Heritage: Romford millionaire helped design the Spitfire

A Spitfire flying over R J Mitchell Primary School in Hornchurch. Photo: Vickie Flores

A Spitfire flying over R J Mitchell Primary School in Hornchurch. Photo: Vickie Flores - Credit: Vickie Flores/Archant

Oliver Simmonds was ten when his father, the Reverend Frederick Simmonds, was appointed Romford’s Congregational Church minister in 1908.

The family lived in Western Road; the church stood in South Street. It was replaced in 1965 by the United Reformed Church nearby.

Romford had no boys’ secondary school. Oliver was sent to boarding school, but his father campaigned for local educational opportunities.

In 1916, Oliver planned to study history at Cambridge. But first, it was his duty to fight in the First World War.

He became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, later the RAF. A small man, he flew spotter planes observing enemy movements. Unlike most fighter pilots, who were quickly killed in combat, he survived the war.

Now an aircraft enthusiast, he switched subjects at Cambridge and gained an engineering degree.

On graduating, he worked at Farnborough, Britain’s aircraft research establishment, before joining a team creating the elegant Supermarine racing seaplane.

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Oliver’s part in the design included sitting on the floor leaning against a sheet of plywood, while his outline was drawn on the wood, making a matrix for the cockpit.

Later, the designer R.J. Mitchell (remembered in a South Hornchurch primary school) developed the seaplane into the Spitfire, Britain’s famous wartime fighter.

By then, Simmonds had established his own company. Keen on detail, he focused on small items – screws and levers – which could be mass-produced as standard fittings for all types of aircraft.

In 1931, he became a Conservative MP. After a visit to Hitler’s Germany, he warned Parliament in 1937 that Britain’s air defences were inadequate. Winston Churchill supported him.

Oliver Simmonds also campaigned for air raid precautions, shelters and gas marks to protect civilians against Nazi bombers.

He was knighted in 1944 but lost his seat at the 1945 election.

In 1948, he moved to the Bahamas, where he built a traditional English mansion.

He became prominent in the local tourist industry, ending the absurd colour bar that prevented Bahamian bands from playing in holiday hotels.

It all seemed a long way from Romford, which his family had left in 1918 to move to another church.

The school that Frederick Simmonds had demanded, Royal Liberty, had opened three years later.

But Sir Oliver remained proud of his father’s connection with the area. In 1961, on Royal Liberty’s fortieth birthday, he agreed to fly the Atlantic (which not many people did then) to be guest speaker at Prize Day.

Speaking warmly of his father’s work, he announced that he was giving the school two Simmonds Prizes in his memory.

Down in the Hall among the blue-blazered throng, I was waiting to collect my Year Eleven history prize.

I was awestruck when Sir Oliver told us he often popped over to Florida. He’d actually visited the fabulous USA!

In America, he said, they didn’t just mend the roads, as we did (sometimes) in England. They tore them up for miles to build new highways, leaving automobiles to pick their way through the construction work.

Recently, he’d seen a roadworks sign warning: “Get in a good rut. You’ll be in it for the next eighteen miles.”

“That’s my advice to you, boys!”, he boomed. “When you leave school, get in a good rut because you’ll be in it until you’re 65.”

With hindsight, it wasn’t good advice. Anybody planning on a lifelong job in 1961 was in for a shock when traditional industries collapsed twenty years later, and computers invaded the workplace.

But Prize Day speeches often contain well-meaning flim-flam. It was good of Sir Oliver to make the journey, and generous of him to establish the Simmonds Prizes. Royal Liberty School still awards them.

Next time you see a film about Spitfires, remember the cockpit was designed around a Romford man.

Sir Oliver Simmonds died in 1985.