Made In North Yorkshire: Sir George Cayley

Our second Great North Yorkshire Son or Daughter, is Sir George Cayley, known as the ‘Father of Flight’. George Cayley was born in 1773 in the Paradise area of Scarborough (probably at Paradise House, where there is now a blue plaque commemorating his birth). He died in Brompton-by-Sawdon in 1857, aged 83 years old.

Engraving taken from a photographic portrait of Sir George Cayley, including his signature, published in 1843.

His childhood was spent in the village of Brompton-by-Sawdon, where his family had held the baronetcy title since 1661. He was educated by tutors, and his mother, Isabella, ensured his education focused on mathematics and physics. Surrounded by North Yorkshire’s nature and wildlife, George Cayley was an inquisitive child, who took inspiration for his inventions from the rural landscape and birds surrounding him.

ZCA Pen and ink sketch of Sir George Cayley as a boy. Drawn for Scarborough Mercury by Viscountess Donne from an original watercolour in December 1957.

Dr Mary Jones, resident of Brompton-by-Sawdon began to imagine some of the stories and scenarios George may have found himself in as a child in the village, and has recently published these ideas in a children’s book entitled ‘George Cayley’s Curious Summer’. Here’s Dr Mary Jones explaining more about her book and George Cayley’s early life:

Discovery and Innovation

By the time George was 19 (1793) both his father and grandfather had died, at which point George became the 6th Baronet, and moved into the main property of the estate at Brompton Hall (now a school for boys with special educational needs). Not long after George moved into Brompton Hall, he constructed a workshop within the grounds where he could experiment and create many of his inventions. The workshop still exists today, and George’s initials and notes can be seen carved into the doorframe dated from 1820.

Throughout his life, Sir George Cayley created many inventions, which over time have been developed to become things which we now use and take for granted in our day to day lives. Vivian Bairstow is a life member of Brompton Local History Society, and is married to the 4th great granddaughter of Sir George Cayley. He spoke to us to tell us more about Sir George, his life in Brompton, and his many, many, inventions:

Inventions timeline

Father of Flight

Out of all of his creations, Sir George Cayley is perhaps best known for his revolutionary theories surrounding aviation. In 1853 he made history when he flew the world’s first human carrying glider across Brompton dale. At almost 80 years old, Sir George Cayley considered himself too old to fly the glider himself. Instead he ordered his coachman to fly the glider, who upon a bumpy landing said:

“Please, Sir George, I wish to give notice, I was hired to drive and not to fly!”.

Nonetheless, Sir George Cayley had achieved something world-changing. Only fifty years after his breakthrough, in 1903, the Wright brothers flew the first powered flight in America. The Wright brothers credited Cayley’s discovery, as Cayley himself was already aware of the need for an engine to sustain flight (as shown in the image of his experimental air engine below). In his first triple paper on Aerial Navigation of 1809/1810, Sir George Cayley wrote:

“I feel perfectly confident that this noble art will be brought to man’s general convenience and that we shall be able to transport ourselves and families, with goods and chattels, more securely by air than by land or water, with a velocity of from 20 – 100 miles per hour.”

ZCA Pamphlet entitled “Practical Remarks on Aerial Navigation” by Sir George Cayley bart. Reprinted from the Mechanics’ Magazine No.708, 4 March 1837.

The 150th anniversary of Sir George Cayley’s first flight was celebrated in 2003, when Sir Richard Branson visited Brompton-by-Sawdon, and flew a replica of Sir George Cayley’s 1853 glider. This glider, alongside a dedicated ‘Pioneers of Aviation’ exhibition, which includes reference to Sir George Cayley, is now held and available to view at the Yorkshire Air Museum.

The Brompon-by-Sawdon village sign, funded by the village’s 2003 ‘150’ celebrations, which commemorated the 150th anniversary of Sir George Cayley’s first human flying glider in 1853.

Philanthropist and Political Thinker

Sir George Cayley’s inventions were often inspired by his tendency to look out for those less privileged than himself, which is a key attribute that makes him a Great North Yorkshire Son. Ian Richardson, Head of Memorial and Heritage at the Yorkshire Air Museum stated:

‘He was continuously concerned with railway safety, inventing the first ‘seat belt’ for restraining rail passengers in the event of a collision. Cayley was appalled by the fact that second and third class passengers in their carriages were the ‘buffer’ for first class travellers’.

He has been described as a philanthropist, and someone who cared about those who had suffered. In 1837 he created the first ever artificial hand for the son of one of his tenants, George Douseland, who tragically lost his hand in an accident at Brompton mill. Ian Richardson continues:

‘The mechanical hand was an incredible deviation from his path, but so typical of Cayley to respond to someone in need’.  

Pamphlet showing the workings of the artificial hand invented by George Cayley.
Reprinted from the “Mechanics’ Magazine” for March 1845.

Other legacies

Cayley extended this care to the political sphere, when he was elected as the Whig MP for Scarborough between 1832 and 1834. 

In 1838 Sir George Cayley founded the Polytechnic Institution (now the University of Westminster) in Regent Street, London to encourage innovation and demonstrate new inventions to the public.

He was also one of the early founding members, and Vice President of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. The Yorkshire Philosophical Society was established in 1822 to promote the public understanding of the sciences. The society still exists today, and we spoke to Andy Marvin, council member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and avid glider pilot to learn more about the society and Sir George’s influence upon aviation:


Thank you to the members of the public and related societies and institutions for sharing their knowledge and stories of Sir George Cayley with us.

Further information

If you are interested in finding out more about Sir George Cayley, the North Yorkshire County Record Office holds a ‘Cayley family of Brompton’ collection (Ref: ZCA), which includes personal papers as well as sketches and diagrams relating to his inventions. View a description of the collection by searching our online catalogue.

Vivian Bairstow has published three books on the local history of Brompton-by-Sawdon, which include reference to Sir George Cayley. They are entitled:

  • ‘All Saints’ Church Brompton-by-Sawdon A History and Guide’
  • ‘Brompton Village Hall, A Century of Service 1912-2012’
  • ‘Brompton Village Trail: with Notes on Sir George Cayley, Aviation Pioneer’

All three books are available to purchase through Dr Mary Jones via email at drmaryjones@hotmail.com.

Dr Mary Jones’ book, ‘George Cayley’s Curious Summer’ is for both children and adults, and can be purchased on the YPD Books website.

Many of Sir George Cayley’s original notebooks have now been digitised on the Royal Aeronautical Society website, which include reference to many of his inventions.

The Yorkshire Philosophical Society website also has a ‘Yorkshire Scientists and Innovators’ article on Sir George Cayley, which further discusses the importance of his glider.

More information about Sir George Cayley’s replica glider held at the Yorkshire Air Museum, and their ‘Pioneers of Aviation’ exhibition can be found through their website.

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