Born in 1899, ‘Roy’Chaplin was a former pupil of Tiffin School, Kingston and went on to read engineering at London University. He served in France with the Royal Engineers during World War One and finally joined the H.G. Hawker Engineering Company in 1926. He went on to become Sydney Camm’s right hand man in the Design Department, working with him on all new aircraft designs and even leading (and changing) the Hawker Hurricane project at one point in the 1930s when Camm was forced to go into hospital.
Although Sydney Camm was the dominant partner, the two forged a close and highly successful working relationship. Chaplin very much admired Camm and said that although he was an engineer, “he was first and foremost an artist … with an outstanding eye for line”.
Roy Chaplin became company Chief Designer in 1957 and retired in 1963. He died in 1989. Gordon here reflects on Chaplin’s character and how his ‘good cop, bad cop’ way of working together with Sydney Camm proved so effective.
You knew Chaplin as well didn’t you, Roy Chaplin?
Yes. Chaplin was a very easy going chap and of course he was the ‘soft’ side of the system with Sir Sidney as ‘hard as rock’. Chaplin keeping everything nice and smooth at the next level.
So in a way they had a kind of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing going?
Almost, yes. But Chaplin, I don’t think got much credit for what he must have put into the system. He was an easy chap to talk to. And, I remember one day, I think we were going to Boscombe together, or somewhere like that. And I thought to myself, Chaplin was driving behind me in his car, and I thought I’d better drive very carefully. And in those days you used hand signals, so I made all the right signals before I did anything and when we got there he said to me, ‘How long have you been driving’? I said oh, God knows ten years or something’. He said, ‘You make an awful lot of hand signals’. And I said to him, ‘I am only trying to impress you’. And he thought that was very funny. So I was on those terms with him.
You said that he had a favourite expression that he used to use?
Well he used to say to me, ‘It looks bloody awful’ and then a grin would come on his face and say, ‘But it feels nice.’ And that was a sort of light hearted side of Chaplin and of course he ended up with a heart attack.
Oh did he?
And that set him back. I think he had a heart attack. He went to the island of Ré, is it, on the west coast of France for a holiday and when he came back he wasn’t very well. ‘Cause he could bound up the stairs to the office two at a time, he was very energetic. Because when he had the heart attack he could barely get up one. And then he retired early. I am pretty sure he died a couple of years earlier than he would normally have done. It knocked the stuffing out of him but he lived on quite a long time after that. He’s not with us now I don’t think.
No, no because he – I’ve seen photographs of his retirement actually and he does look like quite a – he looks very kind of thin and drawn.
Pasty, he looked pasty faced yes, that’s true.
But he and Camm had a, they obviously did get on very well. And I mean some of the things I have read about him, he obviously admired Camm very much.
Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt …
He said that …
Any doubt about that. He certainly, we needed the other side you see. We’ve got Camm as the tough guy and Chaplin used to consider everything very carefully and an easy chap to talk to. And he wasn’t ‘pig headed’ or anything like that.
So what was he doing when you came into the Design Office in 1946?
Chaplin. Well Chaplin was just Camm’s assistant, his number two, yes. And he must have been number two to some extent during the War, I suppose. But of course I came in after that war was all over and we were working on the first jet.
But he didn’t come round the boards, not like Sir Sidney. I don’t recall Chaplin ever really coming, because he’d be just as interested as what was going on in the other bits of the organisation, the design bits. Whereas I think Sir Sidney came mostly into either the Project Office which I am sure he visited every day and the Drawing Office, Experimental Drawing Office that’s where the first hardware would be produced. Chaplin was more involved with the administrative side, the pure administrative side of the design business which there was quite a bit to do of course.