The Twickenham Museum
People : Engineers and Inventors

Griffith Brewer
Balloonist, Aviator and First Briton to Fly

Griffith Brewer

Early Years

Griffith Brewer was born in Devereux Court, Essex Street in central London in 1867. He was the eldest child of Edward Griffith Brewer, a Cornish born civil engineer and patent agent and his wife, Mexican born Carlota Rangel. 

1n 1885 Griffith Brewer entered his father’s business, Brewer and Son, patent agents of 33 Chancery Lane, and remained there for 6 years. At that time he was living with his parents, brother and three sisters at Batcombe Lodge in Pope’s Avenue, Strawberry Hill.  He moved to Leeds in 1891 to take charge of the Yorkshire office. He stayed until 1899 when he returned to Chancery Lane. 

Early Ascents

Having shown an early interest in aeronautics, Griffith Brewer made his first balloon ascent in 1891 at the Naval Exhibition in Chelsea. The following year he took lessons from Percival Spencer and made nine ascents. From 1892 he piloted balloons for the Spencer brothers and in 1906 he took part in the Gordon Bennett balloon race in Paris. He married Beatrice Swanston that year and she became the first woman to cross the English Channel in a balloon. 

He competed in further Gordon Bennett balloon races in St Louis in 1907, Berlin in 1908 and, much later, in Geneva in 1922. He won the first international balloon race from Hurlingham in 1908 against 30 competitors. 

Aerial Photography

Balloon in Shed

By 1903 Griffith Brewer was living at 20 Waldegrave Park, Strawberry Hill, and it was from here that he conducted his experiments in aerial photography. He wrote in his book ‘50 Years of Flying’: ‘In 1902 I began to work out the problems of taking precision aerial photographs of the ground by the aid of a small captive balloon…I started…with a balloon of six feet diameter…and attached to it a small camera having an electric release which might be operated from the ground.’ He became more ambitious and ‘…had two larger balloons of ten feet diameter made and I built a shed large enough to contain one of them inflated…’ He obtained compressed hydrogen to inflate the balloons but as an alternative ‘I could fill this balloon, which contained about 500 cubic feet, with ordinary gas by means of a pipe laid on to the house supply…’ 

He read a paper to the Royal Aeronautical Society, which he had joined in 1903, and published a number of articles, about his experiments.

First Briton to Fly

In May 1908 Griffith Brewer went to Le Mans in France to see Wilbur Wright ‘s demonstration flights in his biplane ‘Kitty Hawk’. Brewer was invited to fly with him thus becoming the first Briton to go up in an aircraft. This began a close friendship with the Wright brothers and Brewer visited them in the USA on 30 occasions. In 1909 he took the Short brothers to France to see further demonstrations by Wilbur Wright which led to the founding of their aircraft business. !n 1912 following the death of Wilbur Wright, Brewer was entrusted with setting up the British Wright Company which took over the Wright patents in England. In 1910 Brewer became one of the first pupils at the Wright Flying School.

During World War 1 he was Honorary Adviser to the Royal Naval Air Service and gave regular lectures. 

Later Life

After the war Griffith Brewer returned to his work as a patent agent. He was President of the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents in 1930/1931. The passion for flying remained and he gained his British Aviator’s Certificate in 1930 after training at Hanworth aerodrome. He served as President of the Royal Aeronautical Society from 1940 to 1942 and was a founder member of the Royal Aero Club. 

He died in March 1948 at his home in Hersham, Surrey.    


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