Interview with Rosemary Lapham


Interview with Rosemary Lapham


Rosemary Lapham is the daughter of Roy Chadwick CBE, the designer of the Manchester and Lancaster aircraft. She tells her father’s story. Her father was born in 1893 and when he left school at the age of fourteen he became a draughtsman at Westinghouse in Manchester. Her father was always drawing and sketching, and was fascinated by aeroplanes and their designs. He moved onto A V Roe and by 1919 was their Chief Designer. Rosemary describes life during the war, including air raids and the crash that killed her father in 1947.




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00:36:21 audio recording

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DE: So, this is an interview with Rosemary Lapham. My name is Dan Ellin. It’s for the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive. It’s the 14th of July 2016 and we’re in Shropshire, near Shrewsbury. So, Rosemary, could you tell me a little bit about your early life and about your father?
RL: Oh yes My father was the eldest of five children and and he was born in 1893. Aircraft were still a dream. His father was an engineer. He worked United Alkali Company, and as little boy the idea of flying was his passion. Aircraft were just a dream and it — he would be ten years old before the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Well, I like to think of him as stick and string. The sweptback wing, which was the first — the shape of the first — of the last aeroplane that he designed.
DE: How did idea — his ideas develop in his childhood?
RL: Well, as a boy he continuously sketched and the story goes that he was often in trouble with the choirmaster. He had a good voice and sang in the choir at the church, and he would be caught out sketching during the vicar’s sermon. And at home, he started to make model gliders, and later on he made an elastic driven model aeroplane, and he told me that for a long time these models wouldn’t fly, and he had to go out at night because friends used to sympathise with his mother about her strange offspring. But she used to help him, and she cut up old silk blouses and covered the wings, and eventually when he was about fifteen he had some good results. And he was very proud of his model that made a long flight, and the story goes that he was out in the dark and a lady was — and her escort were coming along and she saw this strange object circling round the gas lamp, and ran off screaming. It was a while before my father dared to rescue his model but then he was waylaid anyway by the lady’s escort.
DE: So, can you tell me some more about his sketches and doodles?
RL: Well, all through his life he constantly sketched as a child, and then when I was a little girl I would see him — always he had this silver propelling pencil, that he was never parted from. It was always in his hand. And I would come down in the morning for breakfast, in the margin of the newspaper, we took the Manchester Evening News, would be covered with drawings, and even the cigarette cartons would have drawings and calculations on. He would be doing the crossword puzzle and probably listening to the evening news and then he would suddenly stop and start sketching. He enjoyed a film at the village cinema, and he very occasionally would read an exciting novel. I suppose because — I do remember the names of them in a book case, but I don’t think he did a lot of that. But apart from his work and the family, he didn’t have any hobbies. Apparently he used to tell other budding designers, ‘You won’t need anything to occupy your spare time. You won’t have any.’ I would say that he had great artistic flair and interestingly to me it was to realise that all the calculations for these complex aeroplanes were designed before the age of computers. It was the age of the slide rule and the pencil.
DE: Can you tell me how he came to be at Avro’s?
RL: Yes. That’s interesting. Um, it’s interesting. He left school at the age of fourteen and he was apprenticed as a draughtsman at Westinghouse at Manchester. That – Westinghouse became MetroVicks, where they made all the Lancasters and so in the war. Then in 1911, he would be just eighteen and he was desperate to get into aeroplane design and he went to Brownfields Mill in Manchester where A V Roe and Company were situated. And Alliott was in London, he was designing airplanes, and Humphrey, his brother, ran this mill with this — ran, ran the — design centre and put these design into production. And he took Roy on and he was allowed to start a — open a drawing office. And he had a motorbike and he would go down to London and collect the designs that AV was doing and then he would bring them back and translate them into production drawings for AV to use in his [pause], in his workshop. And, he obviously was very clever. He — after a couple of years, at the age of twenty, he was invited to give a paper on aeroplane construction to the Huddersfield Engineering Society.
DE: Are there any other records?
RL: Er, well. [chuckle] One of my favourite historical photographs — I think it’s fascinating. It’s an aeroplane — that’s it — an aeroplane on a horse and cart with cloth cap men running on either side supporting it from falling off and then running along a cobbled street in Manchester taking it out to Woodford where they would fly it. With a — and a woman peering out curiously from behind lace curtains.
DE: I think, yeah. I think that photograph’s at the Woodford Heritage Centre. How did design develop during the First World War?
RL: Well, all through the First World War my father worked with Alliott Verdon Roe on the 504, Avro 504, and the subsequent designs leading up to the 533 Manchester bomber. Alliott was his mentor and he was very fond of Roy and became like a father to him. And then in 1919, Alliott made him Chief Designer and he remained as Chief Designer until he died in 1947 – till Roy died in 1947.
DE: Can you tell me a bit about the 1920 crash?
RL: Oh. Well, my father had designed and built an aeroplane himself. It was called the Avro Baby. There’s a lovely photograph of him with this aeroplane on his twenty-sixth birthday in 1919. Now the following January, and it’s something you wouldn’t do really in those days, an acquaintance came to see my grandfather and he said that his wife wouldn’t give him any peace until he went to beg Roy not to fly again. She’d had a vivid dream that Roy would be very severely injured in a bad air crash, but that he wouldn’t be killed. But, that many years later, there would a second accident and he would be killed instantaneously
DE: So what —
RL: And that’s exactly what happened.
DE: So what did happen then?
RL: Oh, he, he went up in the Baby that day, and my mother said that he hadn’t worn his flying coat but he was also recovering from ‘flu. Anyway he backed – he blacked out and when he came round he was at tree top level and crashed into the vicarage garden. The vicar was Alliott Verdon Roe’s brother, Everard. OH. Connected. Er, my father was very badly injured, and later his own doctor who believed in his flair took him to London to see Arbuthnot Lane. He was later knighted for his work, Sir Arbuthnot Lane. He performed the first experimental bone grafting operation, and later he carried the x—ray pictures of Roy’s operation and that of another er, patient [background noise] in his wallet. And as a child, I can remember my father showing me the screw marks up his leg, and telling me [laughs] when it was going to rain. I suppose it hurt him in those days — when it was going to rain.
DE: What happened to you father in the twenties and thirties? [background noise]
RL: Well, there were air races and private flying and then we had the beginning of commercial airlines. Now in 1928, Avro’s had a Chief Test Pilot called Bert Hinkler, famous name, and he made a record—breaking long distance solo flight to Australia in the aeroplane that my father designed for him especially, and it was called the Avion. A special interest, I think for the Centre’s records, is that in 1921 my father adapted his Avro Baby especially for Shackleton to go to the South Pole. It was the Avro 554 and it was called the Antarctic Baby. It had folding wings, and for stowing away on board ship and had other technical special things for flying in that area. But sadly Shackleton died of a heart attack on the journey and so the Baby wasn’t used at the Pole. However, after the Second World War, when my father was designing a long distance maritime aeroplane, it was named Shackleton, in honour of Sir Ernest.
DE: So what was your father like as a parent?
RL: Oh, well apart from aviation, the family was really the most important part of his life. I remember him — er, he, always arriving home, he’d come through the door with a - every night with a cheery whistle and he sang a great deal. He was always singing. Especially when we went in the car anywhere, and he created wonderful imaginary games. They were real and full of fun. Great fun. He cheered everybody up.
DE: What sort of games did he play? And did have special names or anything for you?
RL: Yes, er, we had — we were two children. His name was Biggy. Big Boy. And I was Osie for Rosie, and he created these imaginary friends. We had a friendly Indian and a dog that ran on three legs. And when he came home at night, in the evening from work he would bring me messages when he came in. Once — one of them — one time was to have a flight in an Avro Anson as a birthday treat and I remember too — particularly being taken out in the car. And, when we were in the car it became a balloon, and he would tell me about the places that we were flying over. But one day, we took an imaginary passenger with us. She had an evocative name. It perfectly described her personality. She was called Miss Spillikens [?] and she poked her umbrella through the balloon. So we had a floating descent. Then when I was sixteen, I was asking him to — I asked him to draw in my autograph book. And he drew this balloon with Biggy and Osie waving in the basket below. And he wrote at the side, Just to remind you my dear of the happy times of Biggy and Osie. He was a wonderful father. You’ve got it on the t-shirt.
DE: Yes, we’ve got t-shirts of that. Of that picture, yes. Were there — were there any other jokes?
RL: Yes, he, he — everything was a good joke at home. The small garden was an estate, and then there was a little wall that went around the flower beds near the front door, and that would be the Great Wall of China.
DE: Do you remember going anywhere as a family?
RL: Well, there were seaside holidays. We used to go to North Wales. And on Sunday mornings we went to church in the 1930s before the war. And Christmas was always special, and I do remember at the age of five hearing the voice of George V, and we all stood up for the national anthem. And my father, I can remember him telling us that we would see this broadcast on a screen which in the future which seemed an amazing idea. We used to visit the Lancashire Derbyshire Gliding Club at the weekends. My sister was eight years older than me, and she went up in a glider. I think I’d have been a bit scared. My father and Roy Dobson, who was Managing Director at Avro’s were the Joint Presidents. They use to take the Presidency of the gliding club in turn.
DE: Can you tell about the time Avro’s took you to the theatre in Manchester?
RL: Yes, Alliott and Humphrey Verdon Roe had a tradition of something — doing something special for the employees at Christmas time. And when I was about six or seven in the 1930s, we went to the Palace Theatre. I don’t remember what the panto was, but George Formby was on the stage. And the words of a song came down on a sheet, and George Formby looked up and said — asked, ‘Would the little girl in the box sing the song for us?’ ‘Oh yes,’ says I jumping up. ‘No problem.’ My father did sing with me and I expect the Avro families would be amused. Anyway George, George Formby sent me a box of chocolates in the interval, but because I don’t like chocolates the family ate them. But I’d sung the song. [chuckle]
DE: So you, you were nine when the war was declared?
RL: Yes. The — we’d all gone as a family for a month to Filey. My father was working, of course, but he would come at the weekend. And I can do — I remember my mother and sister having great excitement over the newspaper headlines because they’d had the initial Manchester test flight which was a success. Then I remember when we got home, Sunday the 3rd of September, my mother went to church. And my father, sister and I were waiting for the broadcast at 11 o clock. And afterwards he looked at me and said, ‘Now you will have to be a very brave little girl.’ And, of course, I didn’t know what that could mean. A year later, 1940, we went to the Lake District for a week’s holiday. And it was dark and we couldn’t find the place. And, we slept in the car on the side of a road. And in the morning my father and sister went off and they found the little cottage Folk Tarn House [?]. It was — I wonder if it was Beatrice Potter farm. It was Beatrice Potter country — country, and my father and I were talking — my husband and I were talking about this recently. And, I wonder whether he was looking for somewhere to send my mother and sister and I for safety at the height of the Battle of Britain.
DE: You also had some stories to tell about the cellar?
RL: Ah yes. It was quite a big cellar with passages and a couple of larger spaces. We lived about ten miles from Manchester, and when the sirens sounded I’d be woken up and we’d all go down. But fairly soon the beds were moved down and big posts were put to support the roof. And, I can remember being quite scared. I didn’t like the idea of being buried within the cellar. Other members of the family came to stay from Southampton. And at — this, this is funny. Outside my father had sandbags put all along the walls and he had two single walls of sandbags put up in the garden to protect us from blast, but there was a thunderstorm and they all fell down. [laughter]
DE: And so were, were you near a potential target to be bombed then?
RL: Well, we were a couple of miles away from Ringway airfield. After the war, Ringway airfield would developed into Manchester Airport, but in the 1940s you could cycle there, and watch the aeroplanes and all the activity on the airfield from the road. And Dunham Park was near my school and it became an Italian prisoner of war camp. And I remember we, we — you could go along the pavement and look through the wire, and the Italians had built a beautiful Italian model village on a mound. People would go to see it. The war was a demarcation line in my life. I suppose it was for everyone at that time.
DE: Hm, yeah quite. Do you remember people coming to see your father?
RL: Yes, um, occasionally people came for dinner, but the conversation would be over my head, but I do — I knew all the names of the design team. They were very familiar.
DE: Do you remember some the places your father visited?
RL: Yes, he, he went a lot to London. He was going to the Air Ministry a great deal. He would go on the midnight train from Manchester, Manchester Central Station, and he would also go to all the various airfields. He even went to Avro Canada and the USA during the war in 1943, and he went to Wings for Victory Campaigns. But all the time it was design and twenty-four-seven work.
DE: You had a story you told about King George and Queen Elizabeth.
RL: Oh yes. The King and Queen came to the factory at Chadderton during the war, and they came twice. They came to Chadderton and they came to Woodford. That was the Avro aerodrome where everything took place. And my father sat with the King in the cockpit of a Lancaster. And they talked about flying experiences in the Avro 504 during World War I. And I do remember that my father said, ‘The King speaking personally, one-to-one, hadn’t have a hint of a stammer.’
DE: Do you have — do you have any other stories like that?
RL: Ha. Well, my father really enjoyed life. He, he enjoyed chatting. He noticed people. He recognised people very quickly. One day he was walking along the street in London and a Rolls Royce drew up at the traffic lights. And he glanced and he saw that it was Queen Mary. So took his hat off, and bowed low and the Queen waved in acknowledgement. [chuckle]
DE: What do you recall of Guy Gibson and 617 Squadron, Dambusters?
RL: Well, my sister remembered Guy Gibson, meeting him personally. But I was only twelve and I don’t remember any newspaper accounts of the Dambuster Raid. But when the awards were announced, there was great excitement at home and I suppose then, I would realise the significance. My father was made a CBE for the design of the Lancaster, and for the adaption of the raid. There was a lot of adaptions went on and they had to do it very rapidly. They only a few weeks in which to do it. For me [emphasis] the big event was going to London and having dinner on the train. That was exciting. My father and sister went to the — my mother and sister went to the award ceremony at the palace. And I watched the Changing of the Guard through the Palace railings. But afterwards, we went for lunch, and the only thing I can remember about that is thinking that the restaurant name sounded so romantic. It was Minarets on Half Moon Street.
DE: Did you have any other relatives in in the forces or who were involved in the war?
RL: Yes, my father’s brother Alan lived in Africa and he was in Burma all through during the war after the Abyssinian War. And I had an uncle that escaped at Dunkirk, and another one was at — on D-Day and the liberation of Paris. He, he took supplies to my mother’s cousin, who was married to a Frenchman. She and her French family, er, survived in Paris during the war. And my sister was engaged, and her fiancée survived the Battle of the Atlantic. The Arctic, he went to the Arctic-Russian convoys, and then he was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. When he was torpedoed, he survived forty-eight hours in the sea, er before he was picked up on a lifeboat, and then they were about a week before they reached North Africa, and er — yes that’s all I remember about that.
DE: You’ve already told me your memories about the start of the war, can you remember what you were doing on VE Day and VJ Day?
RL: Well, by that time I was away at school in Derbyshire in 1945. We didn’t see newspapers and we didn’t hear the radio broadcasts, but we did know that the end of war was coming. And I don’t recall any announcement or celebration but I do remember that we had a great sense of relief. I did anyway. I have many cards dating back to 1940s. My father wrote to me every week and I’ve got a special letter telling me about, in 1946, flying to Paris for the Paris Air Show Aeronautical Exhibition at the Grande Palais. He flew in the Lancastrian Neme, a jet—propelled airliner. Sir Frank Whittle had designed the jet, and my father says in the letter, ‘That he is proud to be the designer of the first jet-propelled airline — airliner to fly between two countries. And the return flight was made in forty-nine minutes.’
DE: Hm.
RL: He met aeronautical celebrities in Paris, talked about modern aeroplanes and engine design and development. Gave talks to the press, went to government parties at Villa Cubla [?] aerodrome, and he writes in the letter to me that Paris looked – looks much the same as ever. Not as badly damaged but as in England a coat of paint would improve things.
DE: Did you ever visit Woodford aerodrome after the war?
RL: Yes, I remember going to Woodford in 1947, and we looked at the Tudor II. And my father talked about an even larger aeroplane that he was designing. And I can remember thinking, ‘That’s impossible.’ It would have eventually have become the Vulcan. Actually, I think it’s amusing to hear a BBC recording from 1945, which I think you gonna have at the centre.
DE: Hm-hm
RL: It asks — the interviewer asks Roy, ‘How many passengers can the Tudor I can take?’ And he replies, ‘It can take twenty-four but we prefer to take twelve on a long distance flight. The seats go up and down. They go down into banks. There are dressing rooms for the ladies and gentlemen, and electric cookers for meals.’ The speed of technology and change is amazing. My father’s asked about the future of engines, and he says, ‘The future lies in turbines.’ And he laughs, ‘We may even get into rockets.’
DE: Can you tell me about the dream you had, and about the watch?
RL: Yes, it was a blazing hot summer day in 1947. It was — blazing hot summer. I was away at a camp and was due to go home. I’d been asked if I’d like to stay on. They’d got extra places, but I had one of those vivid waking dreams. Very vivid, just before you wake up and you remember what you’ve dreamt. I was standing on the side of a road with my father and a huge aeroplane appeared, and it crashed in front of us. And he said, ‘You’ll have to leave school. We’ve lost all our money.’ And I was so upset when I woke up, I caught a train and went home straight away. And I suppose after the three, three-hour journey I’d calmed down and I didn’t mention it. But three days later, on a Saturday morning, my father was about to go to the aerodrome and he asked me if I’d like to go with him to watch the flying. But I had to help my mother and do the Saturday shopping. So my father asked me then what I’d like for my seventeenth birthday the following week. It’ll seem strange now days not to have a watch, but I asked if I could have one. And, naively I said, ‘One with little sparkly diamonds all around it.’ And I remember him looking seriously at me. He said, ‘I could certainly have the watch, but I’m not sure we can run to the diamonds.’ Then he walked round the garden with my mother, and he did something he’d never done before, he got out the car and came back to kiss her goodbye for a second time. And later, my mother and I were having lunch, and I told her that I’d been into the jewellers and I’d seen a little stainless steel watch. And she got up and went out of the room and then I heard her scream. She’d telephoned to ask him to buy the watch on the way home, but the accident had already taken place.
DE: One last question Rosemary, how do feel about how Bomber Command has been remembered and the centre that we’re building?
RL: The dedication and the commitment of International Bomber Command Centre, and the generosity of so many people has created an amazing and very special memorial for all of Bomber Command. And the digital archive is a wonderful historical record for future generations to explore. Personally, I’ve been talking about Roy Chadwick through a child’s eyes but as a family, it’s a great honour that my father’s place in aviation history will be remembered in the Chadwick Centre.



Dan Ellin, “Interview with Rosemary Lapham,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 23, 2024,

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