A daughter’s story

His daughter and only child, Naomi, wrote this account of her father’s life.  It must have been written about 1985 when Richard Riding was writing a book dedicated to Comper – Naomi was in her sixties then.  She was eighteen when her father died.

His background
Ninian (Sir Ninian Comper) came down to London to be apprenticed to the Bucknalls to study ecclesiastical architecture and stained glass windows in particular. He married Grace Bucknall and they had six children who were brought up in a rambling old house in Upper Norwood, which had been a priory. My grandfather (Ninian) was the archetypal Victorian father and his wife Grace was a gentle maternal type and was adored by all the family. I remember the house as being plainly furnished except for some heavy carved oak doors, which my grandfather had brought back from the Continent. The only other decoration was Italian vases and plate also presumably brought back from his travels. I suspect he decided what was in the house and although he was High Church and his churches were ornate to the glory of God everything else had to be simple including his wife’s clothes. She was not allowed any jewellery except perhaps for modest trinkets. They sat round a coal fire in the large drawing room with screens to keep out the drafts.

There were six acres of garden. Wood in the front, then terraces in the Italian style led down to a little meadow and more woods. My grandfather loved his garden but would not allow his wife to pick any flowers although much to the annoyance of the family when she died a box of flowers was sent to her grave every week. She was buried in Wellingborough – one of his (Ninian’s) churches. I sometimes wonder what they did inthe evenings. My grandmother played the piano but none of the others played an instrument. His daughters did embroidery for the churches – doubtless designed by their father!

My mother said the house was very lively when the “boys” were at home. They were always playing practical jokes. One of them I was told was when one of the brothers was going out for the evening his brothers suspected he might be late so they made a booby trap so that when he opened his bedroom door which was next to the parents, a whole lots of pans fell down and a gramophone started playing.

My grandfather certainly ruled the house. They say he chose all the children’s names and my grandmother wept when he called his first born John Baptist Sebastian. He had run out of names when he got to my father and he was only called Nicholas. They were Sebastian, Mary Petronella, Quintyn, Nicholas and Ursula and Adrian. I think in that order I am not sure if Quintyn was before my father or after or if he had another name.

My mother said after they were married when they were back at the Priory my father was eating a bar of chocolate and when his father came in the room he hid it behind his back. My mother said why did you do that. He said it was habit his father would have said he was indulging himself. My mother said if she came to the house with a low necked dress my grandfather would produce a handkerchief to cover her up but this was done in a jocular way. I wonder what he thought of the 1920s short skirts. I know his daughters weren’t allowed to have their hair bobbed.

All my grandfather’s business affairs were run by the Bucknall family even to the extent that my grandmother had to go to them for house-keeping money. My grandfather was not interested in money. After the 1914-1918 war there was competition for the design of the Welsh War Memorial. My grandfather did not wish to tender as he thought it was vulgar, but since money was very short during the war and after he was persuaded to and won

My father went to school at Dulwich College and according to my mother did not excel and was considered fairly average. I suspect he had that more indefinable quality of creativity like his father. He left school and went as an apprentice to de Havilland’s whilst he waited to be old enough to join the RFC (Royal Flying Corps). I mention very little of what my father thought of his childhood or for that matter the war because he never spoke to me about it. I have only picked up anecdotes from mother and his family

After leaving school my father went to de Havilland’s as an apprentice but as soon as he was old enough he joined the RFC. He trained as a pilot but what he had learned at de Havilland’s was useful as they did a lot of work on their aeroplanes particularly if they came down behind enemy lines. He went to France with the No.9 Squadron. They were pretty cold and miserable out there and each night they would look around them to see who was missing. He built himself a hut to live in and befriended a terrier called Billy that sometimes he would take up with him. By the end of the war he was suffering from stress but he remained in the RFC, which was to become the RAF. He took an exam and did exceptionally well and was sent to Cambridge to read Aerodynamics. He was now an old student but I think it was whilst he was there he met Percy MacKay. Percy used to tell a tale of how when they were attending a lecture he – Percy – dozed off and when asked a question my father dug him in the ribs and whispered “fill it up with sawdust”, which he repeated out loud to everyone’s amusement. It was through Percy MacKay that my father met Phyllis Cox, Percy’s cousin and within three months of meeting they were married in April 1920. My father took my mother for their honeymoon to boat on the Thames. She said the weather was awful and was pleased when they went up to London for the day and went to a Tea dance. She was nearly five years older than him and she had lost a fiancée in the war, also her brother and other friends. My mother liked the life at Cambridge and they enjoyed playing tennis although I don’t think either of them were good at it. My father finished his course and was moved to Farnborough before I was born in 1921. They then moved on to Grantham and to Cranwell and we lived in Sleaford. My father lectured there and one of his pupils was Frank Whittle. He told my mother he had a brilliant pupil. Lawrence of Arabia was also there as Aircraftsman Shaw trying to hide his identity. It was here that my father started working on CLA 1,2 and 3 with the students building them. He became stressed with overwork designing these planes and keeping up with his RAF duties and his solution was to go into the garden and dig for several hours, but he was told that if you are suffering from mental fatigue there is no point in exhausting yourself physically as well. However, he did like his garden and I gather people stopped to look at it. He did very little later on at Hooton, partly because he spent little time at home.

In 1927 we were moved to Felixstowe. There I think my father was involved with the Schneider Flying boats or sea planes. I presume the Swift must have been conceived whilst he was there but I don’t remember his bringing any work home. My mother and father used to go down to the beach to swim and I learnt to swim there. It must have been very cold. My mother’s main concern seemed to be keeping her hair dry.
A friend of my father’s had two pet squirrels and when he had to go abroad for a couple of years my father volunteered to look after them. They arrived in a miserable cage so my father built them a large cage in the garden with a branch of a tree. (missing line or two) so we started putting nuts in a tea chest and when we established it was still taking them my father turned it into a trap. We watched it go there with bated breath and when it started to run off with the nut the trap door came down and it was caught! We left before the fellow came back to England so my father had to find someone else to look after them. I wonder how they survived, if they did. In 1929 my father took the plunge and resigned his commission and we were off to Hooton. There was great expectation and excitement over the Swift although I believe they were undercapitalised. There were also a lot of successes in the early days. Butler broke the record to Australia in a Swift and I remember the celebrations. My father, always keen on fireworks, let off a squib inside a closed suitcase and I was highly amused to see it jump around the room until it burst open! The Swift entered by the Prince of Wales in the King’s Cup Air race came second doing the fastest time. The Prince of Wales mentioned to my Uncle Sebastian when he was opening a public building designed by him (Sebastian) that he had met three of the Comper family that month. My grandfather Ninian Comper and, of course, my father. Doubtless he had been primed with this by his researchers! They had a Swift hanging in Selfridge’s window in London also hanging in the Prince of Wales Hotel at the Aero Club Dance. I remember time trials at the Point of Ayr (North Wales). There were big problems when the financier, Love, who was putting the money into the Comper Aircraft Co. went broke with the Wall Street Crash. I think my father had a very worrying time at work and when he came home he was greeted with a financial problem at home. My mother was emotionally immature and she needed security and that was something she did not get from my father. Consequently he stayed away from home a lot. I think he got relief with a lot of his practical jokes and pranks such as putting kippers on car radiators. A friend of mine reminded me of an incident when he first came to Willaston and lived down Mill Lane. The Walls Ice-Cream man came round with a tricycle and a large container on the front with ice-creams and the slogan “Stop Me and Buy One”. My father got the ice-cream man into our house … (missing lines). Once when my father was being pestered by the Press he gave the rate of climb for the Swift which would have meant it would go up like a rocket. He thought it was funny when they printed it and said they should have had more sense. My father invented a kite which would loop the loop and do all sorts of things and he got a large order from Lewis’s Store. He got a fellow to make them who was just a carpenter and unfortunately he decided to adjust or equalise the weight of the timber, which was not correct aero-dynamically and they were all useless. That was a venture which did not succeed! My father always said he was not interested in making money but it was inconvenient without it. His main objective was to succeed with ventures on his own. Perhaps he needed a Bucknall?  When things got desperate the Comper Aircraft Co. moved to Heston.

After Hooton
My mother and I were left trying to sell our house, which was exceedingly difficult in the depression. After my mother heard from a lady friend that my father was living with another woman she started divorce proceedings only to withdraw and start them a couple of years later by which time my father was on his own so it was more difficult in those days. She was financed by the maiden aunt who had brought her up since she was ten. My father liked women and they liked him but once he told me he was glad I wasn’t going to be a beautiful woman because they caused a lot of unhappiness.

I think things went from bad to worse at Heston and my father told me that he had trusted people only to be treated very shabbily. He had been working on the “Mouse” (named after Mouse Fielden the Prince of Wales’s pilot) and the “Streak”. I think it was whilst he was demonstrating the Streak that the retractable undercarriage jammed on take-off. My father dropped a note telling them to get the fire-engine and ambulance out but he carried on with his demonstration and said he couldn’t resist adding that he… (missing words) he thought might as well die as a hero! After Heston my father set up business with Francis Walker with an office in the Strand, which was expensive but I think he believed in publicity. I think Lord Ronald Graham was involved too. However, in his latter years when he was sponsored by Lord Patrick Crichton Stuart, he worked from his home with the draughtsman whilst the Scamp was being built by students at Brooklands. The Scamp was only a means to an end as far as he was concerned. An airliner he was designing was his main interest.

During this period he used to go on holiday at Scolt Head Island in Norfolk with the McClure family and CG Grey and his second family. I went too. Once CG Grey brought his children a Kite which wouldn’t fly so my father got busy with me making a kite out of a tea towel and in no time we had a kite which soared up to the heavens. I don’t suppose that endeared him to CG Grey. Once he arrived there looking ill and he said he had been going through a financial crisis and when he finally managed to avert bankruptcy he just went to bits and couldn’t even remember where he wanted to get to in Norfolk. When it came back to him he had to write it down again in case he forgot again. He was desperate not to be a bankrupt because in those days it would mean he could never set up a business again. In 1938 he told me ther would be a war and he had been told he would be wanted at Farnborough. He also mentioned a ray that might be developed to stop an internal combustion engine and so bring down enemy planes. However, it was not to be. In June 1939 he had had both his electricity and gas cut off so he decided to go to see the Scamp. It was there he was trying to let off fireworks in a pub, which was not very popular. He was ordered out and bending down setting off a firwork when a passer-by asked him what he was doing. He replied “I am going to blow up the town hall and am an IRA man.” It was his last practical joke. The fellow knocked him down and he hit his head on the curb and he had a brain haemorrhage and his last words were “I didn’t know prison had such comfortable beds. When he died a girl friend of his called Molly aged 22 said they were engaged. I knew her and I also knew she had to meet him secretly because not surprisingly her parents did not approve of my father. A woman friend who was a neighbour was also very upset. She at one time had been his secretary and I think she looked after him quite a bit. She was more his age. I knew he hated being on his own. He said to me sometimes he would come into the house at night …. (missing words) and even the cats were out. He did ask me if I would like to get a job in London and come to live with him. I said I can’t see my mother liking that. He just laughed and never mentioned it again. As a postscript I have just heard from John Greenland that all his drawings were found in a lodging house in Bridlington of all places. Apparently Lord Patrick Crichton Stuart was injured in the war and came out of the army and joined up with the Merchant Service and he left them there! It seems to be a miracle they were found.

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  1. Roy Fox

    Dear Mandy

    Thank you for such a great effort to produce this piece on Nick Comper. I have in my trust 2 Swifts, a Pobjoy and a Gipsy Swift in Australia here.

    I am in contact with Arthur Butler’s daughter who has recently produced a rediscovered autobiography of her father’s you might like to see.

    Please contact me at sionnac@bigpond.com or telephone 2 96292245 {Australia}

  2. MR R A Pritchard

    what a super site you have put together,about 15 years ago i lived very close to the old airfield at hooton park.What remains of the site is owned by the griffen trust and at that time they held regular open days, on one of these events i had the pleasure of meeting Naomi Comper. I had built a large radio controld model of the gypsy swift and this was on display at the event. Miss Comper passed some kind comments that the model brought back memories.It is sad to read that she passed away in 2007, again congatulations on a super site .Tony Pritchard . Chester

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