Wednesday, 7 February 2018


An account of the exciting and chaotic hot summer’s day in Melton Mowbray in 1911, when many thousands of exuberant people turned out to witness for the very first time the ‘miracle’ of the heavier than air ‘flying machines’, in flight together with their intrepid pilots.



The occasion of man’s first sustained flight in an heavier than air, powered aeroplane is pretty well known to the world as being recorded on a beach at Kitty Hawk, South Carolina in 1903, by the Wright brothers of that place.  The veracity of this specific moment in time and the people involved in the event, is open to discussion to this day and the actual truth is still argued openly and keenly, especially amongst aviators in France and Britain where it is alleged the achievement had already been made.  But whatever is the truth, it is a certainty that the discovery was one of the greatest moments in the history of mankind, perhaps even more important than the first use of the wheel and more recently, the discovery of DNA.  Imagine the world which we inhabit today without the now commonplace availability of powered flight!

When news of this momentous occasion on the other side of the Atlantic began to percolate amongst the similar-minded people of Europe, a fierce race was set in train by those in this country who heretofore had tinkered but yet merely dreamed, to create such a moment. The challenge was now on, not only to emulate or copy, but to improve on the performance in competition with each other and to add to the honing of their aviation knowledge.

Great names are still remembered today of many of those fearless young men who experimented and frequently died at very young ages in the race to get ahead in the exciting new sport of aviation, even to the detriment of the recently new arrival of the internal combustion motor car.  But the detailed history of powered flight is not the central issue here which is  more the story of a group of young pioneers from around the world who, with the very generous sponsorship of the Daily Mail - who did more than most to encourage the advancement of what they strongly believed was to be the vanguard of world transport - set out to race their machines around the British Isles for a tempting and enormous prize of £10,000.

Of local interest is a very early pioneer who at an early age  during his off days as a clerk at the local gas works, was puzzling his neighbours with his desperate efforts at flying a ‘rag and sticks’ glider in nearby fields.  Samuel Summerfield, whose father ran a butcher’s shop in Melton, was on the front row at the Polo field in Brentingby, just outside of Melton Mowbray, to welcome these young dare-devil heroes.  It is said that the momentous event in the summer of 1911 was to stir in him a life-long passion for the art and pleasure of flying.


It was a truly enthralling and momentous day in the history of the small market town of Melton Mowbray on Monday 24th July 1911, when a huge gathering of people turned out to witness and be amazed at, their first sighting of the new transport invention of the age, the aeroplane - a flying machine which could carry a man.  Never before had the people of the town and its surrounding areas occasioned the ‘miracle’ of an aeroplane in flight, not to mention the actual taking off or landing of one of these heavier than air machines.  At first light on this historic day, so many children had gathered at the various locations, that the majority of the local schools sought to lock the doors for the day due to a reported ‘lack of custom.’ 

1911 was Coronation year in England and King Edward’s oldest  son, George had come to the throne on the 22nd June, to replace his father.  The era of horse-drawn transport was drawing to a close and with the increased acceptance and utilisation of the internal combustion engine, ‘motoring’ was rapidly becoming the new way of traversing the land.  Forward thinking men were feverishly seeking to improve and utilise this efficient power source and this was especially so with a mind to the new and exciting art of flying a heavier-than-air machine, high above the land surface. After decades of experimentation and at the sad cost of many young lives, the inaugural flight of Wilbur and Orville Wright in America in 1903, was to establish for once and for all the certainty of mans’ ability to fly.  Now fully accepted as a reality, it was in that first decade of the 20th Century, that great advances were to be  made by the aviation pioneers towards improving the science.


In England, the London Daily Mail newspaper which probably did more for the advance of aviation in Britain than any other source of it’s time, announced early in 1911 that a prize of £10,000, (a very large sum of money!) was on offer to the flyer who could complete, in his aeroplane of choice, a 1,010 miles (1,625 km) air circuit in the quickest time.   In an age of daring and often reckless endeavour to achieve the ‘unknown’, the ‘Circuit of Britain’ would be an enormous test of skill and endurance for both the pilots and their machines.   It was also then, almost a blind journey, with machines lacking any type of refined instrumentation which was still to be invented and the distance proposed, more than anything yet attempted by most. The route, commencing at the famous Brooklands race track in Surrey, would take the ‘daring young men’ - and one or two not so young! - north to Edinburgh, then return west to Glasgow, south down to Bristol in the west and on to the finish at Hendon Aerodrome in north London.  A total of thirty competitors initially registered their entry forms with the British Aero Club and the closely scrutinised news of the pending spectacle by radio and newsprint spread rapidly across the country incurring the resultant interest and excitement of the bulk of a general absorbed public which would soon grow to enormous proportions as the day approached. 


I seems that just about everyone in the England and Scotland, especially those people over whose land the airborne cavalcade was likely to pass, was eager to see these ‘flying machines’ for themselves and as a consequence of this intense publicity, great problems were encountered with the arrival of thousands of excited sightseers, men, women and children alike, at the Brooklands Race Circuit long before the official start of the race on Saturday, 22nd July.   By the morning of one of the hottest ever recorded summers, on a sweltering and humid day, there were at least nine of the thirty competitors who had already scratched from the race due to a number of recent deaths, broken bones and other injuries, not to mention mechanical failures to the experimental home-made machines, (Perhaps there were also second thoughts on the enormity of the task ahead!), but the many thousands of onlookers, seemingly oblivious to this minor setback and refusing to leave,  continued to throng the area for a first glimpse of the futuristic machines and their brave pilots. 

A great disappointment was to increase as the predicted start of the race was continually delayed due to excessive turbulence which was created by the hot and humid temperature which reached well into the nineties and it is a recorded fact that later that week, the temperature in London would reach 97 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest recorded for the previous 70 years.  To great excitement and much noise amongst those assembled, the temperature lowered and around 4pm the competitors, in ten minutes intervals, started their engines and commenced their individual take-off , each one to a mighty roar of encouragement and appreciation from the tens of thousands of sweltering spectators by now assembled.  Their destination for this short, initial stage was the new Hendon airfield some 17 miles distant, over the River Thames to the north.


The second stage of the race, which by now contained just 17 competitors, was due to commence from Hendon in the cooler atmosphere of first light on Monday 24th July, following a religious rest-day on the Sunday.   By the time this tense moment arrived, it seems that very few people living along the 364 miles, straight-line route to Edinburgh would have been  unaware of this momentous red-letter day in aviation history and according to local reports, a massive movement of people, the like of which had never been seen gathered together before, began to assemble in the Melton Mowbray area which was almost directly under the proposed flight path.   At roughly 100 miles along the route and a couple of miles out of the town, an emergency landing area had been prepared at the Brentingby Polo Ground for the use of the competitors and their teams. Food, rest, toilets and breakdown assistance was available to those who wished to use it, but this was not a compulsory stop and any time spent would go on the clock.  

The weather at daybreak in the Melton area, as across the rest of the country, was hazy with a low hanging mist hanging around the tree tops, creating patches of restricted visibility both for the competitors above and the watchers spread out below them.   But these conditions were not to last and they would certainly not put a damper on what would turn out to be one of the most remarkable and unforgettable days in the Town’s history.

The very popular film of the 1960s “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” was clearly based on the exploits of these valiant Edwardians, but of almost forgotten local interest is the impact the event had at the time on the people of Melton Mowbray and the influence it had on those who would decide later to become involved in this new ‘pastime’.  The Melton Times of 1911 is mysteriously missing from all archives, but luckily, the reporter from the neighbouring Grantham Journal was there with his pencil and on the 29th July 1911, his newspaper devoted several column inches to the exciting events of the day and how they related to the local scene.  A dependable representation of the days proceedings, plus a true flavour of his view ‘in situ’ can only be properly achieved by reproducing his report verbatim.  The use of the paragraph seems not have been in vogue at the time (perhaps in the interest of space) and the quaint words and punctuation, now long disused, add interest and some amusement to the sense of period in the piece. 


THE GREAT FLYING RACE. ----- The unexampled interest evinced throughout Great Britain, nay, from end to end of Europe, in the great aeroplane race which took place during this week, for the prize of £10,000, offered by the Daily Mail, was manifested to a remarkable degree in Grantham and the neighbourhood.  Here, in common with the rest of the world, we had talked about and speculated on the probable chances of the respective competitors.  In the few days preceding the great event enthusiasm increased ten-fold and on Sunday large numbers of people declared their intention of being out on Monday morning, despite the early hour, if only to catch a glimpse of one or more of the aerial voyagers on their way from Hendon to Harrogate, the second stage of the race.  The scene in the streets in the “wee small hours” of Monday was certainly remarkable, and was probably without parallel in the history of the borough, as, indeed, was the occasion which gave rise to such an unwonted display of enthusiasm.  As early as four o’clock one was awakened by motor cars speeding on their way to points of vantage, the majority favouring Melton Mowbray and Saxby, where, as events proved, a great deal of the race was seen.  At the latter place, it is a fact that there were assembled no less than a thousand cycles and some three hundred motor-cars, whilst, of course, the crowd was largely swelled by pedestrians.  Shortly after 4 o’clock the streets were alive with people, and, judging by the scheduled times, it was generally anticipated that the flying machines would be in the neighbourhood by half-past five.  The town itself was indicated on the Daily Mail map as a likely place from which the racing men might be seen, but this proved not to be the case, and the crowds of people who waited long and expectantly in the streets were doomed to disappointment.  So were those – and there were several hundreds – who “footed” it further afield, and foregathered on Hall’s Hill or at Harrowby.  A mist obscured the view, but even had the atmosphere been clear their chances of seeing an aeroplane, in the light of subsequent events, were remote.  Motorists and cyclists, of course, had the advantage of being able to travel further afield.  Bottesford,  Redmile, and Bingham attracted a good many from here, and they saw several of the competitors, but most people probably journeyed to Waltham and beyond.  The exodus from the town in that direction certainly seemed much greater than in any other.  Motorists sped along Harlaxton-road in rapid succession, and in their dusty wake followed streams of cyclists.  All classes were there -- gentry, tradesmen, professional men, and artisans – all imbued with the one idea – to see the sight of a lifetime.  With but one or two exceptions the motors went on to Melton Mowbray, but for the rest, the hill overlooking Waltham village, and from which there is an extensive view, was considered a desirable point of vantage, and here fully a hundred people from Grantham were assembled, expectantly scanning the horizon.  Several were intrepid enough to walk the long distance to Croxton, and it was unfortunate that their ardour went unrewarded.  It was about 5.30 that the first airship was seen travelling due north from the direction of Melton Mowbray.  It was several miles from Waltham, but the winged structure could be plainly seen as it glided swiftly from view.  A second aeroplane was seen in the locality about 6.15, and, with the idea of getting a better view of succeeding flyers, many of the spectators now journeyed on towards Melton Mowbray, whilst the remainder shortly afterwards returned to Grantham.

A later report in the same newspaper referred more specifically to events in the town..


The great interest shown in the Circuit of Britain Aeroplane Race which commenced on Saturday and finished on Wednesday with Mr “Beaumont,” the racing name of Lieut. Conneau, of the French Navy, the winner of the £10,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail, culminated, so far as the Melton district, over which the “course” lay, was concerned, in a most extraordinary display of enthusiasm and admiration on Monday.  From vantage points a mile or two out of the town, not only was the unique and thrilling spectacle witnessed of airmen passing overhead on their way to Harrogate in the second section of the contest, but in no less than four instances competitors came to the ground, for renewal of petrol or other instances.  Except at Hendon on Saturday, when the first section from Brooklands was completed, at no other place throughout the whole circuit did four aeroplanes descend in one district, and, whatever the feelings of the pilots themselves might be in having to make compulsory descents, it was a sight which those who witnessed it had never seen before, and it may be many a day before they do so again.  Altogether, on Monday, ten of the seventeen competitors who set out from Hendon, either passed over or reached the vicinity (one who came down being unfortunately, unable to make further progress), and, it may be convenient to give their names here in the order in which they were seen: - 1. No.9, Jules Védrine, Morane – Borel Monoplane; 2. André Beaumont, Blériot Monoplane; 3. No. 24, Gustav W. Hamel, Blériot Monoplane; 4. No. 14, James Valentine, Deperdousin Monoplane; 5. No. 20, S.F. Cody, Cody Biplane; 6. No. 19, C. Howard Pixton, Bristol Biplane;  7. No. 17.  C.P. Pizey, Bristol Biplane; 8. No. 12, Lieutenant R.A. Cammell R.E., Blériot Monoplane; 9. No. 23, Oliver de Montalent, Bréguet Biplane; 10. Lieutenant H.R.P. Reynolds, R.E., Howard Wright Biplane.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning, No. 2,  H.J.D. Astley, on a Birdling Monoplane, flew over the district.  The fact that arrangements had been made with the Melton Mowbray Polo Club for the use of their splendid ground at Brentingby, two and a half miles out of the town, for some of the airmen to descend to replenish their petrol supply, made that particular vicinity the chief point of assembly for those who wished to witness the progress of the contest, and no better situation could have been selected.  The polo enclosure itself, as well as the immediate rising ground towards Wyfordby, just off the Saxby Road, was invaded by sightseers numbering several thousands, and several of the aeroplanes passed directly over their heads, while those which descended not only enabled everyone almost to see this particular feat accomplished, but also gave the opportunity for a close inspection of the wonderful machines.  From daybreak the town of Melton was alive with passing motor-cars, motor cycles, “safeties,” and brakes, which brought contingents from Leicester and the surrounding districts, who were making their way to Brentingby, and the scene of the Saxby Road from four o’clock to six was one which in some respects eclipsed the familiar sight of the Burton Road on the occasion of the annual steeplechases at Burton Flats.  The road was simply blocked with both wheel and foot traffic, the town of Melton itself, of course, making up the large proportion of it.  It was certainly ...


... for so early an hour, and it is safe to say that to the great majority it was a very unusual time to be “abroad.”  Of motor cyclists there was an extraordinary number, and motor-cars were to be numbered by the score.  There must have been thousands of people all told, all badly smitten with “aeroplane fever,” and all discussing what might or might not be seen.  While many hundreds proceeded down to Brentingby and over the railway level-crossing on the polo ground, as many hundreds wended their steps about another half-mile further to the Wyfordby turn, and the field through which the road passes to the latter village was simply alive with people. Those who assembled here certainly had the advantage for a start, for a distance of some miles could be seen in all directions, and two of the first three airmen passed directly over their heads, while the second one was also plainly visible.  Later it came to the turn of the crowds on the polo grounds to have their anticipations and wishes fulfilled, by the descent of three competitors in their midst, at varying intervals, and, needless to say, the excitement was tremendous, and had either of the three accomplished something definite in the contest they could not have had a more enthusiastic reception.  When it was seen from the Wyfordby Hill Top that a descent was being made, there was a regular cross-country scramble to the polo ground, half a mile away, and most of those negotiated the various obstacles that came across their path, saw the first aviator ascend, and did not leave the ground again until for good. It may be mentioned here that the Polo Club made a charge for admission to the enclosure, and what with the large crowd and rows of motor cars & co., it looked a typical race meeting, that is, of course, in an equine sense.  One section of the large, level playing area had been roped off and the spectators were supposed to keep behind them, but on the arrival of the airmen, each after a most graceful descent, their enthusiasm outdid all prevention, and the policemen on duty were powerless to prevent the crowd breaking into the centre of the ground, and ...


... was fairly mobbed in a display of delight and wonderment.  Several officials of the Leicestershire Aero Club were present, and, with members of the Polo Club, saw to it that the arrangements made, as far as they could supervise them, were as they should be.  A large repairing motor belonging to the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Ltd., of Bristol, which had no less than seven aeroplanes entered in the race, was present and a large supply of petrol supplied by local firms was on the ground.  In the centre of the field was a large white cross as a guide to the fliers where to alight and at the Brentingby end of the field was kindled a fire which gave off dense white smoke, also intended to attract the attention of the aviators who desired to descend.  The weather before the sun got up was very foggy, especially in the valley, and the airmen had some difficulty during this part of the journey in discerning the landscape at all, and had largely to rely on their maps, their compasses, and their judgement to guide them.  It was considerably after six o’clock before the air became really clear, though the sky itself, to those on terra firma, was visible above the haze and enabled them to see the aviators, if the latter could not properly discern them. For the younger generation the occasion was one which, in particular, will stamp itself on the memory, and hundreds of children were, of course, among the throng, as exuberant and excited as the rest.  No doubt they had promised to be “back in time for school,” but, as a matter of fact, they were not, and so small a number of scholars did present themselves at nine o’clock that it was decided to close the Schools for the day.  Naturally, there were other points of vantage in the neighbourhood beside those just dealt with from which a fine view of the airmen could be obtained on the north side of Melton, and these had a considerable quota of spectators, and those on the Scalford-road had the opportunity of witnessing a descent, in this case, compulsorily, Hamel, one of the “favourites” for the race, coming down owing to engine trouble and landing in what he described as a “two-foot field.”  It was, of course, of slightly larger dimensions than that, but his ascent from a very circumscribed space was probably the most thrilling of all. 


When one arrived at the spot thought to be the best for viewing the competitors (alluding more particularly to the Brentingby side) one’s eyes and thoughts naturally turned upwards, and in the direction from which the aviators might be expected to appear. It was anticipated that, barring accidents, the leading man might pass over the vicinity between five and six o’clock, and from five o’clock not only naked eyes, but dozens of field glasses and telescopes were directed to the south and south-east.  It was just three minutes to half-past five when a steady floating object, no larger than the smallest of small birds, was observed, and the shout of, “here’s one coming,” caused everyone to look in the same direction.  Gradually, slowly it almost seemed, the object in question assumed a shape that left no doubt it was the first of the flyers, and exactly at 5.30 a monoplane which by the aid of glasses could easily be distinguished by ‘the number’’ on each side of the plane as “9,” passed straight over the heads of the people assembled in the field over the Wyfordby hill-top.  This, from the reference, was seen to be the number of M Jules Védrine’s aeroplane, and it’s progress was instantly watched, and a loud cheer was raised, as it went by “the Broom” towards Scalford.  The hum of the motor could be heard very distinctly, and the machine appeared to be gliding along (possibly at fifty or sixty miles an hour) without the slightest trouble; in fact under perfect control.  It proceeded some miles, but was not out of range, when, suddenly as it were, at 5.32, a second aeroplane came into view through the haze which still hung over the horizon.  There were thus two in sight at once, and the second one appeared to be “taking a corner” off from the first, with a line nearer Freeby than the leading one had done.  Although it’s number could not be ascertained, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind but that this was M. Beaumont on his Blériot Monoplane and he continued on an evidently stern chase after his fellow-countryman.  At 5.35 the now fully recognised “song” of the aeroplane motor again broke on the air, and, flying at a very low altitude, there next sailed over the hill-top, “No. 24” the figures being so plain that no glasses were needed to distinguish them. It came to everybody’s mind that the airman, Mr Hamel, had some reason for being so low; not more than two hundred feet high it was conjectured, and this surmise proved to be correct.  Had he known, probably he would have brought his aeroplane to earth on the polo ground, half a mile away on his left, but he held a line which took him almost ...


... to descend in a small field between the Great Northern  Railway and the Isolation Hospital, of which more anon. Recognised as the first Englishman to cross over, he was accorded a particular hearty cheer, which could hardly have failed to penetrate the whirr of his motor.  Then came quite a lull, for one had by now begun to expect seeing aeroplanes every two or three minutes.  However, suddenly there was described going nearly over the town of Melton itself, going “entirely on it’s own,” an aeroplane, whose white tail flashed in the sunlight over the mist below and which proved to be Mr Valentines monoplane.  He was much too far off for any demonstration to be made, but the huge crowds above and below Brentingby were on exceedingly good terms with themselves, and only waited now for the first descent to be made that they could witness.  They had not very long to wait, for a minute or two after six o’clock a “speck” appeared on the horizon over the hill between Whissendine and Old Dalby, and the biplane which it in a few seconds resolved itself into was evidently for “business” on the polo ground.  As it came almost in a direct line for the assembled crowd behind the ropes, it perceptively slackened speed, and then took a delightful bird-like swerve and the next minute Mr. C. Howard Pixton’s “Bumble Bee” planed beautifully on to the level turf and with scarcely a tremor of the frame upon the running wheels touching the turf, it ran a dozen or so yards, and came to a complete standstill.  The whole thing had looked so simple and natural-like in it’s execution that for a moment or two everyone appeared lost in astonishment, but when the pilot himself, without any loss of time, sprang from his seat, which by the way, had a Union Jack cushion at the back of it, their wonderment gave way to ...


... and everyone rushed across the intervening ground to not only congratulate the pilot himself, but, as far as was possible, to examine the marvellous piece of mechanism which had dropped into their midst from a point between eighty and ninety miles away. Mr Pixton readily acknowledged the greetings, but there was no time to be lost, and while every body who could get anywhere close enough to admire the aeroplane itself did so, the mechanics of the Bristol firm, whose machine it was, quickly replenished the fuel tanks, and saw to it that everything was in order for the safe continuation of the fateful flight.  In the meanwhile a sudden inspiration appeared to seize those within the immediate proximity of the plane, and that was to inscribe their names, and in many instances addresses, on the canvas, and the aeroplane, when it left again, must have carried quite a lot of “lead” away with it in addition to it’s ordinary weight.  By twenty minutes past six all was in readiness for Mr Pixton to resume his journey, and after a trial spin along the ground, apparently to test the engine, the aeroplane, with no seeming effort, soared into the air once more, and making a circle of the ground, was in a minute or two lost to sight beyond the trees, though the motor sounds could be heard for some for some time as the pilot got under weigh.  It was rumoured that another aeroplane might be expected to alight on the ground in twenty minutes time, and this proved to be so far correct that towards seven o’clock the machine driven by Mr C.P. Pizey, also a “Bristol,” could be seen in the distance, though coming from the direction of Saxby Station.  It appears that Mr Pizey, on reaching Oakham, fancied he was at Melton, and, in searching around for a landing place, twice or thrice made a circuit of the Rutland county town, and then, finding he had mistaken the place, set off for Melton.  With the fog by now all cleared off, Mr Pizey sighted the polo ground a mile or two away and bore straight for it.  He came over the trees by the level-crossing, and, like his predecessor ...


... which quite took the heart of the spectators, stopping plump in the middle of the field.  Rousing cheers had been given all the time the aviator had been within hailing distance, and these were smilingly acknowledged by Mr Pizey upon descending from his “perch,” which also had a Union Jack cushion at the back.  Whether it was a cigarette or a cup of tea which first reached his lips we will not venture to say, but both were cordially welcome.  It transpired that one of Mr Pizey’s reason’s for coming down was engine trouble, that great bane of all aviators, and, as events proved, this turned out to be so serious that not only was he unable to continue his flight there and then, but it eventually involved the practical destruction of the biplane, and put him out of the race altogether.  When Mr Pizey had got all in readiness for a start, considerable trouble was experienced in getting the engine going, and when this was succeeded in the pilot did not attempt anything more than a run the length of the polo playing piece.  He had two more attempts before venturing to lift the machine into the air, and then he had not risen more than twenty or thirty feet before he hurriedly came down again, and before he could bring it to a standstill on the ground itself, the wheels and lower supports had crashed over the board which makes the polo “touchline” and the concussion caused the upper plane to catch a propellor blade and rip it. It was then announced that Mr Pizey would not attempt to start again without new parts to the engines being put in, and, as these had to be obtained from Bristol, a resumption of the flight was not possible before late in the afternoon in any case.  The disappointment naturally experienced by the aviator himself was shared by the crowd, a large section of whom watched the partial dismantling of the machine with sympathetic interest. The propellors, it was noticed, were constructed of wood, presumably of teak and highly polished. Then ensued a considerable period of quiescence for the spectators and many of those who had journeyed from Leicester and other places took their departure.  It should be stated that Mr. Cody, who, as previously stated, passed seventh in order over the district, took a course almost directly over Holwell Works, where his number could be plainly distinguished, but he was not visible to those assembled at Brentingby.  The time was about six o’clock.  At a quarter to nine o’clock from a south-easterly direction Lieut. Cammell flew at a great height straight across the centre of the polo ground, and it was about this time the news was received by the officials at Brentingby that Mr Hamel had had to come down in a field in the occupation of Mr Freeborough, off the Scalford Road between the town of Melton and the isolation Hospital.  He had, of course, then been down over three hours in a vain endeavour to put things right; but his own mechanics, expecting him to alight at Mansfield, had preceded there, and were, of course, anxiously awaiting him.  At length, he motored over to Brentingby, and explained that he had broken an inlet valve, and at once a new one was placed at his disposal by the Bristol Company, and not only that, but Mr Pizey, being unable to “help himself” for the time being, went back with Mr Hamel to his damaged machine to assist in putting it right.  This action was a subject of considerable comment, and showed that in spite of the great rivalry a race for such a prize must have engendered still one competitor was quite willing to come to the assistance of another in the hour of need.  Of course, Mr Hamel had been seen to come down in the field, and very soon several hundred people had congregated round his machine, which being of the monoplane type, differed very considerably from those which descended at Brentingby.  By ten o’clock, the necessary repairs to Mr Hamel’s machine had been completed, and eight minutes later he was once more ready to set our upon his big undertaking.   Before he left Mr. F. R. Carter the superintendent of the G.N. and L. and N.W. Joint Railway, who had provided men, ropes etc., for Mr Hamel’s accommodation, wished the aviator, on behalf of the spectators, all good luck on his journey, and called for three cheers, which were given with rousing effect.  Mr Hamel having started his engine gave the signal for “let go” to those who were at the rear and almost instantly the machine took to the air, and in a few minutes was out of sight.  The aeroplane was not far from the hedge, and Mr Hamel took some little risk in getting off as he did, but the exigencies of the situation demanded it.  It is of interest to know that Mr Hamel is only twenty-three years of age.  To return to the aerodrome, one might almost call it, at Brentingby after the passing of Lieut. Cammell shortly before nine o’clock, the next aerial visitor was M. Olivier de Montalent, who arrived shortly before eleven o’clock and alighted, his descent being quite as cleverly accomplished as those before. There still remained a large number of people on the ground, and M. de Montalent was given a hearty reception.  Upon wishing to go up again, the Frenchman found that the air currents were not to his liking, and he decided to wait until later in the day.  He eventually made a start at 4.13 p.m., and got away in brilliant fashion, and, when “fairly on the wing” travelled very rapidly.  Meanwhile, just after two o’clock Mr C.T. Weyman, the American aviator, on his Nieuport Monoplane, soared over the district, and he, too, was evidently bent on making up for lost time.  Mr Pizey, the stranded airman at Brentingby, had hopes of getting away early in the afternoon, but found the injuries to his machine such that it was seven 0’clock before he could essay another flight.  It appears the chief cause of the trouble was the denting of one of the cylinders of the propellor.  At thirteen minutes past seven he made an attempt to resume his flight to Harrogate, but the machine refused to rise properly, and, after a short circuit, came down with an alarming crash on to the polo ground again.  This time the biplane was seriously damaged, the propeller being smashed off, and the chassis stanchions and several ribs broken.  It was then too late to attempt to remedy the defects, and the machine was left on the ground all night.  At a quarter to eight the same evening, Lieut. Reynolds, who did not start from Hendon until after 6 p.m., went over the east end of the town, and this was the last of the aviators to pass over the district that night.  Between five and six o’clock, however, on Tuesday morning, Mr H.J.D. Astley, and his Birdling Monoplane, who had been fogbound at Irthlingborough, near Kettering, was reported by railway officials to have gone over, and he reached Harrogate at 7.35.

On Tuesday evening, Pizey had once more got his damaged machine put right, and again attempted his flight, but unfortunately without success.  He rose a short distance from the ground and cleared the hedge on the opposite side of the polo ground to the railway, but he had only gone a short distance when down crashed the aeroplane again, this time damaged in such a manner that Mr Pizey decided to retire from the contest.  He himself was unhurt, and explained that his engine, which had given so much trouble, was affected by the weather.



The iconic moment of the first sighting of powered flight in Melton Mowbray is perhaps mere happenstance today after  more than a century has been and gone.  Those daring young men did move on to much greater things, at least those who were not tragically killed in the effort, as many were, but the intense dedication of the many intrepid men and women who continued to come forward and participate in the cause, have provided us with the luxurious and speedy air transport that we so take for granted today.

I have touched briefly in passing upon the contributions of a young Sam Summerfield, the local butcher’s son whose dreams came to fruition in the small wooden shed at the back of his dad’s shop in Nottingham Street, leading to his meanderings about the town with his cumbersome glider strapped to a pedal cycle whilst on his way to the fields to practice, did much to draw me in the direction of the exciting events of 1911.  I learned that he was one of the very first holders of an official Royal Aero Club certificate and who was later to train some of the wonderful pilots of the Royal Flying Corps in preparation for the exploits of the Great War of 1914.  Sam was a local hero whose existence is hardly known today in his home town. 100 years later, we should perhaps be remembering and giving thanks for his gift to the country and for the pride vested in the small market town in which he was raised.

The Leicester Chronicle, as early as 1908, some three years before the time of the great air race as described, was already opining about the advent of manned flight and its potential value to mankind.  The following snippet is a tongue-in-cheek example of the views then being expressed:

(From the Leicester Chronicle - Saturday 18 July 1908)


    ‘The romantic days when people had visions of constructing a wonderful secret flying machine in the privacy of the backyard, and selling at some fabulous sum to the Government or a foreign Power, have long gone by, says Mr Valentia Steer in an article on aeroplanes in the July [1908] number of Cassell’s Magazine.  ‘Given sufficient money for aeroplanes at present are costly things, any engineer who has studied the subject at all could make an aeroplane that could fly.  What the world is waiting for is the adaptation of the gyronome or some other mechanical device that will prevent the aeroplane from ’turning turtle’ when in the air.  It must be remembered that ten years ago the motor car was practically unknown, five years ago it was still a curiosity.  Experts declare that flying machine development has proceeded faster than that of motor cars in their infancy.  If this state of progress is maintained, in another decade we shall have realised the recent prophesy of Colonel Fullerton R. E. that in a few years  aeroplanes will be as cheap as bicycles and all our pleas, all our political frontiers and all our tariff arrangements will have to be re-arranged, for Great Britain will no longer be an island.’

© John McQuaid 2018

See a wonderful archive of photographs from the race at this site:

Saturday, 2 December 2017


(My pictures have all been electronically stolen by Google!)

I wrote this small article on my blog some time ago now, but I have brought it up to date for the benefit of my local readers specifically, who might well know of where I am talking.  Written a little tongue-in-cheek perhaps, I hope that it fits into the local discussion and is relevant.

Do you happen to know how many named streets there are in Melton Mowbray? Well officially, at today's date, [2013] there are 699 and I must confess that it is a much larger number than I would have ever dreamt of.  But, hold the front page, I have just discovered that there are now 700 and that that civic milestone was passed recently with the unheralded appearance of a brand new, shiny plate which proudly displays the name, 'Mucky Lane' near to the entrance of our swish new Council Offices at Burton End; Oh how twee - but not quite correct it seems. Locals 'argue' that a lane or pathway has always existed in the area, once running alongside the then Framland House and linking Burton Street with the Play Close; but it was never officially named or at least, known by any particular name.  As an incomer to the town, I would guess that there were at least a dozen pathway given this soubriquet at any one time.

A discourse has recently arisen on my local town's Facebook pages, as to 'where was what and when was it there' and certain facts have born truth along with the usual assertion of locally handed down myths.  Since man discovered the wheel, he has ever used roads to traverse the land on his feet in order get him from place to place.  What originated as mere footpaths enabling progress via the shortest routes between caves, have become today the motorways and multi-lane autoroutes and highways which we know so well and as wheeled transport grew larger and less simple, its numbers increased along with the general population. The footpaths were retained for local use, many of which remain protected and maintained under the law of the land to the present time. The more direct routes which linked the more important inhabited population centres and places of business however, required to be widened and most importantly, to be maintained, as the steel rims of large wooden wheels did much damage to the often fragile surfaces, this especially during the winter months.  With the question of expense now raising its regular head, the turnpike system was brought into being with toll-gates manned by private companies to take fees from the users with which to earn cash for their high-priced upkeep.

The turnpikes - or main roads - were simple to name; as you drove to Grantham, it was the Grantham Road and when you got halfway it became the Melton Road, for those travelling in that direction.  In the same manner, as the population expanded and the infrastructure grew with it, the smaller linking roads and town streets which serviced the towns and cities were given the most obvious names by the people whose houses were built among them, and all of this with no diktat from local parish councils or the like. Names commonly related to the trades of the people living in them, names such as 'Butchers Lane' or "Bread Street" were obvious.  When the time came that the developers began to build not just a house, but acres of houses, the naming of the streets became more important and obviously a challenge as several new roads would appear at one go.  Something I am reluctant to put out in the public arena rather surprised me recently when I came across this piece from Wikipedia:

I give the link only, but watch who is looking over your shoulder!  Now join me, out and about one early Sunday morning.

An unguided tour

Walking around our ancient old town as I am wont to do occasionally, I never fail to be perplexed and oftentimes amused by the plethora of seemingly crass and quite simply, baffling, street names which have been and are still being, allocated to the new highways and by-ways which continue to proliferate upon the former meadows and lanes which once skirted our boundaries.  In the northeast of the town where the old Victorian Framland Isolation Hospital once stood at the top of Scalford Road, we now have the metamorphosed Framland Residential Home, which today 'offers a skilled elderly care service' within its 31 rooms at 'Clark' Drive. Accompanying Darren Clark the still-living golfer, are Torrance Drive; Faldo Drive; Lyle Close and the absolute mother of them all, Laura Davies Close!  What on earth have a bunch of rich, has-been golfers got in common with the market town of Melton Mowbray? When the kids grow up and ask who Laura Davies was, I wonder how many of us will recall that she was in fact, no local hero but a one-time woman golfer and certainly not that she was a local person who had once served the Town so well in some loyal way.  

From the fairways of Framland, travel west and across the Scalford Road to alight in what is colloquially known as 'The Poets Estate', where, en route to Nottingham Road we meander betwixt the choice literary plums of; Dickens; D'arcy; Keats; Shelley; Tennyson and Galsworthy et al. Once again we exclaim, "What the heck has 'Rabbie' Burns got to do with us here," perhaps he once leased  a hunting-box nearby - who the heck knows?  Just beyond the back gardens of the Burns' literary country lie three small tributaries named Russet, Bramley and Laxton; though I don't believe that there were ever any apple orchards there, but again, I might be wrong..

Am I being unfair - is it that I am being mischievous? Well I have purposely ignored other blatant examples from the north side of the town in order to turn my attention to the sixties development of the Leicester Road Estate, once a prime greenfield area but now generally accepted as residential without a combative thought. But who dreamt up the idea that the interlinking roads should be named after many of the rivers of England; what brilliant flash of inspiration from some unknown benefactor who seemingly possessed the powers and the rights to decide these matters made this decision? I won't name the rivers as there are indeed too many, but one river in particular, Redbrook (Crescent), I have so far failed to trace. If one travels into the deep south of Melton Mowbray, over even more of the former agricultural land, we have the ornithological connection with the Robins, Wrens and Woodcocks etc. which I will perhaps concede are quite relevant to most rural areas. Adjacent to our feathered friends and sited on the most recently developed large estate developed in the town, we can recall the moments of our countryside rambles in the vast collection of names relating to wild flora. But I cannot leave this side of town without a mention of the newly named streets which now replace the site of the old Police Station which once stood on the Leicester Road for almost fifty years. Who on earth dreamed up the idea, formulated the required permissions and actually set up street name boards which are named after three of England's most iconic aircraft, the 'V' bombers Valiant, Victor and Vulcan of the cold war years, together with two more used ones from an even earlier era, the Lancaster and the Halifax.  Im not sure that any of these saw actual service at the local airfield, so what is their relevance to us here today.


I needed to uncover what exactly was the legal or formal criteria for the naming of new thoroughfares and to discover what, if any, procedures or measures or degree of interest is applied by our civic protectors of local heritage: The rules of Melton Borough Council state: 

'Street Naming and Numbering is a statutory function. The relevant powers for local authorities are contained in Sections 64 and 65 of the Towns Improvement Clauses Act 1847, and Sections 17, 18 and 19 of the Public Health Act of 1925. This legislation requires the Local Authority to prepare street naming and numbering schemes and to maintain a good standard of street name plates.
It is important that developers apply to the Building Control Department at an early stage for a street numbering and naming scheme.  We will normally ask the developer for suggestions for street names based upon the history and/or locality of the area, providing they are not similar to any street name that already exists in the area these may be put forward for approval to the afore mentioned committee.
Following agreement with the developer to the proposed street naming and numbering, we will notify the relevant authorities and statutory undertakers of the approved scheme and Royal Mail will be asked to allocate postcodes. Royal Mail will not issue a postcode until informed by the local authority that an address has been allocated, an address is not complete without the correct postcode.
When the street name has been agreed a layout plan and a street numbering and naming schedule is prepared which allocates a number and street name to each of the developer’s plot numbers. Purchasers of new properties should be careful when passing on their new address details that they are using the postal number and street name, not the plot number and development name, as the two will not necessarily be the same.
Any request for a new or revised property number or street name must be requested in writing to the Building Control Department. A site plan must be submitted with the request on paper no larger than A3, the plan must indicate the property/properties the request relates too.

New street names should not duplicate a name already in use in the borough or neighbo[u]ring boroughs. Variations to the terminal word (street, road, avenue etc.) will not be accepted as a different name.
New street names should be of local significance and unsuitable names should be avoided.

Street names should not be difficult to pronounce or awkward to spell. In general, words of more than three syllables should be avoided and this includes the use of two words except in special cases.

So basically, what Melton Borough Council does is to ask for the submission of a pro-forma from the developer with his recommendations for names and points out that they have the authority to reject or override any of their suggestions. 


Now on the other hand, what of our immediate neighbours to the east, the Charnwood Borough Council? Working from the same legislation, they interpret the rules to provide a totally different and I believe, much more sensible policy practice which goes like this:


(i) This procedure relates to the naming of streets, footpaths, cycleways and parks
(ii) The following be included as consultees during the naming process: Parish and town councils, Parish Meetings, Loughborough and District Civic Trust, Urban Forum,  History and Archaeology Group, local history and natural history groups, the developer and other persons who from time to time may be identified as being appropriate

(iii) After the granting of planning permission, in the case of all sites, the above bodies, as appropriate, be consulted and requested to suggest a name or, as the case may be, a list of names or themes, that accord  with the principles outlined below, for consideration. 
(iv) The principles for the assignment of new names are that they should:
   • not relate to living people
   • not be the same as or similar to other street names in the area 
   • avoid potential mis-spellings
   • relate, wherever possible, to one or more of the following:
    (a) local history/historical associations/historical figures;
    (b) existing local themes in street names;
    (c) local natural history associations;
    (d) local industrial/sporting or twinning themes;
   • avoid the potential to cause offence. 

Is it different? well, just a little! a little  more than chalk and cheese! So what of the cavalier and apparently unthinking attitude of our friendly, seemingly detached or disinterested ruling body in their state of the art new offices at Melton? I'll bet that there were great jollies and local consultation on the christening of 'Mucky Lane', with probably a couple of bottles of champagne on the taxpayer to share with the local press as they announced their coup de gras, notwithstanding the embarrassing fact that they had been informed wrongly of its true position.  What could have been worse when they moved it around the corner to another place where it now remains and is still incorrect.  Muddy Lane was ever known to locals and appears on various maps as the alleyway which leads to the Play Close from Leicester Street and is now known as Park Lane.

So come on Building Control or whoever makes these seismic decisions, get your act together and see if we can't match up with the apparently sensible - and locally sensitive - folk from Charnwood and for the sake of us residents and visitors alike, let us bring an end, once and for all to these dilatory or uncaring practices. I know for sure that there are many living souls around the town who would prefer to remember those characters of a now lengthening list of soon-to-be-forgotten, 'non-living' persons who have at least lived in and more importantly, have contributed something tangible to the Town.

Finally, is someone is going to tell me that the now departed Civic Society or local Historic Society did in fact, approve of these unsuitable street names, or were indeed, consulted on the subject? If that is the case then it is time for my rant to end and for me to get back into to my dark room. 

Wednesday, 29 November 2017


A Lack of Accommodation

Reported from its fortnightly meeting of the Local Board at Melton Mowbray in 1865, during which a vexed member brought to its attention a question which he deemed as being of the utmost importance.  The Grantham Journal, with tongue in cheek, reported briefly on the matter with this account.

 'Mr LARGE said he wished to direct the attention of the Board to a question which before long must come to the front, and that was the provision of urinals in the town.  He thought that it was an important matter, and ought to be ventilated.  He was in Leicester the other day, and noticed the arrangement for one of these conveniences in Belgrave Gate, and what was in some towns very unsightly was there made a very nice affair.  He thought the adoption of the same idea, namely, a number of trees, would remove any objection that might otherwise arise in the fixing of such places at Melton.  Every market day there was often several complaints through the lack of such accommodation. The CHAIRMAN contrasted the size of Melton with a large town and remarked that the question was worth considering and that the Board must look carefully into it.  Mr GLOVER thought that it would cost a considerable sum of money to carry it out. The matter was then dropped.

Hence, as we say today when we finally understood something, "..the penny dropped."

Friday, 15 September 2017


A Pillar of the Local Society

It continues to leave me somewhat incredulous whenever I look up the value of money historically, to compare it with the spending power of today.  I am informed that £100 in Edwardian England would be equivalent to over £8,000 today. I mention this mundane fact in relation to a story I came across recently which has connections with my home town and also touches upon that of my former life as a police officer; it also relates to the subject of currency and matters of the mind. We are told that 'the love of money is the root of all evil', but aren't we all aware that such love is perhaps only natural when compared with the unease of penury, the insufficiency of money in our daily lives.

Ready money was indeed the motivating element of the facts relating to this sad account of a police officer in 1905 who, whilst serving with the Manchester City Police Force gave in to temptation and appropriated cash belonging to the public coffers, for his personal use, following which he absconded forthwith from his home and place of work. In bizarre and puzzling, not to mention tragic, circumstances he was never to return to his home town but died by his own hand in an hotel room in the market town of Melton Mowbray, some 120 miles distant in Leicestershire.  Sergeant John Petler was widely regarded as a pillar of the local society and a highly rated police officer in his home city, where few people seemed to have been aware of his motives in committing what could only be described as a one-off and stupid crime.  His lonely death and the manner of its happening created much sadness among those who knew him well and his strange actions left most people guessing as to why. From the brief information I have turned up thus far, I too am no wiser as to the motivation urging his fruitless aberration than his peers were over a century since.

                        JOHN HATON PETLER 1859-1905

John Petler was born close to Christmas Day in 1859 in the pretty Yorkshire town of Beverley when his father Thomas was 24 and his mother, Ann was 22. Starting with John's birth  shortly after their marriage, the couple were to produce a further ten siblings in the succeeding 20 years - 7 boys and 4 girls. Thomas Petler had started his working life as a farm labourer in Yorkshire with no apparent pretensions of wealth or station but by the time he married local girl Ann Hodgson in 1859, he was employable as a groom and would later become a stud groom to some important people in his area.   

With only a passing interest in horses, son John had worked with his father in his earlier years but being restless or whatever at the time he became of age he was to join the Coldstream Guards for a spell where he apparently served with distinction. In 1885 after this service in the Guards he was to join the Manchester Police Force and upon his induction he was posted to Chorlton section where he evidently made good progress, with it becoming quite clear that he had made a good choice for his future life.  Being soon recognised by the authorities for his worth as a police officer and also regarded by his superiors as being both intelligent and trustworthy - sought after qualities in those rough times in a large city - he was soon to be promoted to Sergeant and later inherited the post of Sergeant-clerk in the Courts department.  It was also about this time that his life outside daily duties to King and Country was to be enhanced, when in December 1889, at the age of 30, Sgt. Petler married Alice Maud Killick - a young lady from Kent - at Barton-upon-Irwell in Lancashire.

Life appeared to be promising much for his future, though no children were to be born to the couple which was said to be a great disappointment to them both. Notwithstanding this deficiency in their lives, it was not too long before Alice was to become frequently ill and with an early diagnosis of Rheumatism, her life was to become a matter of increasing discomfort and constant, debilitating pain which was to progress into almost total disability, leaving John with the problem of coping.  It appears that the situation impinged detrimentally on other lives - including the Police Service - to the point where it was reported that the Chief Constable and Chairman of the Manchester Watch Committee, uncomfortable with their officer's situation, had put in train the removal of Alice to a hospital.

Little is known of John's relationship with his own large family which had continued to grow on a regular basis right up to 1879 when Ernest Septimus Petler was born as the final child in the year that John reached his twentieth Birthday.  It is known that he was particularly fond of his younger brother Alfred who was born some 4 years after him and who now lived with his wife Hannah and their three children in the small county of Rutland in the English Midlands.

Whatever was happening in John Petler's now mature life in 1905 to steer his mind to the idea of committing a serious crime both against his employer and of the people of his home city, is not apparent to me and perhaps it is something we will probably never know, but it is very clear that something serious was affecting his train of thought.  Maybe anxiety at the sad situation of his ailing wife or perhaps personal problems at work, it is sufficient to say that on Thursday, November 30th 1905, unannounced and without the prior knowledge of his wife, he failed to turn up at the Magistrate's Court for work.  It is confirmed that he left his home in Moss Side around 7am that morning and his wife was to tell the Coroners jury that,  as was his practice, he had helped her out of her bed, her being confined to her bedroom for the last 15 months.  Later, she would tell how, after kissing her John had said, "Good bye love." instead of the usual, "Good morning."  She also recalled that the significance of that moment only dawned on her later, when he failed to return home from work that evening. Another poignant moment she remembered was that just two days earlier it had been her birthday and that her husband had been uncommonly demonstrative in his wishes that her next year 'would be full of happiness.'

A one-way ticket

Early that Thursday morning Sergeant/Clerk John Petler left his home for work as normal, but although it was a workday for him at his local police station he headed instead for the Railway station in the centre of Manchester where he boarded a train bound for the tiny County of Rutland which adjoins Leicestershire in the south-east - some 140 miles distant.  The purpose of his journey was, without previous announcement, to visit the residence of his favourite younger brother Alfred who was employed as a stud groom at Ketton Hall where he was living with his wife Hannah and their three young children in the village of Ketton, close to the county seat of Oakham Town.

(Manchester Libraries)

Having changed trains at Leicester Railway Station, John travelled on to Melton Mowbray and eventually to Ketton where he met up with his brother Alfred who welcomed him with open arms.  Quietly, Arthur was puzzled and apart from the fact that there had been no pre-warning of his imminent arrival and the fact that his brother seemed a little perturbed, pacing about agitatedly and constantly looking about him, he was to become concerned for his well-being.  He suggested that John should perhaps stay over for the night after his long journey, but his offer was rejected with the excuse that he needed to return to Manchester for duty.  At this time of day, Alfred's three children were all at school locally, but they were sent for so that they could meet their uncle before he left on the next train.  As a parting gift John gave each of the children - Gladys, Alfred and Nina - a gold sovereign, which would have been a very big gift, suffice to say that today one 1905 King Edward sovereign would fetch more than £300.

On his insistence to complete his return journey to home that evening, Alfred reluctantly took his brother to the local railway station where he saw him safely into the train for Leicester, noting at the time that he was in possession of a return ticket for that town.  When on the train, which was slowly moving out of the station, John reached out of the window and handed an envelope to his brother, telling him, "Here Alfred, take these.  Good-bye for ever."  He was later to discover that the envelope contained bank-notes to the value of £65 - somewhere in the range of £7,000 today - but feeling uncomfortable and with his suspicions aroused, he was eventually to return it all to the police.  In the meantime, Sgt. Petler, ostensibly by now on his way back to Manchester, was to add to his strange behaviour of that day when, on the arrival of his train at Melton Mowbray he made the decision to embark in the town and booked himself into the George Hotel in the High street: This was the night of Sunday, 1st of December and it would be almost two weeks before anything more was heard or seen of him.


A Lamentable Affair

Meanwhile, back in the northern metropolis of Manchester, much guessing and speculation had been circulating around a curious public wishing to hear any gossip of the affair, whilst those closer to the case attempted to make some official sense or reason of events.  Alone in the marital home and hardly capable of caring for herself, poor Alice Petler, totally in the dark as to her husband's wellbeing or even his whereabouts would have been more anxious than most. The Manchester Guardian was soon to be on the case and in their edition of December 2nd 1905, following the announcement that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Sgt Petler, they laid out the facts of the case for their readers. Under the heading of, 'CURIOUS CASE IN MANCHESTER.' they wrote

    'The Manchester Police are in search of one, who until a few days ago was a trusted member of their body - Sergeant Petler.  A warrant has been issued for Petler's arrest on a charge of stealing five £10 Bank of Scotland notes, five £1 notes, one £2 note and £60 in gold.  The case is regarded by the police authorities as a sudden and unaccountable lapse in honest living.  Petler was 46 years of age, a native of Beverley, and served for a time in the Coldstream Guards. He joined the Manchester city police force in December 1885 and on Thursday last, November 30, while holding he rank of sergeant clerk he absconded and it is supposed took with him the notes and cash.  Petler, we are officially informed was a man of excellent character and highly respected throughout the force.  The utmost confidence was placed in him both by his superiors and all the officials at the police court.  This confidence was shown at the annual meeting of the Police Athletic Club last month when he was elected assistant secretary, in which capacity he would handle very large amonts of money.  It is somewhat singular that the only monies missing are a portion of the property, of two prisoners whose cases were down for hearing on Thursday morning.  He had in his charge on numerous instances the money and property of persons awaiting trial.  A safe is provided at the courts for the property of prisoners and Sgt Petler was entrusted with the custody of the property, and consequently of of the key to the safe.  It was not until he failed to attend the courts on Thursday and the safe was opened that it was found anything was missing.  The method of dealing with prisoners money is briefly as follows:   The property of all prisoners is taken with the prisoners to the courts and the officer in charge of each prisoner and received from him a receipt for it.  Petler then had the custody of the property until it was either handed over to the prisoner on his discharge or transferred to the prison authorities if the prisoner was committed to prison. The two cases in which it is alleged Petler has interfered with the prisoners' moneys were disposed of by the magistrates on Thursday morning, and his action was brought to light when the police officers wanted to restore to the prisoners the property taken from them upon their arrest.
As mentioned earlier, Alfred Petler from Leicestershire was to make contact with the authorities in Manchester following the unexpected visit to Ketton of his brother John and upon being advised as the the circumstances of his brother's predicament, he made the journey to Manchester where in conversation with the Chief Constable he handed over all of the stolen cash, which would also include the three precious gold sovereigns which the children had been gifted.


Having restored the money to its rightful owners, the police in Manchester were apparently off the hook, but their efforts were now to be directed to the matter of their missing officer.  For 10 days, nothing was heard of the sergeant, who was without doubt suffering from some sort of temporary mental disorder and it seems, had made no efforts to seek help or advice.  The fact that he was at Melton Mowbray might have been considered, perhaps by his brother, but no useful information was discovered.  Back in Moss Side, his incapacitated wife Alice would by now have been completely helpless with no other family about her and tentative plans previously being prepared by the Police Welfare office for her removal to a place of care were rushed into being and she was to remain from that time for over a decade until the day she died at the end of the Great War in 1918.

Melton Mowbray is a market town which lies in the NE of Leicestershire in the English East Midlands.  Well renowned for it world-wide distribution of the ubiquitous Pork pies and the main supply of the very popular Stilton cheese, the town was especially famous for it being the venue of the then prestigious pastime of fox-hunting and other equestrian sports which attracted many hundreds of rich and famous visitors during the winter season. It is likely that John Petler was lucky to have found a room available at the very popular hunting box known as the George Hotel, which stood right in the centre of the season's activities and attracted its quests from around the world.  In Edwardian times, the activity was at its peak, especially in December and the days up to Christmas.

As to how it was, or even as to why John Petler failed to complete his anticipated journey to Leicester and fetched up instead at The George Hotel in Melton will more than likely never be known, as of course will the mystery of his rash and unorthodox behaviour in general in the preceding days.  Melton Mowbray was on the Syston and Peterborough Line which was a west/east branch line of the larger Midlands Counties Railway which plied its trade north and south of the country.  Melton was the largest populated town on the way back to Leicester and no doubt would have been an attractive pause to the troubled sergeant of police as he made his way back to certain personal humiliation and the likelihood of a prison sentence awaiting him.  Albeit then, the cold month of December, there would have been a lot of warmth in the bars and taverns of the crowded town and good food awaiting in the restaurants.  I have no doubt that John had retained some of the money and would have been comfortable as a tourist and who knows, perhaps he was deserving of a few days off work.

A Poison Draught and Just Two Pence

On the tenth day of Sgt. John Petler's mysterious absence from a normal life in Manchester, business was continuing as normal at the George Hotel in Melton Mowbray when at around 7.30 on the morning of Monday, 11th December, the resident manager instructed a member of his staff to check on Sgt. Petler in his room on the top floor, as he had not responded to a knock on his door earlier.  It was a shock for the young man as he is said to have found the recumbent and apparently lifeless occupant along with signs of a poison draught in a glass nearby.  It was soon clear that John Petler, at his own time and place of choice, had taken his own life and the consequences of the past few weeks were to no longer fester in his mind.  About one o'clock that afternoon Mr Robert Peacock, the Chief constable of Manchester received a telephone message from the police in Melton in which he was informed that 'a man answering the description of Sergeant Petler had been found dead in bed on the top floor of the George Hotel there'.

The body was positively identified as the missing sergeant by a  detective officer from Manchester who reported back to his chief officer that all the money he had in his possession at the time of his death was 'two pence'!  An Inquest was hurriedly held that afternoon at which the landlord of the hotel confirmed that "Petler had been staying at his house since the first of December and that when he did not answer the boot's call for breakfast, his room was burst open when he was found quite dead, with a bottle and a glass which had contained poison near him."  Det. Inspector Wood gave evidence of his service in Manchester, telling the Coroner that "... it was his duty to have charge of the prisoners property, and he failed to appear after the night of 29th November when an inspection revealed that that £117 in notes and gold was missing from the safe which was in his custody."   He also confirmed that the Chief Constable and Chairman of the Manchester Watch Committee had taken steps to have his bed-ridden wife removed to a hospital  He also told the jury that Petler's friends had given a guarantee that all the money would be refunded.  It was a short Inquest, probably leaving many questions unanswered but for the Coroner it seems that there was sufficient for the jury to return a verdict of 'Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity.'  Probably the only satisfactory conclusion.



So now, the citizens of Manchester were aware of the circumstances regarding the sad demise of Sergeant Petler, but many questions have lingered for me to ponder, questions to which I have been able to find the answers.  The most obvious of these relates as to why this obviously well respected and seemingly honest man, financially secure for the rest of his life, commit such an absurdly incompetent and almost impossible crime.  With every possibility of failure in his desperate enterprise what was it that drove him to end his life this way?  We have the obvious plight of his wife's terrible illness, whose condition had apparently become beyond his ability to cope, together with the possibility that the fact of there being no children in the marriage would likely have weighed heavily upon his domestic life.

I was also puzzled to read that John Petler had been found in his hotel room with his poison draught some ten days after his arrival in the busy town, so did he commit suicide on the night of his arrival and remain unnoticed or had he been out and about during his stay. Both the official Inquest at Melton Mowbray and the very basic information given by the newspapers of the day bore little assistance in learning of any explanation or medical opinion as to his state of mind. The Jury's verdict was 'Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity' and I would guess that as long as the Manchester police force had recovered their stolen money, then that  would have been the end of the matter.  The Manchester Guardian of Dec. 12th did make an attempt to steer away from the known facts of the case when having told their readers that '...the matter has been cleared up with dramatic suddenness with the officer having been found dead in a Melton Hotel,' they ventured to speculate or opine;
'.... It would seem that Petler was all but at the end of his monetary resources, and he chose to make a tragical end of a lamentable affair rather than surrender to take his inevitable punishment. It is less than a fortnight since Petler disappeared and with him, about £117 which came into his hands as an officer at the local police court.  Had he been a more deliberate and calculating criminal he would probably have waited till a later date, when, it is understood, a much larger sum would have come into his temporary charge.  Having yielded apparently to sudden impulse he could not pluck up spirit enough to make confession of his fault, and disappeared immediately from Manchester.  Finally, in eleven days after the theft, he has deemed the only way out of his trouble was the present desperate act  The description of the missing officer was widely circulated as soon as he went away, and it is a little odd that though he has lived not a great distance from some relatives in the Midlands since then, the police authorities of this city had received no intimation of his whereabouts.
Alice Petler was to live on for a further 13 years, totally immobile, in a Manchester Hospital bed.  She died on the 1st May, 1918 leaving an estate of £44 13s 2d - today, with a spending power of about £2,000.

© John McQuaid - 2017