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Thompson Bros 
(Bilston) Ltd.

Bradley Engineering Works, Bilston

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Thompson Bros Mobile Refuelling Units

Julian C Temple

The following note has been compiled by Julian C Temple, Curator of Aviation, Brooklands Museum.  It represents the results of his researches so far (August 2003) and we are very grateful to him for allowing us to publish it here.  We are also obliged to Keith Timmins for supplying the photos. The photo captions have been added by Frank Sharman and are very much subject to correction.

 Type history:  Designed and built from c1935 until at least the end of World War Two by Thompson Bros. Ltd,  for both civil and military use. Powered by a standard Ford 10 car engine, a rather novel feature was its three-wheeled chassis. Early models featured two separate compartments or "saddle" tanks for fuel and oil. Later variants had capacity for 350, 450 or 500 gallons of fuel using the two compartments for one or two grades of fuel. 50 gallons of oil was also carried in a separate central tank. Pumping was achieved at an average rate of 20 gallons a minute with an auxiliary pump designed and manufactured by Thompson Bros.

The earliest reference yet found appears in 'Aeroplane' and 'Flight' reports on the September 1935 King's Cup Air Race when  'The T-B Refuelling Unit' (possibly the prototype) refuelled participating light aeroplanes at Hatfield. 'Flight' also published a photo of this rather crude-looking vehicle. By at least 1942, the makers, now named "Thompson Brothers (Bilston) Ltd", were advertised as "specialists in petrol refuelling equipment".  

Fuel bowser The bowser Left is probably the Mark I Fuel bowserThe bowserLeft is probably the Mark III. Fuel bowser Left: This may be the Mark V and the last of the three wheelers.   Presumably the three wheel design was intended to increase maneuverability

Pre-war examples of the Mk I, II & III refuellers - apparently initially named 'The T-B Refuelling Unit' - were used at the following civil aerodromes and airports (and probably at many others too):- Brooklands, Surrey (Brooklands Aviation Ltd); Croydon, Surrey ('Shell Aviation Service'); Desford. Leics. (Reid & Sigrist Ltd); Fairoaks, Surrey (General Aircraft Ltd?); Perth (Airwork Ltd's Reserve Training School); and Reading/Woodley, Berks,  (Phillips & Powis Aircraft Ltd). During WW2 improved and slightly larger versions - notably the Mark V - were ordered in quantity by the Air Ministry for military use and became a common sight at flying training schools such as that at Fairoaks, Surrey. Postwar, many of these mobile tenders also proved very useful at civil aerodromes and airports including Heathrow and Luton Airports. Smaller civil airfields, such as Biggin Hill, Elstree and Leicester East (Stoughton) continued to use Thompson refuellers for light aircraft even up to the 1990s. Other known postwar civil operators included Brooklands Aviation Ltd (at Little Staughton and Sywell) and the British Aircraft Corporation Ltd (at Brooklands/Weybridge and Wisley).

Mobile Tender Apparently post war versions.  But note that the photo on the left appears to have been taken in very much the same place as that of the Shell 3 wheeler above.
Today, several major UK aviation museums (such as the IWM, Duxford and the RAFM, Hendon) have restored Thompsons on public display.  The Brooklands Museum has just acquired an example. But no more than 19 original vehicles are known to survive in the UK with a few others believed to be in museums overseas.
Mobile Tender This advertisement, from The Aeroplane, 2nd February 1940, is for the "new T. B. Streamlined Tender".  The advert refers to the need to supply several grades of spirit but the photos seem to suggest that this version of the refueller could cope with only two grades.   Advert  

Today, several major UK aviation museums (such as the IWM, Duxford and the RAFM, Hendon) have restored Thompsons on public display.  The Brooklands Museum has just acquired an example. But no more than 19 original vehicles are known to survive in the UK with a few others believed to be in museums overseas.

Acknowledgements Peter Amos, Aviation Photo News/Brian Stainer, Gordon Blunden, Ron Brant, George Burton, Nigel Dawe, Geoff Dovey, Peter Edmunds, Paul Francis, the late David Gilbert, Maurice Jones, Terry Kearney, Chris Morris (The Shuttleworth Collection), Andy Simpson (RAF Museum), Tom Singfield, Bill Taylor, Nick Webb and Allan Winn


A:  Books

Author unknown (1942) : Guide to Flying, (published by 'The Aeroplane' -advert for TB Refuelling Units on p.xxvi.

Air Publication AP2782A (1947 edition) - Data Book of RAF Vehicles -(copy held at RAF Museum, Hendon)

Boulton, Jim & Parsons, Harold (date?)"Powered Vehicles Made in the Black Country" (publisher?). Copy of brief ref toThompson Bros. (Received via A Simpson, 1994)

Douglas, Alton (2nd impression, 1985) "The Black Country At War - A Pictorial Account 1939-45" (Beacon Broadcasting Ltd, Wolverhampton) -WW2 factory scenes: p.37 (line-up of 10 new vehicles awaiting delivery to the RAF) & p.43 (production scene inside factory with Bedford[?] water tankers in foreground and Thompsons in background).

Woodley, Charles (1992, hardback) "Golden Age - British Civil Aviation 1945-1965" (Airlife, ISBN 1 85310 259 8) -p.141 (b/w photo of the McAlpine Aviation fleet at Luton Airport in the early 1960's-with a pre-war "McAlpine"- liveried Thompson next to Bellman hangar).

B:   Periodicals

The Aeroplane, 24/6/1936 - p.506 (three-quarter rear view photo of 'The TB Refuelling Unit' complete with trailer and brief company details)

Air Britain Archive, No.3, 1995  see photo of an early 'TB' unit refuelling Railway Air Services DH 86 G-ACVY at Croydon in the late 1930s.

The Commercial Motor, 21 July 1939  see photo and half-page feature "Mobile Refuelling Equipment for Aircraft" on p.786

Flight International, c. November 1993  see photo of an early "TB" at the 'R&S RAF Civil Training College, Desford' in Roger Bacon's "Straight & Level" section

The Vintage Commercial Vehicle Magazine, December 1993  see photo of a postwar "Shell-BP" unit on p.185

C:  Photographs

Brooklands Museum; W J Taylor; Julian C Temple.

D:  Websites

www.Aeroshell.com;  ; Heiltrailer.com; Shell.com; Shell Aviation; Thompson Brothers.

Webmasters' note:  the Brooklands Museum has acquired a Thompson refueller and it, and the story of the refuellers generally, is now written up in Julian C. Temple, "Thompson Refueller Joins the Museum's Collection", Spirit: the Brooklands Magazine, Autumn 2003, pp.10 &11

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