The Perse School

Sir William Scott Farren (1911)


Sir William Scott Farren (1892–1970) was educated at the Perse before and gaining a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics, and graduated with first-class honours in the mechanical sciences tripos of 1914.

During his time at The Perse, Farren was a Senior Prefect, Sgt. in the OTC, on the Debating Society Committee, and was awarded Hockey Colours.

He joined British Thomson-Houston at Rugby, but within a year was persuaded to join the Royal Aircraft Factory to help expand it into a major national centre of aircraft research, development, and design. Farren became head of the aerodynamics department, learned to fly, and played a significant role in the design of the SE5a, a highly successful combat aircraft which went into large-scale production. At the height of the submarine menace in 1917 he was made responsible for the immediate production of a flying boat, the CE1; under his supervision the machine was designed and built in only seven months. Farren, with limited experience as a test pilot, then successfully took it aloft on its first flight.

In 1918 Farren joined Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, but although he continued to act as consultant to that firm until 1937, he returned to Cambridge in 1920 as lecturer in aeronautics and engineering under Melvill Jones, who had been appointed to the newly established chair in aeronautical engineering. Jones believed in augmenting theoretical work and wind-tunnel experiments in research by observation in flight on experimental aircraft. Farren provided much of the instrumentation needed for such flight work, as well as designing Jones’s first wind tunnel and its balances; he was officially appointed university lecturer in engineering under the new university statutes of 1926, and was elected a fellow of Trinity College in 1933. He also lectured on the strength of aircraft structures at the Royal College of Science in 1922–31.

At the approach of war, Farren left Cambridge for the Air Ministry in 1937 to become deputy to David Pye, the director of scientific research. In 1939 Farren became deputy director of research and development of aircraft under Roderic Hill and in 1940 he moved with him to the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production, later succeeding Hill as director of technical development; he was one of the original ‘boys in the back room’ of Lord Beaverbrook. In 1941 he returned to Farnborough as director of what was by then called the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE): the four most gruelling years of his life followed, during which rapid advancement in aeronautical techniques was essential for Britain’s survival. Farren gave a sense of team spirit to the greatly expanded RAE, skilfully welding the old Farnborough hands with those recruited ‘for the duration’, and with the assistance of W. G. A. Perring and H. L. Stevens he galvanized the entire establishment into a dynamo of activity. At the same time he began laying firm foundations for the future, and gave impetus to research which would keep up the momentum of aeronautical development after the war; like Sir Wilfrid Freeman and others, he saw clearly the imminent revolution arising from development of the jet engine and supersonics. He also played a leading part in setting up the new RAE airfield and facilities which were subsequently built near Bedford.

Farren was nearly fifty when he returned to the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and, in spite of an interval of twenty years, he brushed up his old flying skills with enthusiasm: in the next four years he flew anything he could lay his hands on—Spitfires, Thunderbolts, Lancasters, Meteors, or captured German fighters and bombers. He regularly flew a Spitfire around in the early morning, to freshen himself up before the working day. Farren took immense pride in his workshops, and was himself a skilled detail designer and a meticulous craftsman; the personal example which he set gave him great strength in dealing with his staff—pilots, craftsmen, scientists, and engineers alike drew inspiration from a man who really knew what he was talking about.

At the beginning of 1946 Farren joined the Blackburn Aircraft Company as technical director, and in late 1947 moved to a similar position with A. V. Roe at Manchester, where he remained until 1961; in 1956 he had also become technical director of Hawker Siddeley Nuclear Power Company, and he was a director of Hawker Siddeley Aviation from 1959. During his years in industry after the war his two major projects were on the advanced design of the Vulcan V-bomber, a tailless aircraft which gave yeoman service with the Royal Air Force, and the stand-off supersonic Blue Steel missile which went into successful production for the V-bomber force. He retired in 1961, although he maintained contact with Hawker Siddeley as consultant.

Both before, during, and after the Second World War, Farren’s influence, and the services he rendered to the Aeronautical Research Committee (renamed Council in 1945) and its various committees, were considerable. He also played a leading part in the setting up of co-operative wind-tunnel facilities by industry to supplement the official facilities. His contributions to aviation were recognized by many honours: he was appointed MBE in 1918, CB in 1943, was knighted in 1952, and elected FRS in 1945; Manchester University conferred on him an honorary DSc. He was made honorary fellow (1953) of the American Institute of the Aerospace Sciences, and also (1959) of the Royal Aeronautical Society, of which he was president in 1953–4; he had been an ordinary fellow of that society for many years, and in 1956 he received its gold medal.

Farren was a deeply sensitive man, at first meeting giving an impression of brusque reserve and even slight coldness, but further acquaintance revealed a passionate devotion to aeronautics and a determination to set himself the highest professional standards, whether as research scientist, designer and engineer, pilot, teacher, or administrator. He possessed a fount of restless and ubiquitous energy, with a profound belief in the virtue of getting things quickly out of the laboratory and into the air as the final test of any aeronautical development, and of understanding the way in which pilots and aircrew handled things when in the air. His pupils from early Cambridge days testified to his gifts as a lecturer, his knack of inspiring those who were keen to learn—whether brilliant or not—and his unfailing help and guidance to younger men. He was a cheerful, loyal, and sympathetic friend, who had a deep love of the English countryside, and enjoyed sketching from a boat in the Cambridgeshire fens.

Farren married on 16 August 1917 Carol Erica (b. 1892/3), daughter of William Anniss Warrington; they had one daughter. His first wife died in 1963, and on 18 October in the same year he married Mildred Alice, née Hooke (1889/90–1977), formerly headmistress of Bradford Girls’ Grammar School. She devotedly tended Farren through the five years of his final illness: he died at his home, Crossways Cottage, Kingston, Cambridgeshire, on 3 July 1970.

Biography adapted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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