Wallasey Aviation

Early Aviators Around The Wirral
1910 - 1914

Colin Schroeder

Considering that the Wright brothers first flew at the end of 1903 and there was quite a lot of aeronautical activity around Europe and in the south of England, the North West did not really wake up to the marvel of the aeroplane until quite late. The Birkenhead News in September 1909 reported that a Mr Edward Mines of ‘Brightholme’ Hydro Avenue West Kirby had been building his own aircraft in the Marine Pagoda enclosure adjacent to the promenade. The machine was based on the Wright Brothers machine with his own refinements to reduce weight to 400lbs., a necessary requirement as he was only using an 8hp JAP engine. The newspaper also reported that another unnamed gentleman of West Kirby was working on the design of an aircraft. Nothing further was heard about these gentleman efforts.

Flight magazine for the 25th September 1909 had commented, “It is reported from Liverpool that three practicable monoplanes have been constructed in the neighbourhood, and that on one of them, a flight of about 35 miles has been made. It is said that the trials of these machines have been carried out in secret on a lonely part of the Lancashire coast, north of Liverpool, and along the Deeside in the neighbourhood of West Kirby”. Again no further information is known about this.

There had also been reports that T. Elder Hearn a Music hall performer and Freddie A. Fyfe had been using a grassy recreation ground at Eastham Ferry to fly from. Hearn had bought a Bleriot aircraft in France, and after a basic flying course managed to get the plane to Liverpool without serious mishap. In 1914, Hearn is known to have flown over New Brighton Tower, and from Liverpool Polo Clubs ground. Freddie Fyfe was a local photographer who later became a photographer in the RFC and re-enlisted in the RAF during the Second Would War, ending up as a Squadron Leader.

The Wirral would eventually witness quite a lot of aerial activity from 1910 till 1914 when the start of World War I put an end to civil flying till after the war.

1st August 1910 - Robert Loraine flies over New Brighton

On Bank Holiday Monday 1st August, a French built Farman biplane, flown by 34-year-old Robert Loraine, electrified the holiday crowds, when it suddenly appeared at about 4.15pm, flying towards New Brighton Tower. Loraine, who had been born in Wallasey on 14th January 1876, was a famous actor manager of the time. He had obtained his French flying certificate (No 126), at the Henry Farman flying school at Pau, France. He returned to England, bring with him his £7,000 Farman aircraft and the schools chief mechanic, Jules Vedrines. Loraine saw himself as a pioneer of aviation, but in order not to appear to be using his flying exploits, to further his theatrical career, used the name of Robert Jones whilst flying. He was taking part in the Blackpool Aviation Carnival, having previously amazed the crowds at the July Bournemouth International Flying Week, by flying across to the Isle of Wight in a storm.

At the Blackpool carnival, Loraine was competing for the £100 prize, for the aviator that remained in the air for the longest time. The aircraft he was flying, was designed and built by Henry (Henri) Farman, an Englishman living in France. It was a biplane, with the pilot seated out in the open, in the middle of the lower wing. The engine, a 50hp Gnome, and propeller were mounted in pusher configuration, behind the pilot. The fuselage was an open framework with only the wings and flying surfaces covered in fabric.

Loraine had taken off from Blackpool an hour earlier. As he approached New Brighton Tower, it looked as though he was going to circle it, but before he reached it, he turned and headed across the river to fly around the Pier Head. The first that Blackpool knew of his whereabouts was when a ‘wag’ from the New Brighton Tower rang Blackpool and said, “There’s an aeroplane hanging about over the river here. Do you happen to have lost one from Blackpool” As Loraine crossed the River Mersey; the air was filled with a cacophony of sirens and hooters from vessels on the river. He then flew back across the River Mersey to Birkenhead and then up to New Brighton where as a schoolboy he had dreamed of flying.

The details of his progress were being broadcast to the crowds at Blackpool, by megaphone. “Jones has flown over the Mersey and is now over Egremont”. “Jones is rounding the tower at New Brighton”. “Jones is returning to Blackpool”. Having flown over New Brighton, he turned towards Blackpool.

The flight back was not without incident. Loraine began to lose height and looking around discovered a large black balloon on the tail plane. This was causing the aircraft to loose lift. Loraine landed at five past five on a sand bank at Fairhaven in the Ribble estuary, opposite the King Edward School. It was not long before a large crowd gathered and dragged the aircraft to the beach, safe from the incoming tide. Loraine was able to call his team from Blackpool to affect repairs. His French mechanic, Jules Vedrines declared that the bubble was caused by oil from the engine being blown on to the tail plane and saturating the fabric that covered it. Following a quick repair Loraine took off for Blackpool at 6.45pm, only to be greeted by the news on landing, that as he had left the confines of the aerodrome, he did not qualify for first prize, even though he had been in the air for two hours. First prize had been awarded to a French aviator who had flown for one and a half hours, but within the confines of the aerodrome. The judges said that Loraine would be awarded the second prize of £50, if he flew for another 42 minutes. The petrol tank was duly filled up, and he flew for another 42 minutes.

Second visit by Robert Loraine

On Wednesday the 10th August at 7am, Robert Loraine was observed by early risers on The Wirral, flying along the north coast of the peninsular, from New Brighton towards Hilbre Island, at a height of about 250 feet and a speed 40mph. He was following the coastline from Blackpool to Holyhead, and as he crossed the River Dee into Wales, became the first man to fly in North Wales. He did not reach Holyhead that day; shortage of fuel caused him to land on the golf course at Rhos-on-Sea in time for breakfast. When he did eventually reach Holyhead, he was to attempt to be the first man to fly across the Irish Sea. On Sunday 11th September, Loraine set out for Ireland but unfortunately ditched in Dublin Bay, just 200 yards short of success. Many consider that this was the first crossing of the Irish Sea, but it would not be until April 1912 when Vivian Hewitt took off from the same field as Loraine, that the Irish Sea was conquered. Loraine went on to fly in the forces during the First World War. He was decorated with the Military Cross (MC) and Distinguished Service Order (DSO), mentioned in dispatches six times, and seriously wounded twice.

11th August 1910 - New Brighton visited by Claude Graham-White

Thursday the 11th August saw New Brighton visited by another Farman biplane, this time flown by another famous aviator, Claude Graham-White. Graham-White, who also obtained his flying certificate (No.30) in France, had sprung to national prominence in the Daily Mail London to Manchester air race, earlier in the year. In this race, he had made a daring night flight in an attempt to beat Frenchman Louis Paulhan to Manchester. Unfortunately, engine trouble had forced him to land at Polesworth leaving the Frenchmen to complete the race and claim the £10,000 prize.

Graham-White had taken off from Blackpool at 6.45am and headed for New Brighton. The flight was interrupted by engine trouble, caused by the breaking of a counterbalance on one of the valves. He land at St Anne’s, where a telephone call brought aid in the shape of his assistants. Taking off at 9.45am, he reached New Brighton a few minutes before 11 o'clock. He found the River Mersey shrouded in fog, but using New Brighton Tower, was able to locate the beach between the Marine Park and the Red Noses and land. A crowd soon surrounded him and the aircraft; some of them writing their names on the wings of the aircraft, a fact that did not seem to annoy him.

Graham-White remarked that, “I thought I would just give you a call at New Brighton”. The golden sands of New Brighton may not have been the real attraction for Graham-White. He and his rival from the London-Manchester race, Louis Paulhan, were neck and neck for a £1,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail for the greatest-aggregate distance flown across country in a year, the competition closing on Sunday, 14th August. The knowledge that Paulhan was making every effort to capture this prize caused Grahame-White set himself the task of flying 100 miles each day.

Having refuelled and had his logbook signed, he called for assistance to clear a way for his take-off run. Then climbing back into his aircraft, he looked over his shoulder and shouted “I think I’ll look in at Southport on my way back” and with that he was off. He took just fifty yards to take off, then accompanied by cheers from the crowd, headed for the other bank of the river and passed out of sight ten minutes later.

New Brighton and the sands between Marine Park and Red Noses obviously acted as a magnet to Graham-White, for he returned four times over the coming weekend. On the Saturday morning he made flights to New Brighton and Morecambe, adding 110 miles to his total. On Sunday morning, he landed at New Brighton at 7.30am and stayed four minutes, then took off back to Blackpool arriving back at 8.10am, in time for breakfast with friends. By 10.37am, he was off again on his second trip of the day to New Brighton, but this time fog caused him to land at Seaforth at 11.25am before continuing to New Brighton. In the afternoon he returned for the third time that day. Unfortunately, he did not win the prize falling behind Paulhan by just 98 miles, with a grand total of 703 miles flown cross-country in the twelve months.

5th March 1911 - Paterson and King return to New Brighton

On Sunday afternoon the 5th March 1911, Paterson and King returned to New Brighton where they, flew over Perch Rock, the pier and proceeded along the promenade as far as Egremont Ferry. Here they mad a 180-degree turn, and headed for the Tower, which they circled then landed on the beach in front of the Marine Hotel. After only a brief stay they took off and returned to Freshfield. During the flight, they reached a height of 2,000 feet and travelled at a speed of 45mph.

17th May 1911 - Egremont visited by Robert King

On Wednesday afternoon the 17th May, Robert Arthur King was planning to fly across the River Mersey again. He had intended to start at 4.30pm, but the weather was not to his liking, so he delayed the start till 5pm, when he made a short preliminary flight towards Southport. Finding the weather favourable, he intended to start the crossing at 5.30pm. Taking off from Freshfield aerodrome with Mr F.C. Topham as a passenger, the intention was to circle the Tower and then fly across the River Mersey to the new Liver Buildings at the Pier Head. He would then re-cross the river and return to Freshfield via New Brighton and Seaforth.

The flight proceeded as planned until the re-crossing of the river at Seacombe. The weather turned against him with a thunderstorm brewing that prevented him maintaining height. He opted for a landing on the beach at Egremont at about 6pm. After an unsuccessful attempt to take off, it was decided that any further attempts would be left till the next day.

The yacht ‘Vega’, owned by Mr R. Oliver of the Wellington Hotel, Egremont had just moored opposite the aircraft. The crew helped secure the aircraft with ropes, and a guard rope was placed around the aircraft. The police ensured onlookers did not get close to the aircraft. Just before eight o'clock the next morning the two aviators made a couple of flights in the neighbourhood of New Brighton and then flew over to Waterloo, where they had breakfast with Mr and Mrs Henry Melly. Afterwards King, in company with Melly, flew back to Freshfield. Interestingly, records show that King did not receive his flying certificate (No.482) until two years later on 16th May 1913.

30th May - Henry Melly flies over The Wirral

Another early aviator over The Wirral was Henry Greg Melly, an electrical engineer born about 1869 the son of Charles Pierre Melly, a Liverpool merchant and city councillor. George Melly the jazz singer and his sister actress Andree were related Henry Melly. In March 1911, Henry Melly moved from Freshfield where he had shared the aerodrome with Compton Paterson and King, to start the Liverpool Aviation School on Waterloo sands. The school consisted of a couple of wooden hangars and a workshop and two (later three) Bleriot monoplanes. At 7.25am on Tuesday morning the 30th May, Melly took off with fellow aviator Sydney Swaby to fly around Liverpool. Having flown over Melly’s house at Aigburth, the pair proceeded across the River Mersey to Bromborough and Port Sunlight. They then flew up the river over Birkenhead Park and the west of Liscard to New Brighton and circled the tower, much to the delight of the crowds who were beginning to gather on the sands. They continued back over the river to Waterloo where they landed having covered 35 miles in the 41 minutes at an average height of 1,000 feet. In July, Melly was to go on to win the prize for the first flight between Liverpool and Manchester.

23rd August 1912 - New Brighton seaplane visit

The River Mersey has played a prominent part in aviation around The Wirral. As early as May 1912 the Mayor of Wallasey had written to the Daily Mail newspaper, enquiring if New Brighton could be included in its 13-week ‘voyage’ round England by the Daily Mail’s French aviator Henri Salmet. In fact, the Frenchmen thought that any kudos that could be gained by the visit, had already been stolen by the activity of local aviators, and therefore they would not include New Brighton in the ‘voyage’. In order to overcome the disappointment felt by the locals, the directors of the Pier Company managed to arrange a visit with the Daily Mail, of Frank Huck’s floatplane. The aircraft, or ‘water plane’ as it was called in those days, was a Maurice Farman two-seat pusher biplane, powered by an 11-cylinder 80hp Gnome engine.

On Friday the 23rd August, the aircraft arrived in sections from Birmingham and was assembled by Alf Kingham and two Frenchmen (Hubert & Francois), in a garage at New Brighton. On Monday following assemble, the aircraft was moved to a tent on the beach that was to be used as a ‘hangar’. Here the public for a charge of 6d (2½p) could inspect aircraft. A raft had been constructed and connected to the north side of the pier, so that passengers could board the aircraft.

The aircraft was to be flown each afternoon between Tuesday 27th and Saturday 31st August by Monsieur Jules Fischer. Passengers were able to purchase tickets at £2 per flight, from the Pier masters office. On the Tuesday, an estimated crowd of 30,000 spectators had gathered on and around the pier to see the aircraft fly. The aircraft was wheeled on a trolley from the hangar to the water’s edge, then floated off the trolley and flown to the raft used for boarding passengers.

On the Wednesday, weather proved unsuitable for flying so no flights took place. On Thursday, flying was to start early with three flights organised for disappointed passenger from Wednesday. These were to take place from outside the hangar. Weather conditions were not perfect during the morning, so it was not until the afternoon that the aircraft was taken out of its hangar and run down to the water’s edge. Miss Cecilia Francis Murray, who had been waiting since early morning for her flight, took her place in the rear passenger seat of the aircraft and was strapped in. The two mechanics held mooring ropes whilst the pilot was about to take his seat. A gust of wind caught the aircraft causing one of the mechanics to lose his hold of the mooring rope. The other mechanic was dragged into the water up to his neck and released his grip on the second mooring rope leaving the aircraft to drift into the river.

The spectators lining the promenade thought that they were witnessing the start of a flight, totally unaware of what was taking place, until Monsieur Fischer rushed into the water. He was unable to do anything and the aircraft drifted further into the river and then heeled over with Miss Murray still strapped into her seat, trapping her beneath the water. Fortunately, Miss Murray kept her head and extricated herself from the seat and as the aircraft drifted to shallower water climbed onto part of the superstructure, which enabled her to keep her head above water. Ten men rushed into the water and attempted to reach the aircraft. One of these was George Clowes, dressed as a cowboy on horseback. Clowes was from the Wild West Show at the Summer Gardens. He galloped into the water, but the horse hit a sandbank, became nervous and returned to the beach. Three men actually reached the aircraft and holding onto it caused it to sink even lower in the water. Fortunately, a small boat handled by Edmond C. March arrived on the scene and was able to rescue Miss Murray. She was eventually taken to Liscard Hospital where she was kept in for two days. Fortunately the only problem found, was that she had lost her handbag in the wreck containing £2.

At the time of the accident, Henri Salmet was flying over the River Mersey from Chester to Preston as part of the Daily Mail ‘voyage’ around Britain. He landed close to the Red Noses and having ascertained that everything was under control, returned to his aircraft and took off just after 5pm to continue his flight to Preston.

The ‘water plane’ was secured, and when the tide receded, was dismantled, and returned to the hangar on the beach. In August 1914, the aircraft was impressed into military service with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) for the sum of £600. Given the serial number 887, its demise came later on in the year, when on 2nd December, it was blown over in the River Hamble.

Summer 1925 - Members of the Public hit by aircraft at New Brighton

At a Wallasey Borough Council meeting on the 25th March, the council agreed that the Liverpool Aviation Company could operate pleasure flights from the shore at New Brighton under the same agreement that had operated the previous year. In July, two incidents occurred, involving an aircraft and members of the General Public. On Saturday the 4th July, Albert Lewis aged 28 from St Helens and his lady companion, Catherine Tobin from Liverpool, were sitting very close to the take-off and landing area opposite the end of the marine parade. As the aircraft piloted by Lance Rimmer took off, one of its wheels followed by the tail, stuck the couple. Fortunately, their injuries only required dressing at Victoria Central Hospital.

A second incident occurred on the 25th July, when the same aircraft and pilot, hit Mrs Annie Singer of Wavertree as she was crossing the take-off and landing area. She was struck on the head and taken to Victoria Central Hospital, where she was kept in for six days. As large crowds were expected for the August Bank Holiday weekend, the pleasure flights were moved to nearer the Red Nose.

Following the second incident, on the 22nd September, Mrs Singer took the Liverpool Aviation Company to Birkenhead County Court, where she sought to recover damages of £100. It was stated that Mrs Singer, her husband and daughter were walking back from the water’s edge to the promenade. She maintained that no one had warned her to keep clear of the aeroplane. When she crossed the path of the aeroplane, she was a good distance from the line of guard posts. She recollected the aeroplane standing at the far end, and the next she knew, the aeroplane was almost upon her. After some legal argument, the judge award Mrs Singer £90.

There is a certain amount of irony about the involvement with Victoria Central Hospital in these incidents. Liverpool Aviation had agreed to pay Wallasey Borough Council 15% of their total receipt. Council minutes show that for the period 22nd to 29th, Liverpool Aviation paid the council £7 13s 5d (£7.67p). The council divided this between Victoria Central Hospital with £4 and the Cottage Hospital with £3 13s 5d (£3.67p).

3rd October 1941 - Wallasey Magister trainer in a tangle

While flying in bad weather on the 3rd October, Miles Magister (serial number N3958) blundered into a barrage balloon cable in the Seacombe area of Wallasey. The pilot, Pilot Officer P.F.G. Harbottle was en-route from RAF Valley to Speke; he managed to regain control at 200-feet and ditched successfully in one of the Birkenhead docks. The Magister, which was used for communications duties by No.303 Squadron, was returned to service and was eventually Struck Off Charge (SOC) in the Middle East in May 1945.

7th October 1941 - Leasowe Hurricane caught by the tide

On the homeward voyage across the Atlantic, pilots and their support crews who had managed to get ashore in Canada or the United States were almost invariably loaded with contraband. The only way of avoiding punitive Customs dues was to pack the Hurricane to the gills, launch it at the end of the crossing, and find some excuse for a forced landing at a non-Customs airfield before proceeding to Speke.

The CAM ship Empire Spray, had re-crossed the Atlantic in September/October 1941, without interference from the air. As the convoy neared Anglesey on 7th October, the Hurricane’s ammunition was emptied out and the panniers filled with contraband, nylon stockings, bottles of Rye and Bourbon, Scotch whisky and gin, etc. Soon after 9am, Pilot Officer Norman Lee was catapulted off Empire Spray in Hurricane Mk.I (serial number V7647).The visibility that day was better on Anglesey than it was on the mainland, but the maps used, had not got Valley marked on it and the exact position of the ship was not known before launching. He flew down the North Wales coast, where conditions were bad, trying in vain to pick out an airfield.

Unable to fix his position or find an airfield, he eventually put down on the beach at Leasowe Castle, Wallasey. He landed with the wheels down on a fine stretch of sands; and found by good luck, he had alighted near the anti-aircraft gun battery, where there were men available to move the Hurricane above the high water mark. This was important as the tide was coming in. He asked for a party of twelve men to move the aircraft up the beach and went off to a nearby pub to telephone Speke. He explained that the Hurricane was undamaged, that it was being moved above the high-water mark, and he would fly it off when the sands dried out and the weather improved.

While he was on the telephone, the men on the beach had been fighting a losing battle. Lee had left his brakes on, the wheels had dug into the sand, the tide was coming in fast and the twelve men were proving insufficient for the task. When Lee finally regained the beach, only the tail of the Hurricane was still showing.

A salvage party was sent down from Speke to recover the plane accompanied, inevitably, by a Customs Officer. According to legend, when the plane was dismantled, thousands of waterlogged cigarettes and hundreds of pairs of ruined nylon stockings fell out on the sands. The quantities were probably exaggerated; but an enquiry was ordered. Lee’s offence was to have been caught red-handed and some action had to be taken, he was quietly posted elsewhere.

7th February 1942 - Botha brought down by a ballroom at New Brighton

On 7th February, Flying Officer Jackson-Smith was flying Botha Mk.I (serial number L6249) of No.3 School of General Reconnaissance (SGR) from Squires Gate Blackpool. Whilst over the River Mersey the aircraft hit a barrage balloon cable. The aircraft had to force land on the beach at New Brighton. The crew were rescued and the aircraft was salvaged.

3rd November 1943 - Wallasey beach. Corsair force landing

Fleet Air Arm pilot, Sub-Lieutenant E.A. Roberts was flying Corsair Mk.I (serial number JT253) when he suffered an engine failure and had to make a forced landing on Wallasey beach. No.48 MU from RAF Hawarden had a struggle to salvage the aircraft before the tide claimed it.

USAAF operating from small strips prior to "D" Day

The American Army operated Piper L-4 Cub and Stinson L5 Sentinel from many small strips around the UK before “D” day in support of the more than 1.5 million US troops that had amassed here. They were usually part of Field Artillery units and used for communication flights between units. After “D” day, these aircraft accompanied their units across the channel and acted as spotting aircraft for the Artillery. It is thought that L-4’s that were brought into this country via the Birkenhead docks, were assembled and flown from the cinder filled sunken beds along King’s Parade, New Brighton to the west of the swimming pool. Two of the units that L-4’s were delivered to were stationed in Arrowe Park and Raby Hall.

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