honourable Charles Rolls, of Rolls Royce fame was killed at Bournemouth when the tail of his Wright Flyer broke off during a flying display. Aviation was a perilous pursuit. Perhaps it was Marjorie’s anxiety about the dangers of flying that caused Frank to reconsider his future and return to Fairfield and shipping. In time, fate was to prove his future wife’s fears well-founded. Frank departed from the Grampian Engineering and Motor Company, leaving Harold to construct a new monoplane.
On 14th January 1911 at Causewayhead, Harold made the longest flight of any Scottish aircraft or pilot to that date, and followed this on 30th January 1911 with a flight reaching a height of 200 feet. However, the machine was damaged on landing. In recognition of these flights, a prize of £50 was awarded by the Scottish Aeronautical Society. Harold’s last recorded flight took place at Blair Drummond in October 1911.
At this point, Harold joined the Vickers Aircraft Company at Brooklands Surrey. Vickers soon recognised his talents and appointed him a design engineer and test pilot. However, he was to die on 25th August 1917, while test-flying a new night fighter. At the subsequent inquest, a verdict of “death from misadventure” was returned. Harold was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Byfleet, Surrey, under a monument funded by his brothers and sisters.
Frank, it will be recalled, had returned to shipping, but the lure of the air proved too tempting. Within a year, he too, like Harold sought employment in the fledging aircraft industry. He joined what was to become the Bristol Aircraft Company in December 1911.
Frank Barnwell was soon designing planes on his own account. He longed to fly, and, in the middle of the First World War, enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps to gain his wings. He was though, considered too valuable for active service and was soon behind a desk again. Over the next years, Frank was to design both the Blenheim and Beaufort bomber aircraft, his posthumous contribution to the Second World War.
In 1937, Barnwell was persuaded by Bristol to cease flying for the company. Nothing though, could stop him from flying on his own account. In 1938, he privately designed and built a low-wing single-seater monoplane. Testing the plane for a second time on 2nd August,1938, it stalled and spun; Frank Barnwell was killed instantly.
This was not the end of suffering for his widow, Marjorie. Her three sons joined the Royal Air Force, (the successor to the Royal Flying Corps), as pilots on the outbreak of war. By 1941, Richard, John and David Barnwell had all been killed flying aircraft.
Today, a granite sculpture stands at the top of Causewayhead commemorating the brothers’ achievements. An original wing strut from one of their early planes is displayed at the Smith Museum.