Timeline. 1909 – 1914
This Timeline, which covers the years of ‘Civil’ aviation on Sheppey, was compiled (with additional personal comments [TWB]) from reports published in ‘Flight’
magazine. The full reports are available online at flightglobal.com
January. From the first edition of ‘Flight’ (No.1 Vol.1 published 2nd January 1909) it was apparent the eyes of British enthusiasts were firmly on events in Europe. (It was to France that our early pioneers had gone to learn to fly and become familiar with the intricacies of powered, heavier-than-air, aeroplanes. [TWB])
February. Signs of the change to come were in the February 27th issue2 when it reported that the Committee of the Aero Club, whose headquarters were at 166 Piccadilly, London, had finalised the agreement to acquire land at Shellbeach (Leysdown) for the purpose of establishing a flying ground. At the same time arrangements were made for the use of Muswell (Mussel/Muscle) Manor as a Club House, to provide accommodation and food for members. Additional accommodation was available at the Leysdown Hotel and further plans were made for converting the old Coastguard Station to provide an additional 30 bedrooms, and for members desiring more permanent accommodation bungalows were planned.
March. With the infrastructure plans in place Shellbeach started to develop. By early March3 the Short Brothers were already erecting workshops, these were later to develop into the first true aircraft production line, Club sheds were being erected and members were invited to erect their own sheds. Probably with a view to populating the flying ground, members were asked to provide details of aircraft they were building or contemplating purchasing.
April. In April4, with the ground finally being levelled, members wishing to make trial flights were invited to notify the Club Secretary. Shellbeach was about to ‘lift off’.
May. Historic events occurred in early May, Moore-Brabazon had arrived from France with his Voisin, Orville and Wilbur Wright visited Sheppey (the first of 3 visits) and met members of the Aero Club, the historic photo outside Muswell Manor is well known. The Wrights were surprised at what they saw, Wilbur saying5 “Shellbeach was the best flying ground he had ever seen, superior to any he had used elsewhere”. On May 8th a surprisingly low key report appeared6,it concerned the first flights by a Briton in Britain (nowadays any ‘first’ is spread across the tabloids and promptly reported to the Guinness Book of Records! [TWB]), Moore-Brabazon had flown his ‘Bird of Passage’ at Shellbeach (we must remember here that the first flight in Britain was by ‘Col’ Samuel Cody at Laffans Plain, he at the time still retained American citizenship, not taking British naturalisation until 1910 [TWB]). Flying at this time was still viewed as a ‘sport’7, but that was not what the Sheppey pioneers had in mind. By the end of the month the Club’s sheds were complete and already housing members machines, the Muswell Manor Club House was now open and supplying refreshments and the question of providing sleeping accommodation there was being considered8.
August. The flying ground is now being populated by enthusiasts, and machines of various types. In August9 it is reported that Frank McClean was testing his machine, built by the Short Bros, A. E. George is working and that Lieut. Dunne’s machine has arrived and Mr. Gibbs hopes to fly it shortly. Short Bros are extending their sheds, being busy working on building machines, including Short/Wright Flyers. (By September Shorts were employing 80 craftsmen. [TWB])
October. In October10 Mr. Moore- Brabazon entered for the Daily Mail prize of £1,000 for the first circular mile Flight by a Briton in an all-British machine. The Hon. C. S. Rolls in making short test flights had a slight accident resulting in his Wright flyer suffering a broken wing and damaged propellers.
November. Within a month Moore-Brabazon had captured the Daily Mail prize, flying his Short biplane for a circular mile at Shellbeach11. With more and more flying grounds being opened all over the country, the relative merits of the grounds were being discussed, and the use to which they should be put. Here, in the South East, Dagenham and Brooklands were now open in addition to Shellbeach. Sheppey’s relative isolation in comparison to the other two was both a disadvantage and an advantage. One writer12 put forward the assertion that Brooklands should be the place for “amateurs and fledglings who were just learning to flap their wings”, while Dagenham and Shellbeach 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”. In November C. S. Rolls and Moore-Brabazon were continuing to make flights pushing at the boundaries of what was possible13, and the new auxiliary flying ground at Eastchurch was established when C. S. Rolls flew his Wright flyer there having decided to relocate from Shellbeach14.
December. During December Eastchurch was developing rapidly, Prof. Huntingdon, Rolls, McClean, Percy Grace, Egerton and Moore-Brabazon having sheds there15, and Dunne was also there supervising tests on his machine for Mr.Gibbs16. Some members at this time were continuing to make flights at both Sheppey grounds but change was on the way, the emphasis was moving towards Eastchurch.
January. During January, at Eastchurch, work to improve the ground by ditch filling and drainage was carried out, and Major Brocklehurst and Mr. Jezzi had erected sheds17.
April. Moore-Brabazon won the Michelin cup for a flight of 18 ¾ miles in his Green engined Short at Eastchurch, Warwick Wright and Rawlinson were now flying there18.
July. In July Harbrow’s were erecting hangers for Samuel White and Jack Dare at Eastchurch, and Lieut. Dunne’s sheds were being moved there from Shellbeach19.. Flyers were now flying higher and higher, Cecil Grace returned to Eastchurch and flew at 4,500 feet,
September. September saw Eastchurch lose their ‘auxiliary’ title when the last two Aero Club sheds were brought from Shellbeach20., it was now the ‘Royal Aero Club Ground, Eastchurch’.
December. Tom Sopwith arrived at Eastchurch with his Howard Wright machine from Brooklands, having chosen this as his starting point for his attempt on the Baron de Forest Prize for the longest flight to Europe. On December the 18th he left Eastchurch for the Continent, heading over Canterbury and Dover and out over the Channel to France, forced to land due to adverse winds at Beaumont, Belgium, he had nevertheless flown 177miles, sufficient win the prize21. (A sad note to this is that of Cecil Grace, another of our early pioneers, flying a Short biplane, having failed in his attempt, left Calais bound for Dover, but disappeared over the sea. [TWB])
January. Increasing numbers of flights are now taking place, many while carrying passengers. Again the merits of Eastchurch22, as being ideally situated for experimental work to take place, without ‘annoyance or interruption during private work’ were being expressed.
February. Events this month, were to be historic, and have far ranging effects, leading ultimately to the demise of civil flying at Eastchurch. Frank McClean’s efforts to interest the Government in the use of aircraft by the military at last reaching fruition, (Perhaps his stunt of flying a float plane from Sheppey, up the Thames, under the other Thames bridges and alighting on the water opposite the Houses of Parliament had made his point [TWB]) he made aircraft available to the Admiralty, sheds were made available, technical instruction provided by Short’s and flying instruction by George Cockburn, all at no charge23.. The first four Naval officers arrived in preparation for their six-month course, which would start on March 1st.
April. Lieutenants Sampson and Longmore passed their flying tests for their aviators certificates24.. A fund is inaugurated for providing a memorial to C. S. Grace and C. S. Rolls. It is proposed to install a commemorative stained glass window in All Saints Church, the cost is estimated at about £60, members are asked for donations.
May. Despite inclement weather, Lieuts. Gregory and Gerrard qualified for their pilots certificates, all four Naval officers had thus qualified, averaging less than three flights each25 (The reports do not make it clear whether it was three ‘actual’ flights or three ‘solo’ flights, I think the latter, as they would surely have been ‘up’ more than three times in two months of instruction. [TWB]), a testament to the skill of George Cockburn, their instructor. It is announced the Gordon-Bennett Aviation Cup will be competed for at Eastchurch on July 1st26.
June. (There is much activity this month, navy and civil fliers carrying out all sorts of test flights, and visits from notable figures. Eastchurch is obviously developing into a centre of excellence [TWB]). The Navy fliers are now extending their flights, flying cross-country and remaining in the air for longer periods, staying aloft for an hour or more. They are also starting to ‘show off’, flying around warships anchored in Sheerness, Longmore and Samson flew to Chatham and circled the house of the Commander-in-Chief at the Nore27 (were they, like McClean, trying to make a point? [TWB]) Further, more detailed, information is given on the upcoming Gordon-Bennett race. Prince Louis of Battenburg visited, as did Wilbur Wright, who spent Whitsun with Alec Ogilvie at Eastchurch.28. Lieut Dunne made trial flights on his new monoplane, and more visits by notables29..
July. Like June, there was an enormous amount of activity at Eastchurch. The Gordon-Bennett Aviation Cup meeting took place, at Eastchurch, on the 1st, comprehensive reports were published30, too detailed to be reported here, except the winner being the American C. T. Weyman31. Another report appeared praising the suitability of the Eastchurch Flying Ground, and acknowledging the part played by Frank McClean in providing it for the use of the Aero Club32. This report also contained a snippet of information regarding the ‘discoverers’ of the site, identified as Horace and Eustace Short (where we had previously thought the Shorts had followed the Aero Club members to Eastchurch from Shellbeach, the actuality is they appear to have been the instigators of the move. It further goes on to indicate that Eastchurch was now the prime site and that, possibly, Shellbeach was on the verge of abandonment [TWB]). Increasingly reports of the Navy’s activities are given much prominence, a great piece describes two of the Navy fliers, Lieuts Longmore and Samson, visiting the European Circuit Camp at Dover and ‘flying the flag’ for Britain33.
August. Eastchurch was bustling with the civil aviators, McClean, Huntingdon, Dunne, Lawrence and Egerton all making test flights and honing their skills early in the month34. Princes George and Albert of Battenburg again visiting, this time wishing to go up, Samson and Longmore duly obliged. Later in the month navy fliers were to set new records35, first Lieut. Gerrard, with Lieut. Wildman-Lushington as passenger set a world record passenger carrying flight, in one of McCleans machines, a Short No.34 biplane, setting a time of 4hrs 13mins. They flew a 20 mile course around Sheerness and Leysdown Coastguard Station, their effort was only brought to an end by the approaching dusk. A few days later it was Lieut. Samson’s turn, he decided to attempt the British duration record, at first the weather was good but soon deteriorated, Samson however was determined to carry on, some 4 hrs later observers heard a voice coming from his plane on every pass, some thought he was singing, but using an ‘ear trumpet’ they learned his watch had stopped and he wanted to know the time! He landed having set a new record time of 4hr 58mins.
September. The Rolls/Grace memorial fund had now raised £52 7s. 6p. almost the total estimated cost of the proposed window in All Saint Church36. Mr. Jezzi made the first ground trials of his new biplane, Mr. McClean made the first test flights in his new Short twin-engine biplane and two Valkyrie machines, a gift to the navy by Mr. Barber, arrived from Hendon37.
October. McClean continued testing his new Short twin-engined biplane, Shorts are planning another biplane incorporating two 100-h.p. engines with four propellers38.
November. Mr. Jezzi continues to practice on his monoplane, he became involved in an impromptu race with Lieut Samson flying a Bleriot, the little Jezzi craft just had the edge39.
December. Travers was giving instruction to Territorial Balloon Section members, Dunne was testing his machine which has been refitted with a 50 h.p. Gnome engine, and Jezzi was again testing his machine, the reporter being impressed with its speed and controllability40. The Navy flyers held a dinner at the ‘Crooked Billet’ Inn, for the Shorts employees41, following which they had a musical time and speeches of appreciation.
January. “Lieut. Samson, R.N. who has been in command of the Naval Flying Establishment at Eastchurch, has been promoted to Acting Commander. This is the first promotion given to an officer in either service in connection with aviation.”42
March. Both Naval and Territorial pupils were up practicing (Although I have found no official notice, it appears Mr. J. L. Travers is now their instructor [TWB])
Sergeant Cutler of the Territorial Balloon Company gained his pilots certificate, the first Territorial pupil to qualify at Eastchurch43. Cmdr. Samson put the new Short monoplane through an official test, he found it to be very stable and fast, he averaged 65 m.p.h. Sapper Meredith took his flying test and became the 3rd Territorial to gain their certificates. Winston Churchill replied to a question in Parliament regarding hydro-planes, he stated one was under construction at Eastchurch and a further two were on order for the navy, and that experiments were being conducted at Sheerness44.
April. A new 70 h.p. two-seater Gnome-Deperdussin was delivered to the navy at Eastchurch. The first passenger flight from Paris to Eastchurch45.
June. Mr. Dunne has returned following a serious illness and has again been flying. A testament to the stability of his design is given by the flight of Capt. Carden, Capt. Carden has only one arm, his performance is remarkable in that the Dunne is operated by levers on either side of the pilot46. Following a question in Parliament regarding Naval Officers taking ladies on flights, Winston Churchill replied the Admiralty were aware officers had given personal friends flights, no objection had been made as the officers were encouraged to make voluntary flights, with or without passengers, for service requirements, in order to gain as much experience as possible47.
August. The Archbishop of Canterbury unveiled the Rolls/Grace memorial window in All Saints Church before a large gathering of friends and aviators48.
December. A good report appears this month detailing a visit to Mr. Jezzi’s shed, described as the Jezzi camp49 (It appears the Aero Club did not make the same preparations for accommodation or Club House at Eastchurch, in the way they had at Shellbeach. Members appear to have been left to their own devices, McClean had Stonepitts farm house, Oswald (and presumably his brothers) was living in Parsonage House, others built cottages, among these Travers who later gave it over to the Navy to accommodate their officers, even more like Mr. Jezzi fitted out accommodation in their spacious sheds [TWB]). Concern was being felt in Britain regarding the vulnerability of naval installations by air attack. This was prompted by the mystery airship flying over Sheerness50.
June. The contribution made by the Short Brothers is praised in an article51.
September. A new arrival at Eastchurch is Mr. Pickles, who at the recent Burton-upon-Trent meeting won the altitude prize by attaining over 9,000 ft. The Navy flyers have been very active this month and now include Capt. Lushington, Sub-Lieuts Marix and Littleton, Paymaster Parker, Lieuts Davis, Osmond and Miley. Cmdr. Samson continues to push at the limits by indulging in night flights52. The Short Brothers obtain a new site at Rochester53.
October. H.M. Airship ‘Delta’ arrived over Eastchurch, Eng. Lieut. Briggs, flying a Bleriot, demonstrated the agility of airplane versus airship by swooping around, under and over with ease54.
November. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill visited. After inspecting the machines, drawn up in parade order, he was taken up, in a Short No.3, by Cmdr. Samson and flown to Grain, where he boarded Naval Airship No.3, which then flew over Sheerness and Minster before over-flying Eastchurch. Mr. Churchill returned to Eastchurch on the Saturday, and again the airplanes were paraded for his inspection, most of which then took off at intervals, following this Samson again took Mr. Churchill for a flight of several circuits of the aerodrome55.
December. Churchill was back again, over 20 aircraft of various types were paraded, he was very interested in the new Dunne. Capt. Lushington then gave Mr. Churchill two long instructional flights in the school dual control Short No.2. A long list of names is given of Naval pilots and pupils, an increasing proportion of which are now of ‘other ranks’. Also published is a list of 19 different types of Service machines in use at the school56. Sadly the same edition of ‘Flight’ reports the death of Capt. Lushington when he crashed returning from a flight over Sheerness57.
A well-deserved tribute is played to Frank McClean58. (I don’t think we fully credit his contribution, in not just his generosity in funding Sheppey aviation, but also his involvement in the establishment of Naval aviation[TWB]). Reporting of civil flying at Eastchurch became secondary to naval coverage, the usual stalwarts were still experimenting and testing, including McClean, Ogilvie, Jezzi, Egerton, Hamel, Huntingdon, Pickles, Percival and Gordon Bell. Mr Churchill made ‘flying’ visits. Accounts of military activities were more detailed, and continued to be so until the outbreak of war on August 4th, when reporting became more circumspect59. The aerodrome became restricted with troops guarding it, but with some civil flying still taking place. Samson, in France with the Sheppey Squadron, again displayed his resourceful character when he used armoured cars60. (This year effectively saw the end of Sheppey as a civil flying centre, it had lasted a brief five years, but what years they were! years that saw the establishment of the British aircraft industry, records established, experiments conducted that were to have an immense influence on aircraft design, the establishment of the Royal Naval Air Service. And the men who flew here were numbered among the early ‘greats’ of British aviation. [TWB])
- It is mentioned elsewhere (anonymous timeline in Doug Brawns private archive) that on the 22nd December 1914 the aerodrome was taken over, under the Defence of the Realm Act, and that in May 1920 the Air Ministry paid the Royal Aero Club the sum of £13,621. 3s. 11p for the Club’s interests at Eastchurch.
- The reports, good as they are in chronicling the activities of the pioneers, only tell part of the story. Not so readily available are the pilots personal log books, (access Egerton’s logbook HERE) here are detailed the adversities they faced, frequently thwarted by the weather, determining engine settings and aircraft trim by trial and error, modifying parts, repairing or replacing components damaged during aborted take-offs or bad landings. Lesser men would have given up, but they persevered, learning all the while.