George Bennie (18911957), by unknown photographer, 1928
Bennie, George (18911957), inventor, was born on 29 August 1891 in Auldhousefield, Harriet Street, Pollokshaws, near Glasgow, the second of four children of John Bennie of John Bennie Ltd, general and hydraulic engineers, and his second wife, Elizabeth Gillespie. His father, who owned the Star Engine Works in Calton, in Glasgow's East End, had eight children with his first wife, Elizabeth Fisher. George was brought up at Auldhousefield, the family's mansion. There is no known record of his school education, and he may have served an apprenticeship in the Star Engine Works before the outbreak of the First World War. He joined the Army Service Corps in October 1914 to serve as a shoesmith before becoming an air mechanic in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, and then an aero-engine fitter.
After the war Bennie lived with his mother in the family's home, Normanhurst, in Craigmore, near the holiday resort of Rothesay on the island of Bute. He seems to have had a comfortable private income which permitted him to work on the development of a number of minor inventions. These included a putter that he claimed would enable more accuracy on the golf course. However, the greatest amount of his energy was devoted to the design and promotion of the George Bennie railplane system of transport, to provide safe, rapid rail services for passengers, mail, and perishable goods.
Bennie was granted his first airplane-related patents in the early 1920s. He quickly gained publicity for his scheme, which was publicized in 1923 as one of a number of futuristic transport systems that might be built in connection with the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, north London. The railplane was intended to solve one of the great transport challenges of the day, achieving faster means of travel without the expense of taking to the air. It was claimed to offer the passenger flight, with all the dangers and uncertainties eliminated (Herald, 22 Nov 1921). Bennie described his invention in his booklet The George Bennie Railplane System of Transport, published about 1930.
Bennie's railplane was a self-propelled passenger car driven by propellers, fore and aft, along a single overhead rail suspended from a series of simple steel gantries. Since the gantries could be erected above existing railway lines, the construction of a track would require the acquisition of much less new land than a conventional railway or roadway. The lightweight car was designed to achieve speeds of 120200 m.p.h., and its underside was connected to a guide rail that prevented swaying. The design of the car was heavily influenced by that of airship gondolas. William Beardmore & Co. built a prototype for Bennie at the Dalmuir works, where several airships including the famous R34 were built.
The George Bennie Railplane Trust Ltd was formed in 1927 to develop the system commercially, but the company was apparently inactive and was dissolved in 1933. Inter-Counties Ltd was formed the following year, with Bennie as one of the directors. In 1929 work began to erect a test track, 130 metres long, above a siding to the London and North East Railway line at Burnbrae, near Milngavie station. The Bennie railplane test track was opened in July 1930 and guests were taken on short runs in the luxurious surroundings of the well-appointed car. Hundreds of visitors were said to have included David Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald, and railway company directors from the United Kingdom and many other countries.
Newspapers reported interest in building railplane lines from Blackpool to Southport; from Manchester to Liverpool; from London to Croydon airport; and in Palestine. Charles Boot of Henry Boot (Construction) Ltd became involved with Inter-Counties Ltd to promote a cross-London railplane connection between Dagenham and Waltham Avenue, in connection with a major slum clearance programme, as well as a railplaneseaplane service connecting London, Paris, and Brussels. However, the prospects of commercial investment in new transport links were severely damaged by the onset of the depression after 1929. The Minister of Transport announced in 1931 that he would not make any further investigation of the Bennie system, in which the inventor had invested so much of his time and personal fortune.
In 1936 Bennie ceased to be a director of Inter-Counties Ltd and transferred his rights to the railplane patents to the firm. He was adjudged bankrupt in February 1937 with unsecured debts of £5,061 and contingent liabilities of £22,231. He told the London bankruptcy court in June that his embarrassment was due to delay in settling payment from Inter-Counties Ltd for his patents, and that he expected to have a substantial surplus over his liabilities.
Inter-Counties Ltd continued to develop the railplane concept after Bennie's departure, with no commercial success. Bennie worked on alone, and was granted eight new railplane-related patents during the 1940s. The town planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie championed the cause of the brilliant Scots inventor (The Times, 3 Dec 1952), proposing the construction of a railplane system in Plymouth and another to link Gatwick and Heathrow airports with central London. Bennie himself put forward proposals to build an overhead railway on the Isle of Wight and in other places. None of the proposals was taken up. Bennie died in a nursing home at Epsom, Surrey, on 19 November 1957, a year after the railplane test line at Milngavie was sold for scrap.
Bennie was a keen golfer, and presented the Bennie trophy for the annual Bute amateur open championship. He was also an enthusiastic sailor, acquiring a 25 foot motor launch, the Devonia. There were newspaper reports in 1935 that he was interested in acquiring Feorlinn, a mansion in Colintraive, for a hotel, but it is unclear if his plans came to fruition. He was certainly interested in the development of tourism on Bute, presenting a scheme for the construction of a leisure centre in Rothesay, and reportedly put up a prize for the fastest ferry crossing from the mainland. He did not marry.
Iain F. Russell
W. B. Black, The Bennie railplane (2004) · M. Thwaite, The George Bennie railplane and Hugh Fraser airrail systems of transport, privately printed (2004) · G. Bennie, The George Bennie railplane system of transport [n.d.] · The Herald [Glasgow] (22 Nov 1921), 9 · The Times (24 Nov 1923); (19 Nov 1931), 7; (31 Aug 1933), 7; (10 Oct 1933); (11 Oct 1933), 9; (1 Sept 1936); (1 July 1937); (3 Dec 1952), 9; (21 Oct 1953), 4 · The Scotsman (28 Oct 1930); (19 June 1935) · Milngavie and Bearsden Herald (3 July 1937)
U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, records of the railplane designed by George Bennie, GB 248, DC 085
Scottish Screen Archive, The George Bennie railplane system of transport, 1930
photograph, 1928, U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre [see illus.] · J. A. Hampton, two group portraits, photographs, 1930, Getty Images, London · photograph, Science and Society Picture Library, London