On Wednesday, 10 May 2023 a blue plaque was unveiled at Cotham House, Cotham Hill to commemorate Sir George White. It was his home for 26 years. The son of a painter and decorator, he was born in Kingsdown, a few minutes’ walk from Cotham House. We were honouring Sir George’s achievements: Britain’s first electric tram service and first aircraft factory, and his philanthropic funding of an extension to the Bristol Royal Infirmary.
His career path was influenced by his remarkable vision and practical sense. As a 15-year-old solicitor’s clerk he dealt with bankruptcy cases and rapidly gained invaluable experience in how not to run a business! Such work gave him great insight.
A few years later, George was company secretary for the Bristol Tramways Company, a start-up by local businessmen who were keen to develop horse-drawn tramlines. As our city expanded, George oversaw the growth of the tram network, linking new suburbs with the city centre and places of work. Then in the late-1890s he was at the vanguard of electrification. The Old Market-Kingswood route was the first in Britain. In its first four months it carried more than a million passengers. Sir George went on to improve local transport services with motor omnibuses, charabancs and taxis, as well as develop tram networks in cities around the country.
In 1909 on a visit to south-west France, Sir George watched an early French aviator flying a biplane. Within a year he and family members had set up the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company in a bus depot at Filton. But Boxkite biplanes needed pilots so he then developed training schools for them.
There is a distinctive, unbroken lineage that links biplane production in 1910 at those little Filton sheds with world-leading operations on the site today: Airbus, GKN, Rolls-Royce and other companies engaged in advanced engineering, aerospace and defence.
The Lord Mayor, Cllr Paul Goggin performed the unveiling – the first duty of his reign as he’d been sworn in only the day before. And Sue Partridge (on the left in our image), Head of Airbus Filton Site and Head of Wing of Tomorrow Programme at Airbus, and Steve Burrow (on the right), Professor of Aircraft Systems and Head of Department of Aerospace Engineering spoke about Sir George’s enduring legacy. The current baronet, Sir George (to the left of the Lord Mayor) and Lady White also attended. The building is now the University’s Department of Philosophy and the Panel is grateful for Alan Stealey, Head of External Estates at the university, for arranging refreshments after the unveiling.