Noel Pemberton Billing was primarily an English aviator, inventor, writer and Member of Parliament. Born in 1881, he founded what may well be Britain’s first airfield at Fambridge to the north of Southend in Essex during 1909. He later created an aircraft firm in 1913, which specialised in flying boats (and went on by its later title of Supermarine to make the Spitfire, although he had sold the company by then). During his time as an Independent MP for East Hertfordshire during WW1 he heavily criticised the government for failing to protect Britain from German air raids and promoted the creation of an air force as a separate entity from the army and navy. He published a book entitled ’Air War: How to Wage It’ and his passion for defending the home front also resulted in a prototype for a quadriplane known as the Nighthawk, although its design was deemed unsuitable for operational use.
This true genius and polymath led a prolific and colourful life and was also involved in many other spheres of activity. These included being an aircraft designer, boxer, businessman/entrepreneur, clothes designer, filmmaker, gun-runner, housebuilder, labourer, legal graduate, motorist, newspaper proprietor, playwright, policeman, sailor, soldier, spy, strategist, visionary and yacht broker. He notably also masterminded the world’s first ever strategic bombing raid, invented the world’s first motorised caravan, created a long-playing vinyl record and produced a highly advanced camera which still holds the British record for an individual item of this nature sold at auction. Sadly Noel Pemberton Billing died in relative obscurity in 1948 and remains one of Britain’s most forgotten geniuses.
ABCT meet with the Pemberton-Billing Family
ABCT’s Director General, Kenneth Bannerman, had the privilege of meeting his daughter, named after him, as well as her daughter Veronica Pemberton, on a recent visit to England from her home in Canada. Noel admits that she remains in awe of her father and recounted the amazing, and very amusing, story of how he gained his pilot’s licence: "He took a bet with Handley Page (another famous aviation pioneer) that he could fly before breakfast... and he won it too. He was so different from the ordinary man on the street for the want of a better word - he was wonderful."
She went on to tell Kenneth: "He had a tremendous drive for designing and inventing new things, whether it was the camera or whether it was an aeroplane. I just think he was something out of this world. I was so lucky, so lucky to have him as a father, so lucky."
ABCT was lucky enough to hear more about Noel Pemberton Billing the man too, as his daughter gave an insight into her close relationship with her father: "He had one extraordinary trait. Because he was such a busy person, every night he would dedicate from 8-9 at night for my brother and I to go and sit and talk with him and it didn’t matter what was going on - he took no notice of the phone or anybody else - he just gave us his exclusive time. He would talk to us about his travels and what he’d done and what we wanted to do. I often wonder how many fathers sit down and give exclusive attention to their child for one hour, which he did."
Noel also worked as her father’s secretary for a time and she recalled the unpredictability of a typical day: "You never knew from day to day, he kept you guessing. Sometimes you went out, he had piles of letters to do too, another day I’d be running errands for him. Put it this way you weren’t bored! I got on very well with him, I adored him. But he was the type of person, I will say this, that you either adored him, thought he was the cat’s miaow, or you didn’t like him, there was no in between. Me, I think he was one of the finest men who ever lived."