Sir Barnes Wallis: a Surrey Genius

Text by Marion Edwards

Barnes Wallis in Surrey

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 92132) Head and shoulders portrait of Dr Barnes Wallis. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 92132) Head and shoulders portrait of Dr Barnes Wallis. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

By the time he moved to Surrey from Howden, Yorkshire, in 1930, the first part of Barnes Wallis’ career in aviation, his design for the airship R100 (sister to the R101), was effectively over. But it was while living in Surrey at White Hill House, Effingham, that Wallis’ most famous and perhaps greatest invention, the ‘Bouncing Bomb’, was realised, along with the geodetic design of the Wellesley and Wellington bombers. Post-war, it was also the scene of his experiments with ‘swing-wing’ aircraft and supersonics.

Early Life and Airships

Barnes Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire, to Charles William George Robinson Wallis (1859-1945) and his wife Edith Eyre Wallis (née Ashby, 1859-1911). He was educated at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham and Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Boys’ Grammar School in southeast London, leaving school at 17 to start work in January 1905 at Thames Engineering Works, Blackheath. He subsequently changed his apprenticeship to J Samuel White’s, the shipbuilders based at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, where he trained as a marine engineer before in 1922 taking a degree in engineering via the University of London’s external programme. He left White’s in 1913, when the opportunity arose for him to work on airship design with Vickers, who had bought Howden Airship Station, Yorkshire, from the Admiralty in 1924, especially for the construction of the airship R100.

Wallis moved to Howden in 1926, after marrying his ‘cousin-in-law’, Mary (‘Molly’) Bloxam, in April 1925. He had met Molly at a family tea party when she was just 17 and he at 34 twice her age; her father initially forbade them from courting, but did allow Wallis to assist Molly with mathematics by correspondence, and they wrote some 250 letters, some of which have been published. After waiting the three years specified by Molly’s father, Wallis proposed marriage to her on her 20th birthday and was eagerly accepted.

R100 (wikimedia commons)

R100 (wikimedia commons)

While in Yorkshire, one of Wallis’ many achievements was the first use of geodetic (also known as geodesic) design in engineering, particularly in the gasbag wiring of the R100, which in 1930 was the largest airship ever designed. He also invented (or ‘vented’, to use his own expression) the unique mooring device for the R100, conceived as his wife Molly tells us, while staring at the curling wick of a candle. However, despite Wallis’ onerous and prolonged imaginative work on his brainchild (which occasioned many sleepless nights and migraines), and despite a better-than-expected performance and a successful return flight to Canada in 1930, the R100 was broken up following the crash in northern France of its sister ship, the R101 (which had been designed and built by a rival team from the Air Ministry). The later destruction of the ‘Hindenburg’ led to the abandonment of airships as a mode of mass transport.

The Move to Surrey

White Hill House (photograph by Marion Edwards)

White Hill House (photograph by Marion Edwards)

The Wallis family move to Surrey in 1930 was occasioned principally by Wallis’ commitment to continue work with Vickers at their aircraft factory at the Brooklands motor circuit and aerodrome near Weybridge, but there was another reason – Barnes’ eldest son, Barnes junior (born in 1926), suffered from mastoiditis (a Wallis family trait) and a local doctor at Howden had in early 1930 expressed a theory that the child’s ear problems were caused by the clay soils there, and that he ‘must live on chalk or sand’. The proposed move to Surrey, therefore, was fortuitous – the new house, at Effingham, sat on Surrey’s famously sandy soils.

Wellington geodetics (photograph by Marion Edwards)

Wellington geodetics (photograph by Marion Edwards)

The pre-war aircraft designs of Vickers for the Wellesley, the Wellington and later the Warwick and Windsor aircraft, all employed Wallis’ geodetic design in the fuselage and wing structures. Probably the most famous of these, the Wellington had one of the most robust airframes ever developed. The geodetic construction offered a light and strong airframe, and the aircraft was impressively able to continue flying, even with part of the fuselage shot away. However, the technique was not easily transferred to other aircraft manufacturers, nor was Vickers able to build other designs in factories equipped for geodetic work.

Grand Slams and Bouncing Bombs

Tallboy and Grand Slam (photograph by Marion Edwards)

Tallboy and Grand Slam (photograph by Marion Edwards)

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Wallis recognized the need for strategic bombing to destroy the enemy’s ability to wage war. As a means to do this, he proposed huge bombs that could concentrate their force and destroy targets which were otherwise unlikely to be affected. Wallis’ first super-large bomb design came out at some ten tonnes, far more than any current bomber could carry. However, Wallis’ plans were to be realised later in the war, with the Tallboy (6 tonnes) and the Grand Slam (10 tonnes) deep-penetration ‘earthquake’ bombs. They were used on strategic German targets such as V-2 rocket launch sites, the V-3 bunker, submarine pens, and the German battles ship ‘Tirpitz’

Testing the concept of the bouncing bomb at home in Effigham (courtesy of Mary Stopes-Roe)

Testing the concept of the bouncing bomb at home in Effingham (courtesy of Mary Stopes-Roe)

Early in 1942, Wallis began experimenting with skipping marbles over water tanks in his garden at White Hill House, leading to his April 1942 paper ‘Spherical Bomb – Surface Torpedo’. His idea was that a bomb could skip over the water surface, avoiding torpedo nets to sink directly next to a battleship or dam wall as a depth charge, with the surrounding water concentrating the force of the explosion on the target. A crucial innovation was the addition of backspin, which increased the range of the bomb, and also prevented it from moving away from the target wall as it sank. After initial scepticism, the Air Force accepted Wallis’ ‘bouncing bomb’ (codenamed ‘Upkeep’) for attacks on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr. The raid on these dams in May 1943 (Operation ‘Chastise’) was immortalised in Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book ‘The Dambusters’ and the 1955 film of the same name. The Möhne and Eder dams were successfully breached, causing damage to German factories and disrupting hydro-electric power. Following the terrible death toll of the aircrews involved in the Dambusters raid, Wallis made a conscious effort never again to endanger the lives of his test pilots. His later designs were extensively tested in model form, and consequently he became a pioneer in the remote control of aircraft.

Later Career

Stratosphere chamber (photograph by Marion Edwards)

Stratosphere chamber (photograph by Marion Edwards)

After the Vickers factory was badly bombed in September 1940, Wallis moved with the Design Office from Brooklands to the nearby Burhill Golf Club in Hersham, returning to Brooklands in November 1945 as Head of Vickers-Armstrong Research & Development Department where he and his staff worked on many futuristic aerospace projects including supersonic flight and ‘swing-wing’ technology. By 1948 a massive Stratosphere Chamber (which was the world’s largest facility of its type) was designed and built, becoming the focus for much research work under Wallis’ direction in the 1950s and 1960s, including supersonic aerodynamics that contributed to the design of Concorde. (This unique structure was restored at Brooklands Museum in 2013 and officially re-opened by Wallis’ daughter Mary Stopes-Roe in 2014.)

Although he did not invent the concept, Wallis did much pioneering work on the concept of ‘swing-wing’ aircraft. When his early ‘Wild Goose’, designed in the late 1940s, was shown to be unworkable, he developed the swing-wing further with ‘Swallow’, designed in the mid-1950s, which could have been developed for either military or civil applications. Both ‘Wild Goose’ and ‘Swallow’ were demonstrated by trialing large flying scale models without tail planes at Predannack in Cornwall.

In 1955, Wallis agreed to act as a consultant to the project to build the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia; some of the ideas he suggested are closely related to the final design, including the geodetic structure of the dish and the master equatorial control system. However, unhappy with the direction the project had taken, Wallis left half way through the design study and refused to accept his £1,000 consultant’s fee. In the 1960s, Wallis also proposed using large cargo submarines, as the power requirements for an underwater vessel were lower than for a comparable conventional ship, and they could be made to travel at a much higher speed and avoid surface weather conditions. However, nothing came of Wallis’ submarine ideas, even though he later advocated nuclear-powered cargo submarines as a means of making Britain immune to future embargoes, and to make it a global trading power. During the 1960s and into his retirement, Wallis developed ideas for an ‘all-speed’ aircraft, capable of efficient flight at all speed ranges from subsonic to hypersonic. In particular, his ideas and understanding of supersonic aerodynamics led to research that underwrote designs for Concorde’s engines.

Honours and Family Life

Wallis became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945 and was knighted in 1968. He also received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1969. He was awarded the £10,000 for his war work from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors but his lasting grief at the loss of so many airmen in the dams raid caused him in 1951 to donate the entire sum to his alma mater Christ’s Hospital School to set up the RAF Foundationers’ Trust, which allowed the children of RAF personnel killed or injured in action to attend the school.

Wallis grave (photograph by Marion Edwards)

Wallis grave (photograph by Marion Edwards)

Wallis lived with his family in Effingham from 1930 until his death in 1979, and he is buried with Molly (who died in Birmingham in 1986) at St Lawrence Church. His epitaph in Latin reads ‘Spernit Humum Fugiente Penna’ This is the motto of the Christ’s Hospital Barnes Wallis Foundation, which Barnes Wallis founded with his award for inventing the Bouncing Bomb. It is taken from Horace, and is usually translated not as ‘Severed from the earth with fleeting wing’ but as ‘Spurns the earth on ascending wings’.

The couple had four children – Barnes Winstanley (1926-2008), Mary Eyre (b.1927), Elisabeth Abel (b.1933) and Christopher Loudon (1935-2006) – and also adopted Molly’s sister Barbara’s children Robert and John McCormick in 1940, when their parents were killed in a London air raid. His son Barnes patented a design for an ice-detector for aircraft, his daughter Mary married Harry Stopes-Roe, the adopted son of contraception pioneer Marie Stopes, and his son Christopher, after a career in civil engineering with British Rail, was instrumental in the restoration of the watermill on the Stanway Estate near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Sir Barnes Wallis at Surrey History Centre

Between April 2015 and November 2016, Mrs Mary Stopes-Roe, daughter of Barnes Wallis, deposited with Surrey History Centre a quantity of account books, letters, photographs and other documents relating to Sir Barnes and Lady Wallis. They are held under the collection SHC ref 9456. Included in the deposit were a series of household account books, 1913-1979, and Lady Mary’s diaries, 1960-1979. Most significant are the wonderful series of letters from Lady Mary Wallis – universally known as Molly – written between 1920 and 1979 to her childhood friend Mary Turner (later Morris), whose father had associations with the Vickers company, and who was a cousin of the composer William Walton (son of the singer Louisa Maria Turner).

Barnes’ inventions (or ‘ventions’, to coin his own name for them) are mentioned throughout the letters – his airship R100 of the 1920s (in a letter of 1925, Barnes has included for Mary Turner a cartoon explanation of where a rivet fits into an airship girder), the Dambusters raid of 1943 (whose airmen lovingly called their mentor ‘Papa Wally’), the bombing of the Tirpitz in 1944 and the development of the Wellington bomber (which caused consternation in Bookham on trial flights in 1940 with a large mine-detecting ring attached) are all described, as well as Barnes’ own lifelong love of boats and camping, and his surprising interest in collecting honey from his own bees. He was also an accomplished woodcarver, producing busts and statuettes of Molly, and restored the clock of St Lawrence Church, Effingham (in whose churchyard they are both buried).

Not only do these letters reveal a good deal of Barnes Wallis’s life, as seen through the eyes of his wife Molly, his handwritten notes and diagrams, preserved for posterity from 1943 by Molly as wartime note paper (a practice that she continued until his death in 1979), provide valuable insight into the mind of one of Britain’s unique geniuses.

Sir Barnes Wallis featured in Surrey History Centre’s September 2019 Marvel of the Month.


Mathematics With Love: the courtship correspondence of Barnes Wallis, Inventor of the Bouncing Bomb’ by Mary Stopes-Roe (MacMillan, 2005).

Airship: Design, Develoment and Disaster’ by John Swinford (Conway, 2012).

Barnes Wallis’ Bombs: Tallboy, Dambuster and Grand Slam’ by Steven Flower (Tempus Publishing, 2004).

Bouncing-Bomb Man: the Science of Sir Barnes Wallis’ by Iain Murray (Haynes, 2009)

Barnes Wallis’, by J E Morpugo (Longmans, 1972)