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Sigh for a Merlin : The Henshaw

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

For our first foray into the inspiration behind The Biggs Collection, we have chosen to delve into the life that inspired the name of our cable-knit rollneck,

Alexander Adolphus Dumphries Henshaw, MBE had become a renowned and highly skilled air pilot before he had reached the age of thirty. His passion for flying began in the early 1930s, receiving his Private Pilot's License by 1932. He was adept at air racing, aerobatics and long-distance flying; all of which were still in their early stages of progress, so not without their risks.

His father advised him once that he may want to take precautions and wear a parachute. Sage advice as he had several accidents which resulted in his bailing out.

I think you had better wear a parachute, my boy.
"I think you had better wear a parachute, my boy."

He was, without doubt, an individual who tirelessly and unforgivingly pushed himself and aerial progress to their limits. On his solo long-distance flight from Gravesend to Cape Town and back (a record breaking 12,754-mile round trip completed in 4 days, 10 hours and 16 minutes), he was so exhausted he had to be lifted out of the cockpit of his Mew Gull aircraft.

His record stood for more than 70 years.

The aircraft was lovingly restored and can still be visited at The Shuttleworth Collection.

The Sigh of a Merlin

It was not until the outbreak of the Second World War that Henshaw found the aircraft that matched his enthusiasm and talent; The Supermarine Spitfire.

Invited by Jeffrey Quill (another flying legend) to become a Test Pilot, Henshaw soon became the Chief Test Pilot for The Vickers Factory at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham.

Along with his team of 25 test pilots, one of which was Peter Ayerst*, they tested every aircraft made at the factory; the factory built over half of the total output of every Spitfire ever made. Not to mention over 350 Avro Lancaster Bombers.

Henshaw is estimated to have tested 10% of all Spitfires and Seafires ever made.

Lancaster Bomber

It was Henshaw's insatiable appetite to push the limits of aircraft and pilot (and crew!), that he performed a barrel roll manoeuvre in the cumbersome and relatively slow four-engine Lancaster Bomber. No one has performed this feat since.


Thanks to his precision and sensitivity at the controls, the development of flight and aircraft advanced as it has. It is easy to forget that the development of the aircraft was urgent as the war continued. The responsibility of the Test Pilot's was great, and Henshaw's contribution to the development of an aircraft that was safe and serviceable for pilots with less experience in highly intense combat situations, should not be ignored or undervalued.

The Legacy

Alex Henshaw had been earmarked very early on as a namesake to honour but we just had difficulty in choosing the most appropriate garment from The Biggs Collection.

This is where the story of The Henshaw rollneck comes full circle.

We spend months researching and studying our history and as a result of this, the Henshaw rollneck came to being.

The design, with its dark wool cable-knit pattern, rolled-neck, single cuff, and shallow waistband was directly inspired by a photograph taken on 21st September 1940.

Wearing his jumper, second from right, is Squadron Leader Howard 'Billy' Burton, Commanding Office of 616 Squadron.

Squadron leader Howard "Billy" Burton

It this photograph that motivated us to create a design inspired by 'The Few' who took part during The Battle of Britain.

Like many of his peers, Wing Commander Howard 'Billy' Burton did not survive the war. He was returning to duties in North Africa as a passenger on a Hudson aircraft when it was shot down in 1943. He is remembered on The Runnymede Air Forces Memorial, Surrey.

The rich history of The Henshaw Rollneck will continue to take pride of place as one of our signature pieces.

*After the war, Peter Ayerst returned to his home in Kent. It is there that the owner of Stanley Biggs met him many years later. Sophie spent many an hour listening to Peter recount his life and experiences. Fortunately, he published this life for prosperity; "Spirit of the Blue: A Fighter Pilot's Story".

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