The story of the Severn speed king who gave boats some Wallie

For almost 50 years businessman, designer and inventor Walter Davies kept a remarkable scrapbook.

One of Wallie's hydrogliders at Ironbridge in July 1937, with famous coracle man Harry Rogers in attendance. Three Black Country friends took it on a holiday trip from Gloucester to Shrewsbury, but didn't quite reach the county town because of the weir.
One of Wallie's hydrogliders at Ironbridge in July 1937, with famous coracle man Harry Rogers in attendance. Three Black Country friends took it on a holiday trip from Gloucester to Shrewsbury, but didn't quite reach the county town because of the weir.

Running to 74 pages and packed with over 120 original photographs, cuttings, and memorabilia, it is a goldmine charting a lifetime of creativity, adventure, and innovation.

It includes his exploits on the River Severn at Bewdley where he broke world water speed records, and recording his eventful trips upriver to the Ironbridge Gorge and beyond where his appearance would create a minor sensation.

The scrapbook spans 1921 to 1970.

Walter, of Dudley, was a pioneer and great champion of the hydroglider, which today we would call an airboat.

With his designs he was in the vanguard in overcoming a barrier to boat speed as profound as the sound barrier which had scientists and aviators pondering the challenges of achieving supersonic flight.

And when speed king and national hero Donald Campbell set a new world water speed record in 1955, Wallie – this seems to have been his preferred spelling – was able to point out the similarities in the design of Campbell's famous Bluebird to the first hydroglider he had built, fully 34 years beforehand.

Walter Davies pointed out that Donald Campbell's famous Bluebird, seen here on Ullswater gearing up for its 1955 world record breaking feat, shared design features he had pioneered 34 years previously.

The scrapbook begins in 1921, the year he built that first craft, and the last entries are in 1970, just two years before his death.

It is a unique and invaluable record, now in the possession of Telford antiquarian and rare books dealer Andrew Cox.

"I bought it at an auction in Shrewsbury about three or four years ago," he said.

"It's fascinating, a really interesting piece of local history. I try to go for interesting, unusual, one-off things, and this is certainly unique. As a book dealer I bought it to resell, obviously, and it is for sale."

Andrew had never heard of Walter Davies before, and does not know who had the scrapbook previously.

"The auction house does not let you know that sort of information."

At the drawing board in later life.

He added: "I'm not an expert on him and I haven't read through it as I haven't got time when I have so many things for sale."

Nevertheless he has researched information about Walter online for the purposes of describing it for sale, and added one or two snippets extracted from within the scrapbook itself.

Andrew doesn't want to say how much he paid, and thinks the item would be of interest to an institutional library collection, such as the archives in Dudley or Shropshire because of the great local history relevance to those places. The asking price reflects the unique nature of the item – £1,500.

"I paid a reasonable amount of money for it, so I can't give it away."

Anybody interested can take a look through his Andrew Cox Rare Books website.

So who was Walter Davies and what was the significance of his work?

Designers of boats and ships which travel through the water face a hydrodynamic barrier which limits their maximum speed.

There's traditionally a very rough and ready rule of thumb, that the maximum speed (in knots) of a boat or ship is the square root of its waterline length (in feet) multiplied by 1.34.

Or, to put it simply, the longer a boat or ship is, the faster it can go.

Short boats are condemned to be slow boats then? Not necessarily.

Wallie did not break the rule – he sidestepped it, or rather, overrode it. Instead of travelling through the water, his creations rode on top of the water. They were planing boats, which freed the speed. Speedboats and hydrofoil boats also achieve high speeds using this method.

For Wallie, all that was a given, and what he would instead highlight was the benefits of being able to operate in shallow water and having no underwater propeller to be fouled by weeds.

His creations were driven from the rear by an aircraft-style propeller and were steered by aircraft-style rudders.

His first design in 1920 was a conventional boat called Oak Leaf I, trialled at Park Head canal in Dudley.

"Parkhead, Dudley, Nov 20th 1920. First attempt at boat building, Oak Leaf I."

He began building hydrogliders in 1921 with Oak Leaf II, which incorporated a narrow main hull with twin floats to give stability. The floats had curved outer sides and flat inner sides, designed to give a minimum resistance in the water.

Wallie, who had riverside hydroglider hangars at Bewdley, took out a patent in the 1930s but it had lapsed, and all he was claiming as he spoke to one of our reporters in 1955 was that the Bluebird layout was similar.

However, he said: "I think it is interesting that an idea which I designed so long ago, and which the Admiralty scoffed at, should now be used to set up a world water speed record."

Other than the basic design, Oak Leaf II and Bluebird were poles apart. Wallie's craft was powered by a 40 horsepower Anzani engine and reached a top speed of 21mph. Bluebird boasted 4,000 horsepower and set a world record speed on Ullswater in July 1955 of 202 mph. The current record is 317mph.

Wallie's first hydroglider, Oak Leaf II, in 1921. With him is his brother-in-law Sid Bray, also from Dudley.

Born in Springmere, Dudley, in April 1891, Walter Davies went to Harts Hill School, later called Holly Hall School.

He first showed an interest in aeronautics at the age of 19 when he was awarded first prize by Birmingham Model Aero Club for the most original model.

A year later he built what is believed to be the first aero glider in the Midlands, and flew it in Priory Fields, Dudley. The following year he ascended in a balloon from the top of Dudley Castle and reached a height of 4,500ft before landing at Coleshill.

Wallie went on to work as an aircraft designer and was responsible for the development of the Anzani Cawdron biplane.

And seven years after he had designed Oak Leaf II he built another hydroglider with a four horsepower engine and at Stourport he set up a world record of 35mph for a craft of that type.

The Express and Star's motoring correspondent Norman Ryder is given a ride at Stourport on May 2, 1928, on the day Wallie set a speed record of 35mph for a baby hydroglider.

In 1950 he created another world record for a 450 kilogram class hydroglider with 51.4mph on the River Severn at Bewdley with Lapwing, which had a draught of two inches, was bright blue and powered by a 100hp engine.

Wallie lived at 90 Aston Road in Dudley and was obviously a man of many parts as he also owned a cinema.

For the October 1950 record attempt he and his engineer Eddie Millington waited months for ideal weather. In perfect conditions, and wearing a lifebelt – Wallie was safety conscious – he climbed into the cockpit at Folly Point to start his four runs up and down the river. Because of the danger of jagged rocks downstream, he chose to make his record attempt against the 4mph current.

Waving his stopwatch to the group watching from the bank, he shouted: "I've done it. The record is beaten by 3mph."

Afterwards he took the Express and Star reporter and photographer covering the event up river in the hydroglider, reaching 40mph before throwing it into a broadside skid in shallow broken water, sending up a cloud of spray.

"You see I have had to be satisfied with record breaking on a somewhat smaller scale than Donald Campbell," he conceded modestly when he called in to the Express and Star office at Dudley in 1955 for his little chat.

By that time had built a total of 23 craft and was president of South Staffordshire Hydroplane Club.

Some of his trips on the River Severn were covered in fascination by the press, and even filmed by Pathe News.

An early adventure of one of his hydrogliders was reported in the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News on November 3, 1923.

An early design in the shadow of the Jackfield Free Bridge during an eventful trip on the flooded River Severn in 1923.

"Designed by Mr Walter F W Davies of Dudley, it intended to go from Highley to Shrewsbury, but turned back five miles short because of floodwaters, and on its return it crashed into the Iron Bridge.

"Later it went downstream but at Potter’s Loade, near Highley, hit a rope across the river, tipping all three on board into the water."

Mr Davies and his companions clung to some overhanging branches until they were rescued by four women with clothes lines.

Wallie's hydroglider hangars at Bewdley.

In July 1932 he travelled from Bewdley to Shrewsbury in hydroglider D7, a catamaran design, in what he claimed was the first time that journey had been made by a power-driven boat.

In July 1937 his brother-in-law Sid Bray of Dudley and friends Mr F Garbett, also of Dudley, and a Mr Briscoe, from West Bromwich, tried to take a holiday trip in one of Wallie's craft from Gloucester to Shrewsbury, but didn't quite make the county town as it proved too wide to get through the gap in the weir in Shrewsbury.

Wallie himself led another trip the following year, reported by the Shrewsbury Chronicle in August 1938.

"Residents of Iron-Bridge and district had a thrill on Monday afternoon," it said.

"A fine 80 h.p. hydro-glider, the 'Severn Star', came up the river, taking the Coalport rapids without pause, and came gracefully to rest just above the toll bridge. A crowd quickly gathered...

"The hydro-glider, which has been in commission only a fortnight, was brought up by Mr Davies of Dudley, who built it, with a party of six, including three ladies. The party called on Mr Harry Rogers, an old friend, and the ladies went out on the river with him in his coracle..."

Harry Rogers was a famous Ironbridge coracle maker.

It was one of these trips which was witnessed by Jackfield local historian Ron Miles, now 93.

"It was like two canoes with a platform and an aeroplane engine at the back," he said. Although Ron's memory is still sharp, he no longer remembers seeing it personally, but clearly did because he told us for a 2011 feature about it: "It made a devil of a noise. We all saw it. We rushed out of our houses."

Wallie's passion lasted his lifetime. According to Andrew Cox's delving, in later years he diversified to designing motor boats for a company based in Kingswinford and after his retirement he was a passenger on board the world's first hovercoach service operated by British United Airways in 1962.

There was also a trip in an early passenger-carrying hydrofoil in 1964.

Busy to the end, Wallie spent his retirement making models of hovercraft and ships until his death in 1972.

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