First Flights – Tales of Early Aviation in Cornwall

For the jet-setters of the 21st century it is hard to imagine a world without powered flight, but just for a moment put yourself in the shoes one of the people in the enormous crowds that gathered around Mounts Bay on July 23rd 1910. They were there to see their first aeroplane take to the skies. The aircraft was a Farman III biplane and the pilot was Claude Grahame-White, an early English pioneer of flight. How he came to be airborne over Penzance for the first powered flight in Cornwall, and the other dare-devil Cornish airmen that came before him, is what the article aims to uncover.

Unusual arrivals at Penzance . . .

The population of Penzance and the surrounding villages were already in a state of excitement in the summer of 1910 after three fleets of the Royal Navy, an estimated 200 warships including HMS Dreadnought, had dropped anchor in Mounts bay. The fleets were awaiting inspection by the new king, George V.

The Fleets in Penzance in 1910

What a sight it must have been looking out from the streets of Penzance and Marazion, ships in every direction! James Stevens, a local farmer who lived in Zennor, recorded the scene in his diary (but as a farmer his focus was pretty much on one thing – food production!):

“The fleet in Penzance Bay, 193, their crews numbering from 25,000 to 30,000 men. Each day they will require about 20,000lbs of meat, 20,000 of bread and 50,000 of vegetables.”

A Cornish Farmer’s Diary, James Stevens, entry – 21 July 1910

Then, out of the blue, there was another unusual arrival that caused an even greater stir. The newspapers reported that “a flying machine” was to be found at Penzance railway station having arrived on the Flying Dutchman train on Thursday 21st July. Word of the delivery spread with “lightening-like rapidity” and crowds gathered to try and catch a glimpse of the machine.

The aeroplane, which was packed in sections into a goods carriage, was moved to a siding near Longrock and the Cornish Telegraph wrote a blow by blow account of it being unpacked.

“the flimsy nature of the construction of the flying machine [meant that the parts] were easily lifted out by the few willing helpers in attendance and were carried along the road by hand. The motor had preceded them and were taken to a field at Poniou.”

Anticipation gripped the town. But why exactly had Grahame-White chosen this particular moment and this out of the way place to take to the skies? It seems it was not by chance . . . he had a plan.

Claude Grahame-White

“Mr. Grahame-White, England’s greatest aviator and probably the most daring airman in the world.”

Cornish Telegraph, 28th July 1910

Grahame-White had been born in Hampshire in 1879 and after learning to fly in France in 1909 he became one of the first people in England to qualify as a pilot. He was the first person to fly at night during the London to Mancester air race of 1910 against Frenchman Louis Paulman. And by the time he arrived in Cornwall White was fast becoming an rockstar of aviation, a role he seems to have relished.

Most newspaper reports on the man describe his natty style of dressing and his easy, debonair manner talking to his fans. During a demonstration of his skills at Bournemouth he began taking up passengers – including ladies – and charging them ยฃ10 each. The paper claimed that none of the ladies reported feeling the least bit airsick while they were flying with Mr White!

And like so many sportsman and thrill-seekers he was also a bit of a ‘bad boy’. Just a few days before his arrival in Penzance Mr. White failed to appear at court for a second time to face charges for speeding in his motor-car down Kingston Road in Putney. But the crowd waited to greet him at the station in Penzance knew nothing of this and he was escorted by excited cheering all the way to the Queen’s Hotel, where he stayed for the duration of his trip to Cornwall.

The Queen’s Hotel, Penzance

Take Off from Longrock

On 23rd July 1910 Claude Grahame-White arrived at a small meadow on Poniou Farm above Longrock wearing a blue suit with a white scarf and a straw hat. The field had been chosen as a makeshift runway by White’s team a few days before his arrival, it was fairly flat and the grass was short having just been cut for hay. Everything was set for take off and the population of Penzance were excited to see what would happen next. The real reason that White was in Cornwall however was not reported in the papers.

The idea that aeroplanes could be used as weapons of warfare had been proposed even before anyone had managed to actually get airborne and Grahame-White was determined to show, and cash in, on their potential. He intended to ‘bomb’ the fleets in Mounts Bay to show that these impregnable ships were in fact very vulnerable to air attack. It was to be a demonstration only, his bombs weren’t actually designed to do any damage and White had informed the navy of his intentions. But he was determined to prove that in the future planes would be an essential part of winning wars.

Looking across at Longrock and Poniou from Penzance Harbour

When the moment arrived however, the weather was poor with high winds and at first White was unable to take off at all, much to the disappointment of the crowds who grew increasingly restless as the day went on. It wasn’t until around 8 o’clock in the evening according to the Cornish Telegraph reporter that the wind had dropped sufficiently for White and his biplane to make the first ever powered flight in Cornwall.

” . . . a mechanic started the motor. Immediately the blades of the propeller flew around at a bewildering rate . . . whilst the almost deafening whirr they created startled the onlookers and caused them to keep a respectable distance. The draught created too was astonishing, it levelled the grass as though a hurricane was sweeping through the meadow and the bushes on the hedge tops swayed and rocked as if in a storm . . .

Mr Graham-White was not yet ready however. The biplane was dragged a little further into the field and when it was seen that the aviator was exchanging his straw hat for a headgear with which people unused to ‘Flying Machines’ were unfamiliar, and it was recognised that he was about to make an attempt. Excitement grew in intensity and every nerve seemed at a high tension, with the exception of Mr Graham-White’s. Perfectly calm he vaulted into the little seat in front of the motor and the spectators found relief in applause.

Touching the lever the propeller again flew round, the machine ran forward on its wheels and then with an easy gliding movement it gently rose from the ground. Mr White at first steered a course inland and rising to a height of about a couple of 100ft he circled round crossing the Marazion-Penzance main road, flew over a train at that moment passing and again wheeling round, he reached the meadow, into which he descended with the utmost ease and with the languid motion of some huge bird gently seeking a rest.”

The Cornish Telegraph, 28th July 1910

It was a short flight, just three minutes, but to the spectators’ delight White went up again a short time later. And on this second flight the reporter recorded that White climbing much higher, roughly 700 ft, passing over Penzance town and then circling above the fleets out at sea. The sight of the aeroplane above them caused many of the ships to sound their sirens and this in turn made the crowd to shriek with excitement. This time the flight was recorded as eleven minutes long but White never did carry out his bomb experiment, probably due to the unpredictable winds. When asked about his experience later he said that he had been able to pick out HMS Dreadnought easily from amongst all the other ships in the bay and this was likely his intended target.

Soon after the flights the navy fleets left and sailed to Torbay. The official line was that the rough seas were making the ships drag their anchors but there is some suggestion that White’s plan to bomb them, and possibly cause embarrassment to the navy, was the real reason for the departure. In an interview at the Queen’s Hotel White announced his intention to fly over Torbay next and this plan cannot have been coincidental, though it seems it never happened.

In just a short few years however, with the outbreak of World War One, he was to be proved right and the Grahame-White Aviation Company, which had been building planes and aerodromes for several years by then, began supplying the Admiralty.

Other Tales of Early Aviation in Cornwall

” . . . we must look to machines heavier than the air, which, in reality, fly after the manner of birds . . . if we wish to succeed we shall have to follow in the footsteps of Nature, as we have already done in other branches of science.”

St Austell Star, 12 Dec 1901

At the beginning of the 19th century the public were gripped by the idea of human flight. After the successes of the Wright brothers in 1903 the newspapers called aeroplanes ‘the greatest invention of the age’ and went on to speculate as to the uses of these flying machines and how long it would be before every household had one. Many predicted that they would soon replace the motorcar as the main mode of transportation. And there were those in Cornwall who were bewitched by the prospect.

Although Grahame-White’s visit to Penzance is widely thought to have been the first powered flight of an aeroplane in Cornwall there were other Cornishmen dabbling with the idea of taking to the skies. A few years before the flight from Poniou a man called Jack Humphries was experimenting along the coast near Fowey. Humphries was the town dentist and it is said that he had spent some time studying the mechanics of bird flight. He built himself a glider and is known to have made at least two ‘heavier than air’ flights by jumping from nearby cliffs.

I imagine Humphries contraption may have been similar to the one built by Otto Lilienthal in Germany in the 1890s. Otto became known as ‘the flying man’ and was the first person documented taking flight using a glider. He took off by repeatedly running down a steep hill he had built especially for the purpose. Jumping off a Cornish cliff seems an easier, if more terrifying, prospect.

In early November 1908 a man called Gordon Hildebrand Levick, who may have originally come from the USA, arrived in Sennen. He was just 20 years old but had already been racing cars across the UK. The newspapers report him taking part in a number of races in the Midlands in July 1908, including the five mile ‘Merit Trophy’, in a car he had imported from France.

Levick caused more than a little excitement in Cornwall after he began experimenting with a box-kite off Sennen.

“Mr G. H. Levick, who is staying at the Lands End Hotel, carried out an experiment with a box kite at Sennen Cove on Wednesday. The kite was attached to a boat, which the kite towed through the sea for over two miles at a great speed towards the Brissons. Mr. Levick was at the helm. The boat carried a crew of ten men.”

The Cornish Telegraph, 5th Nov 1908

What kind of ‘kite’ Levick was experimenting with isn’t clear.

He stayed in the hotel for another couple of months and then in January 1909 found himself in trouble with the law. He was charged at Penzance Quarter Sessions with driving a motor-car “at a dangerous speed in public” and it was time for him to leave Cornwall. The local newspapers reported that he threw a party to say goodbye to everyone at the Land’s End Hotel and that was the last Cornwall saw of Gordon Hildebrand Levick. Sadly, just a year later, he was dead at the age of 21. Despite my research I haven’t been able to establish what happened but given what we know about his short life it may well have involved him doing something reckless.

FUN FACT:

Lilan Bland a pioneer aviator, who became the first women in the UK, and maybe even the first in the world, to design, build, and fly an aircraft in c1910-1911, is buried in Sennen graveyard. The plane was named the Bland Mayfly.

The Bland Mayfly c1910

Rumours Down Under

There is a belief amongst some that the Wright brothers were not actually the first to achieve powered flight. Richard Pearse was the son of Digory Pearse, a Cornishman from South Petherwin, who had emigrated to New Zealand in 1865. It is said that Richard flew his own homemade plane a full eight months before the Wright brothers. Pearse had built himself a flying machine from bamboo and canvas with a 25 hp (18.64 kW) water-cooled four-cylinder aero engine and the event took place near Waitou in March 1903.

“witnesses reported that Pearse flew 400m and soft landed on a hedge on his Timaru Farm.”

New Scientist, Jan 2019
Replica of Pearse’s flying machine

Researches in the 1980s actually located 55 witnesses still living that remembered Pearse’s flights from a field on his farm and although accounts varied most placed the event before the Wright brothers flights in December 1903.

Final Thoughts

When I first started researching this article I was just intrigued by the Grahame-White flight over Penzance and wanted to know more. I was not expecting to find so many other snippets of stories connecting Cornwall to the days of early aviation. I feel like this may well be a subject I return to, so if you have anything to add, a tale of a daredevil pilot in your Cornish village, please let me know.

Further Reading

Bobby Leach โ€“ Cornish Daredevil goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel

The Mysterious Disappearance of John Davidson

Stephensonโ€™s Rocket in Truro

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6 thoughts on “First Flights – Tales of Early Aviation in Cornwall

  1. One of the best articles I’ve read on this blog!!! Thanks so much for taking the time out to write about this incredible piece of history and making it literally come alive even after over a hundred years. Looking forward to more stories about the initial flights in Cornwall’s history.

  2. Bravo! A great, well-written piece, as always! A delve into Cornish lore and history that would otherwise go unremarked….

  3. There are several precursors to the sustained gliding feats of Lilienthal, the earliest being Sir George Cayley who wrote about the theory of flight in the 1790s and constructed a series of gliders between 1848 and 1853, the first in the form of a triplane being large enough to carry a child. He should be far more famous than he actually is.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_flying_machines#Sir_George_Cayley_and_the_first_modern_aircraft

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