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Archives Biographies: Sir Eric Mensforth

Sir Eric Mensforth was a leader of the engineering industry and a pioneer in the development of the helicopter in Britain.

Education and early employment

Head and shoulders portrait of Sir Eric Mensforth.

Born 17 May 1906 in Stretford, Manchester, Eric was the second son of Sir Holberry Mensforth. He was educated at Altrincham county high school, University College School, London and King’s College, Cambridge, where he read mechanical sciences. He went on to join the engineering section of the Woolwich Arsenal, then served his apprenticeship with Mather & Platt, before embarking on international engineering experience with Klocknernak BG in Germany. He returned to join English Electric where he established the domestic appliance division in 1931.

In the mid 1930s Mensforth became a board member of the John Brown & Co Ltd, the shipbuilding company. As the company was looking to expand into the aircraft industry, Mensforth recommended Westland Aircraft, a small company in Yeovil, Somerset, which had been established as an offshoot of a local oil company, Petters. By 1938 John Brown and Co. had taken over the company and with Mensforth as its first managing director, Westland Aircraft became the foremost manufacturer of spitfires.

Development of the helicopter

Mensforth’s career developed further in 1943 when he became production advisor to Sir Stafford Cripps of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. It was in this capacity he travelled to America and became acquainted with Igor Sikorsky, a Russian-born designer who had worked extensively on helicopter technology in the 1930s. 

In 1946, Sikorsky agreed to grant Mensforth a licence to build designs owned by his American company, Bell & Sikorsky. This resulted in production of the Dragonfly - chosen for the Royal Navy's first helicopter squadron, formed in 1950 - followed by Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea King, the latter with full anti-submarine warfare capacity.

The British Government had initially been reluctant to buy helicopters of American design, but Westland's proved themselves more effective than those of rival firms built to British designs and eventually, Westland became the only substantial British maker of military helicopters. From 1945 to 1995, ten different major helicopters were built in Britain along the lines established between Sikorsky and Westland.

Although in the post-war years Mensforth moved on from Westland to manage another arm of the John Brown and Co. group, T. Firth and John Brown Ltd., in Sheffield, he continued to stay connected to Westland. He served as Chairman from 1953 to 1968, and as President from 1979 to 1985, when he retired at the age of 76.

Positions held

Mensforth was the chairman of the Economic Development Council and of the Council of Engineering Institutions. He was also President of the Institution of Production Engineers, and a founder of the Fellowship of Engineering, which in due course became the Royal Academy of Engineering. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1951. 

During his years in Sheffield Mensforth was heavily involved with the local business community. He was Deputy Lieutenant of South Yorkshire and Master Cutler from 1965-1966. In 1969 he was the chairman of governors for Sheffield Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University, and their library is named after him.He was appointed CBE in 1945 and knighted in 1962.

His publications include Air Frame Production (1947) and the Cantor Lectures: Future of the Aeroplane (1959).

He married Betty Francis in 1934, and had three daughters. He died in 2000, at the age of 93. 

The Viscount Nuffield/Mensforth Lecture

The Sir Eric Mensforth International Manufacturing Lecture was established in his honour. In 1991 the Institution of Manufacturing Engineers (formerly the Institution of Production Engineers) amalgamated with the IEE and this lecture became the IEE's, and subsequently the IET's prestige manufacturing lecture. 

The Viscount Nuffield/ Mensforth Lecture was established as a result of the combining of the Viscount Nuffield Lecture and the Sir Eric Mensforth International Manufacturing Lecture in 2003.