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Noel Pemberton-Billing

The aviation inventor

Born the son of a Birmingham iron founder in 1881 Noel Pemberton-Billing was a larger than life character.    A varied career began at 14, when he ran away from home and worked his way aboard a sailing cargo boat to South Africa. In South Africa he did a number of different jobs, bricklaying, tram conductor and joined the mounted police; becoming their boxing champion aged 16.    He fought and was wounded in the Boer War. 

When he returned to England he opened one of the country’s first garages at Kingston-upon-Thames.   After returning to Durban for a short time, when next he returned to England he developed an interest in aviation.  His first foray into this field was an unsuccessful attempt to develop an aerodrome at a disused engineering factory in Essex; he failed to win official interest.  After a brief spell selling property and passing his law exams he went into business buying and selling steam yachts.  This venture made enough money to enable Pemberton-Billing to revive his interest in aviation and establish his own aircraft factory.   In 1913 he opened Pemberton-Billing Ltd on the river at Woolston in Southampton and made Hubert Scott-Paine works manager.   His interest in the company waned as it ran into financial difficulties in 1914 and although he maintained links for a while he resigned at the end of 1915 in order to pursue a political career.

Winning a seat on his second attempt in 1916 he retained his seat at East Hertfordshire until 1923, retiring then through ill health.  As an MP he was a controversial figure and was famously tried for criminal libel in 1918.  It was called the trial of the century; Pemberton-Billing was prosecuted in 1918 as the result of an article he had published in his ‘Imperialist magazine’ claiming the existence of a black book that listed the names of thousands of English men and women who were allegedly homosexuals.

Pemberton-Billing continued to design new aircraft in the 1930’s but none were made reality.   He spent the following years trying out numerous schemes and ideas, none of which gave him the success he craved.  It has been said of Pemberton-Billing that he was a visionary rather than an entrepreneur, lacking the organisational and practical abilities to put his ideas into effect.  Despite setting up Pemberton-Billing Ltd, it was in fact Hubert Scott-Paine, the talented engineer and realist and who after renaming it Supermarine, took the company forward and created the success it achieved.


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