‘Five Golden Years of Civil Aviation on Sheppey’
The history of Sheppey’s involvement with aviation started in 1901, when Charles Rolls, and Frank and Vera Butler took to ballooning and resolved to form an Aero Club. They chose Shellbeach as a site relatively free from obstructions at which they could practice their new pursuit. It was possibly through them that the newly formed Aero Club chose the Short Brothers, who were balloon manufacturers, to be appointed as the Club’s official engineers. This appointment was to prove a huge asset to Sheppey.
The (Royal) Aero Club.
When, in February 1909, the Aero Club obtained land at Shellbeach and established a flying ground, the first buildings to be erected were Shorts workshops for the manufacture of aeroplanes, quickly followed by two sheds for the use of Aero Club members, members were also encouraged to erect their own sheds, many did so. I think it true to say the original concept of the Aero Club was as a ‘Sporting Club’, certainly true of their original activity in ballooning, while the older Aeronautical Society concerned themselves with the theoretical side. The early ‘sporting’ aspect of the Aero Club is borne out by their efforts to establish accommodation and a Club House, they extolled the virtues of Shellbeach by pointing out the availability of sea bathing and golf facilities, later they were to add shooting, over 1,000 acres, to their attractions. For the Club House they were fortunate to obtain the use of Muswell Manor. It is sometimes claimed Muswell Manor was the headquarters of the Aero Club, but this does not appear to reflect the facts. The Club’s headquarters were situated at 166, Piccadilly, from where the Secretary issued all official notices.
The Club’s implied ‘sporting’ attitude was to change in May 1909 with the arrival of the first aviators at Shellbeach, they were not just sportsmen, but were motivated with the desire to experiment and advance airplane design. It is probably fair to say the greater part of the men who flew here could be described as ‘specialists’ more so than of the ‘sporting’ variety. The presence of the Short brothers was of immense benefit to these men, they built many of their machines, often modified to individual requirements, and the Brothers skilled craftsmen were time and again called upon to repair their aircraft after the numerous crashes they incurred.
A surprising number of today’s flying enthusiasts are unaware of the part Sheppey played in the development of British aviation. Why should this be? It is likely a combination of factors were responsible, the Aero Club, having assumed a dual role in British aviation, expressed the desire to reserve Sheppey as a centre for experimentation, with the discouragement of access to the general public, admission initially restricted to Club members. Indeed, some reports in the Aero Club’s publication ‘Flight’ advocated that Sheppey should “continue to be the place at which manufacturers experiments will be carried out, and where the scientific investigation of new devices may be made in secrecy”, and ‘annoyance or interruption during private work’, while Brooklands should be the place for “amateurs and fledglings who were just learning to flap their wings”. This, combined with the Islands relative isolation, meant Sheppey did not have the exposure to public gaze or Press that more accessible flying grounds enjoyed. Sheppey’s relatively short duration as a civil aviation centre, a mere five years, before becoming a military establishment would also play a part.
Why choose Sheppey in the first place? Early aeroplanes were barely able to lift off the ground, let alone attain any great height. Neither did they have the ability to make tight turns, what was required was an area free of obstructions. Sheppey had this in plenty in the low-lying regions of the Island, a fact that had already been recognised by the founding members of the Aero Club for ballooning. The first Britons learnt to fly in France, Club members unsurprisingly wanted to practice their sport in Britain, what better place than one with which they were already familiar, Shellbeach. Wilbur Wright was to later comment on Shellbeach “Here we have ample room for a ten-mile flight without obstruction, as against our four or five hundred yards in the States”.
Although Laffan’s Plain was where the first flight in Britain took place, by the then American, Samuel Cody, I contend that Shellbeach should be regarded as the Birthplace of British Aviation, it was there that the first Britons were to fly in this country, it was where the Short Brothers set up the worlds first true aircraft production line, and it was where Britons started to play ‘catch-up’ with our Continental cousins in aircraft design.
Shellbeach to Eastchurch.
The significance of Shellbeach however was to be of short duration, limitations regarding road access, and the unevenness of the ground caused Horace and Eustace Short to tour the Island by car looking for a more suitable site, this they identified at Eastchurch. The new site was Stonepitts Farm, which Frank McClean purchased, and gave the use of to the Aero Club for a peppercorn rent. Fliers started to re-locate their machines and sheds from Shellbeach, C.S. Rolls being the first to arrive in November 1909, being quickly followed in December, by Huntingdon, McClean, Percy Grace, Egerton and Moore-Brabazon. Others were to arrive, Travers, Jezzi, George, Dunne, Brocklehurst etc. later the Short brothers relocated, their skills and those of their craftsmen were to prove of inestimable value. Together they formed a concentration of notable aviation pioneers and facilities, the like of which was probably not to be found elsewhere. We must remember however that Sheppey was not the be-all and end-all of the development of aviation in this country, others were at work elsewhere, often without the benefit of the facilities, or finance, available to their Island counterparts. People like Cody, Roe, Sopwith, Singer etc. who were all making invaluable contributions to aeronautical design, some becoming major aircraft manufacturers.
As with all endeavours there are some who may be termed ‘main players’. Sheppey had these in plenty, the aviators Moore-Brabazon, C. S. Rolls, John Dunne among them, but the Short brothers and Frank McClean stand out as being particularly significant in Sheppey’s history.
The two younger brothers, Eustace and Oswald, balloon manufacturers in Battersea since 1898, were joined in 1908 by their brother Horace (often described as a genius), and formed a new company under the name of Short Brothers. When the Wright brothers came to Europe to demonstrate their ‘flying machine’, the Aero Club sent them, as the Club’s official engineers, to France, to meet the Wrights. They must have impressed them sufficiently, so that when the Wrights visited Shellbeach, and being impressed by the brother’s factory (the Wrights also liked Sheppey’s isolation, being keen to protect their interests) they gave the Short’s sole rights to build 6 ‘Wright Flyers’ in Britain. With all six machines being pre-ordered the Short brothers were in a secure position, soon employing 8o men. No doubt aided by the Wright technology available to them, they proceeded to design and build their own aeroplanes, they made many innovations and were among the first to trial float- planes. The expertise and facilities they were able to give to the pioneering aviators, and the embryonic Royal Naval Air Service, were undoubtedly of great importance in establishing Sheppey’s status. A thought arises from this regarding the Wright brother’s involvement, if they had not given the Shorts a licence to build their planes, would Shorts, and Sheppey, have developed the way they did? Perhaps it can be said the Wrights were partly responsible for both.
Undoubtedly Sheppey’s main benefactor, without his backing it is unlikely the Island would have developed to the extent it did. A man of some wealth, he helped finance the levelling of the ground at Shellbeach, making it suitable for aeroplanes to operate, but he also purchased Stonepitt’s Farm at Eastchurch, levelled it and gave its use to the Aero Club members at a nominal rent. With the government being reluctant to adopt aircraft into the military, he staged a stunt. Flying the length of the Thames from Harty, passing through the arches of Tower Bridge and under the other Thames bridges, and then alighting opposite the Houses of Parliament in his Shorts seaplane. Following the Admiralty accepting his offer of the loan of aircraft, and the use of the Eastchurch flying ground, four volunteer Naval officers arrived, leading to the first Royal Naval Air Service Station coming into being. (He was supported in this by Travers, who gave the use of his bungalow for the officers accommodation, the Short brothers who provided technical training, and George Cockburn who gave flying tuition.) A ‘London Times’ obituary (August 12, 1955) said he “may be said to have been the founder of naval flying as he certainly was the founder of amateur flying in heavier than air machines in Britain”. McClean himself became a member of the RNAS, flying Channel patrols before returning to Eastchurch as an instructor.
Royal Naval Air Service.
The first four Naval officers commenced their training at Eastchurch in March 1911, within 2 months all had gained their aviators certificates. Some went on to attain high rank, Air Chief Marshall Longmore, Air Commodore Gerrard and Air Commodore Samson. The latter of these, Samson, was to be much involved in the early developments in the use of aviation for military and naval purposes. Among his experimental flights are listed the first take offs from ships both at anchor and under way, trialling night flights and landings without lights, he helped develop bomb sights, and while commanding the Eastchurch Squadron in Belgium he had vehicles plated with metal sheets, these ‘armoured cars’ he then used to attack enemy lines, often combining aircraft and armoured cars in attacks. But the coming of the RNAS to Eastchurch, something of which we should be proud, was to ultimately spell the end of civil flying on Sheppey, with the untimely arrival of war, in 1914, and Sheerness Royal Naval base making the Island an area of some security significance. Government concerns regarding the vulnerability of military installations being subject to air attack had already been raised, the mysterious appearance of an airship over Sheerness in 1912 had precipitated this. On the outbreak of war the Eastchurch flying ground was immediately heavily guarded by a strong force of troops, access to the island was severely restricted, with residents and visitors alike being required to have a pass issued by the Area Military Commander, Sheppey was dubbed ‘Barbed Wire Island’.
(Sir) Winston Churchill, when First Lord of the Admiralty, displayed an interest in aviation and visited Eastchurch frequently, where he was given two long instructional flights, by RNAS officer Capt. Lushington in the school dual control Short No.2. Possibly Churchill’s influence allowed the navy to retain some amount of independence when the RNAS became the ‘naval wing’ of the new Royal Flying Corp. The ‘naval wing’ continued to embrace innovations and a variety of aircraft, while the ‘military wing’ was more conservative. It was not long before the naval wing was again re-designated as the RNAS. They were however to disappear in 1918 when they were absorbed into the newly formed, independent, Royal Air Force. Eastchurch then became an RAF establishment and would remain so until its closure in 1947. The airfield was relinquished to the Home Office to provide prison accommodation, today three prisons occupy the site.
The Present Day.
Today Muswell Manor has a special significance, in that it is the only one of the Islands surviving buildings from that era that the public may visit, where you may walk in the footsteps of pioneering giants like the Wright brothers, the Short’s, Moore-Brabazon, Rolls, McClean etc. The Club House at the Manor provided a place where the growing numbers of members could relax and socialise, and where, probably, many a friendly argument on the merits of technical innovations took place, if only the walls could talk, what stories they could tell……….. It was also here that Club members entertained Orville and Wilbur Wright on their 1909 visit to Sheppey, recorded in the historic photo taken outside the Manor. The other buildings, all of immense historical importance, hangars, workshops, sheds, are not readily accessible by the public, being ensconced within the prison complex, it is to be hoped the ‘Flying Start’ project may yet be successful in their attempt to take over and preserve them.
T.W.B. February 2009