THE BUTCHER'S LAD, THE BARNSTORMER AND THE GRUBBER.
At the age of 40 and unmarried Samuel made a life-changing commitment when, in 1934, he would travel half way around the earth to live and work at the small mining settlement of Tennant’s Creek, part of the wild and unforgiving outback of the Northern Territories of Australia. What was intended to be a six months return trip working ‘down-under’ to earn a few shillings in the 'off' season, became a one way migration when, after a very short period of flying action, all his plans and dreams were to evaporate in a local 'puff of wind'. A hearing defect traceable to his exposure to an explosion in the early days of hostilities was deemed as sufficient to prevent him from obtaining a commercial pilot's licence in Australia which meant that he was never to fly again - personally disastrous and a massive, heart-breaking obtrusion for one so dedicated to his art. With ideas of an alternative source of income, he would join immigrant prospectors and acquire a gold mine locally to become a ‘grubber’. And it was here that he would die, alone, in 1967.
This is my account of all I have been able to discover of the remarkable life of this expatriate air pioneer extraordinaire, alas, now all but forgotten in his absence and the passage of time. He properly lays claim to the soubriquet of ‘local hero’, not only in his home town of Melton Mowbray in England to which place he never ever returned, but also in that of his adopted township of Tennant’s Creek where he is at least remembered locally with some affection and where artefacts relating to his life and work in the outback are currently held in the local museum. I hope I can do justice to Sam for whom, in absentia, I have acquired a great fondness and boyish admiration.
As this is one of my longer efforts at producing a story, it will, by necessity be split into probably (and hopefully) 3 sections. I already feel great apprehension about laying out my deliberations and future intentions and thus I refuse to make any promises. I believe that it is a significant little narrative and that Sam was a man to remember who deserves to have it told; so I will do my very best. Bear with me!
WERE AEROPLANES MADE IN MELTON MOWBRAY?
(John McQuaid 2013)
(From a young fan in a Letter to the Editor of the Melton Times of Friday 2nd November 1973)
“Much of Northern Australia is fit only for a colony of monks and hermits.”
(Matthew Flinders. Travel writer.)
I first discovered the existence of Samuel Summerfield whilst researching the careers of some of the pioneer aviators of England. The official registration records of many of those intrepid young men, complete with photographs, are now available for all to see and amongst the collection held at the National Archives in London, I came across the photograph of a serious looking young man with the following handwritten caption:
‘Bn. Melton Mowbray – March 18th 1894 – Samuel Summerfield (292) 17th September 1912’.
The name meant nothing to me, but the words that drew my attention were ‘Melton Mowbray’. At the age of just18 years a young man from my home town had acquired one of the Country’s very first Pilot’s Licences ever to be issued and for some unknown reason this rather struck me as a scarcely credible achievement, so I was curious enough to investigate further. From the 1901 Census of England I discovered that 7yrs old Samuel Summerfield was recorded as living with his family in the little hamlet of Sysonby on the edge of Melton Mowbray, a market town in the NE corner of Leicestershire.
I was to further discover that more than half of Sam’s very interesting life was spent on the very opposite side of the world to that in which he had been born, in a terrain which a travel writer once described as, “nothing but miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles”. I have made great use of the Internet in order to research his life in that vast Island continent and also received a great deal of unexpected help and information which has been kindly provided by newly-found friends at the small settlement of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territories of Australia. I reproduce here what I have discovered about the life and times of Samuel Summerfield, as I firmly consider that the living adventure of this most remarkable man deserves to be given voice in order to appropriately cement his proper place in the history of the town in which he and his family once lived.
‘The wings were made of wood and canvas …’
If you happened to be out and about on the streets of Melton Mowbray around one hundred years ago, probably on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning, you might have come across the unfamiliar sight of a studious looking young man together with two or three younger boys, pushing along the road what could only have been described as a ‘contraption’. The young man would almost certainly have been local butcher’s son Samuel ‘Sam’ Summerfield and the ‘contraption’ was a disassembled wooden glider, of which one of these young helpers would explain years later that; “… the fuselage and wings were made of wood and canvas, plus wire and string; it was on three bicycle wheels – two at the front and one at the tail. The wings were tied along the fuselage …” If this strange little group was spotted on the Thorpe Road heading out of town, then you could safely bet that their destination would have been to the Polo Grounds at Brentingby just a couple of miles out of town where Sam, by now at the age of about 15 years would be hoping one more time to get airborne.
Some sixty-plus years later, in 1973, an unidentified reader from Woking wrote to the editor of the 'Melton Times' in Melton Mowbray to enquire about the earlier existence in the town of an engineering firm by the name of ‘S. Summerfield, Sherrard Street.’ He was interested in any local knowledge which was available, offering the fact that the company had advertised prior to 1914 as manufacturers of aero engines and aeroplanes: in turn, the editor appealed to his readers for information; the piece – in the 'Melton Times' of October 19th, 1973 - continued:
'... local historian Mr J.E. Brownlow was contacted and told the Times that Sid Summerfield was one of the earliest pilots. After the war he believed, he did stunt flying. His father owned a butchers shop where Elizabeths, the florist now stands: [no longer] but Sid Summerfield is not mentioned in the Melton [trade] Directory in 1913-14 or 1915. If any of our readers can shed any light on this bit of Melton history, we should be grateful if they can pass it on to us.'
Well, Mr Brownlow was almost correct with his information, but the man he was referring to was not actually ‘Sidney’ Summerfield, but his brother Samuel, better known locally as ‘Sam’. Many readers did respond to the piece and a number of evocative and nostalgia-laden letters arrived over the ensuing weeks to recall happy memories of the young butcher’s lad-about-town and his great passion for flying during those halcyon days of more than half a century since.
Moving on some 3 and more decades since that correspondence fascinated the townsfolk and up to the present day, It is now my turn to have been hooked on seeking information concerning this intrepid and seemingly fearless young man, ever since discovering that as a very young man he had passed his tests and registered legally as a licensed pilot with the Royal Aeronautical Society as early as the year 1912. My personal interest in Sam relates to my own interest in aircraft and flying and the fact that the young pilot had spent much of his childhood and early youth in my home town of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, where - most likely with scant informed guidance - he had first learned to glide in a heavier-than-air machine. Astonishingly to me in this 21st century and used to hopping on to an airliner and travelling to who knows where, this was at a time when very few people had ever even seen such a contraption as a ‘flying machine’ and was around the same point in time – July 1909 – that the French aviator Louis Bleriot had become feted and perpetually recognised as the first man to make a powered flight across the English Channel. At the very young age of just 17 years then, Sam was to master his art and progress sufficiently to become the possessor of a highly-valued ‘Aviator’s Certificate’ and later, at the outset of the Great War of 1914-1918 as a trainer with the newly formed Royal Flying Corps – the forerunner of the Royal Air Force – he would teach several of those famously fearless and so often reckless young pilots who fought in that war over the towns and battlefields of France and Germany, many of whom of course were never to return.
A pioneer Sam Summerfield truly was, but not only in the field of aviation; in the 1930s when flying was to become more commonplace, he would become a pioneer for a second time when he became one of the first of the many hundreds of speculators from across the world to descend upon the Australian goldfields with his dreams now re-directed towards the promise of riches in abundance from under the ground. Turning his back on the depression years of 1930s England, he was to spend the remainder of his allocated years in the isolated and unforgiving wilderness of the Northern Territories of Australia chipping away at the outrocks until his death at the age of 74 yrs in 1967.
‘So, who was this man and were aeroplanes made in Melton Mowbray?’
The discussion regarding the young aviator in the letters column of the Melton Times, habitually lively with local expression, continued for quite a few weeks with the following examples being the most interesting of those received, or thought worthy of publication by the editor who had initiated the debate.
'Last week the Melton Times received a letter from a man in Woking, asking for information about an engineering firm of S. Summerfield, Sherrard-street, Melton. The company, the Woking man said, advertised prior to 1914 as manufacturers of aero engines and aeroplanes. Local historian Mr J. E. Brownlow provided the brief information outlined in that story. The following week the paper bore asked the question;
'Just who was the Melton aeronaut of 1914-18?' -
'What a response the Times has had for the enquiry regarding a certain Mr. S. Summerfield and his amazing flying machine of 50 years ago! for we have three different names for our intrepid aeronaut – Sid, Sam and Jim.
Mrs May Summerfield, who lives at Wilton Court, Melton, is the sister-in-law of Sam – and he was the man who flew, she told the Times. Sam, she said, built his own plane and flew it in the polo field, Nottingham Road, but it crashed. Sam died, said Mrs Summerfield, three or four years ago in Australia. He emigrated about 43 years ago, and, after flying for a while, joined the gold rush.
Mr Harry Scott, of Old Dalby, who is 75, also remembers Sam as the first Meltonian to fly aeroplanes. He told the Times that Sam joined the Royal Flying Corps (Army men who flew, in what later became the R.A.F.) and said that Sam was a training and test pilot.
An 'Old Meltonian' says he can remember in 1911-12 the Town Band parading to the polo field to see Sam fly in his “home-made bamboo plane, the one that crashed.All correct so far, but not this part! when 'Jim' enters this little nostalgia fest
Mrs Mary Freckingham of Toad Hall, Burton - street, Melton, thinks that the aeronaut’s name was Jim. Her husband, John, recalls a pilot of that name flying a glider near Jericho’s Farm, Whissendine. But she asks, "were there gliders in those days?'
Mr. D. Bray, of Sileby, who attended the King Edward VII Grammar School, Melton, 40 years [ago], seemed to remember a memorial plaque for the 1914-18 war which names S. Summerfield as being among those killed.
He is correct – the name on the plaque is simply given as S. Summerfield. In fact it was Sidney - Sam’s brother and born in 1895 – who was the person named on the memorial plaque for the 1914-18 war; he sadly perished on the Somme during the ghastly summer of 1916. I am pretty sure that Sam was the only member of his family who flew as a pilot, though his younger brother Albert, born in 1897, did serve in the RAF during the Great War. He serviced the early bombers of the war years in 607 Squadron and following his demobilisation, spent the rest of his working life servicing aircraft at the Fairey Aviation factory.
Happily, at least two of Sam’s contemporaries were still alive in 1973 who seemingly retained lucid and nostalgic memories of his aerial exploits around the market town. I would suggest that the time they actually recalled was when Sam was about 18 years of age. Again, these letters provide wonderful and evocative reminiscences which can only be done full justice by reproducing them in full; a Mr J.A. Smith first informed readers:
Sir, - Re the article in last week’s Melton Times. S. Summerfield, the Melton aviator was Sam. He was a butcher and had a shop next to the Bell Hotel in Nottingham-street. It would be 1911 or 1912, I was nine or 10 years of age, and lived on the Saxby-road. Sam used to get three or four of us boys to help push his aeroplane up to the Brentingby polo field. The fuselage and wings were made of wood, and canvas plus wire and string; it was on three bicycle wheels – two at the front and one at the tail. The wings were tied along the fuselage and were fixed when we got to the polo field. I can’t remember how he fixed them on. His seat in the plane was a wooden armchair fixed between the wings behind the engine. Sam would start up his engine and try to get in the air. Eight times out of ten he failed, and would finish in the hedge. Eventually he would get it in the air and fly around for about half an hour. He would then take off the wings and we would push it home again. We got one penny each for this, which was riches to us in those days. I believe he kept the plane in a stable in the Bell yard. I remember he once had posters around the town advertising an air show in a field on the Nottingham-road opposite Sysonby Lodge. A plane and a balloon and it was 6d. admission to the field. I remember the balloon went up all right, but the plane finished up in a hedge with one wing off. That was the end of Sam for that day. I was watching 'Whicker’s World' on the television about three or four years ago. He was in the Northern Territory, Australia, and he introduced a man of 80 years or so, who lived alone out there in a hut he built himself, and he panned for gold. He said he could make £20 a week. Whicker then said he was born in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, and his name was Summerfield; it was Sam. The local people said of Sam when he was flying, that he was “crackers”, but in my opinion he was a very brave man, and was years ahead of his time in his ideas.'
J. A. SMITH3a Fletcher-street,Grantham.
Not to be outdone, another former resident of the town was to provide an equally graphic description of the balloon event; now living away from Melton and in his 70s, a Mr Sharpe wrote in from Cornwall:
Sir, - I have been very interested indeed to read in recent issues of the Times (regularly sent to me by my old friend), letters and news items concerning the aeronautical activities of the late Mr Sam (or Sid?) I well remember the “grand flying display” mentioned by your correspondent. As a young Meltonian (15 at that time) I joined the eager crowd winding their way up Nottingham-road, all agog in excited anticipation. As already told, the efforts of the intrepid aviator ended up rather disappointingly. However, the “Melton Town Brass Band” (as it was then known) played spirited selections under the conductor ship of Mr. Joe Brewin, and this, in some respects, seemed to ease the “tense” atmosphere during preparation for the balloon ascent, which went off well. I should like to add a few details to this event: The balloon was filled with hot air, this, (to the best of my knowledge), being supplied by means of a fire in a sort of shallow tunnel and air drawn through to inflate. During this operation the balloon was of course, held down by willing helpers. A sand bag was attached to the centre of the balloon. At the appropriate time the pilot gave the signal to release, and away he soared, all eyes turning skywards. At the required height the gallant chap complete with parachute, now leapt into space, drifting slowly down towards Welby. The weight of the sand bag now turned the balloon upside down deflating the canvas which fell into the fields. The intrepid parachutist touched down safely and made a triumphant return on foot to the display field. The band played suitable music and I believe we all trooped off home, having enjoyed a good “sixpenny-worth”, and felt a sense of pride in our Sam’s grand efforts too!G. J. SHARPE27 Tresoc-roadLong Rock,Penzance,Cornwall.
And just one more fond reminiscence found its way into print;
Sir, - While in Oakham recently for a couple of days, I bought a copy of the Times to read over an excellent lunch at the George, and was very interested in the story of either Sam or Sid Summerfield – I did not remember Sid, who was killed on the Somme in 1916. Sam was the pioneer and I, and other members of the Pioneer Patrol, helped at the display. It is true the plane ditched at the first fence, but no-one was badly hurt. There was also a hot-air balloon ascent. I was detailed off to deal with that; I can’t remember much about the moment, except the balloonist’s daughter! Actually I was one of the original 1908 pupils of the K.E. VII Grammar School. My parents left Melton Mowbray in July 1916. I, with a lot of others, was on the Somme when I received their change of address. I will add, Sam built a large biplane glider, Wag Clarke and myself went to tie it down against expected gales. We fixed it to a hay stack.W. VICKERS351 High-street’Swanage, BH19 2NW(Aged 77, alas!)P.S. Their father had a butcher’s shop in Nottingham-street.
What wonderful letters and memories of days long past; and yes I can say categorically that it was indeed Samuel Summerfield - who as a small boy had assisted his father in herding cattle in the fields around Sysonby and later in his butcher’s shop - who had clearly excited those young, impressionable boys all those many years ago in the halcyon early days of powered flight. As the fifth born child and third son of a family of eight, one might ask who on earth was this enlightened potential young pioneer, so ahead of his time and beating a path against all the odds to become the most unlikely possessor of a coveted 'Aviator's Certificate of Competence.'
The Summerfield Family
I cannot accurately claim Samuel Summerfield as a true Melton-born man, (as his Aviation Certificate showed, his place of birth had been correctly amended to show ‘Derby’) the family name of ‘Summerfield’ was and is still, commonly found in the rural southern parishes of Derbyshire, especially within the communities and small villages which adjoin its border with North Leicestershire in the East Midlands area of England which is where the subject of this story did in fact originate. In the middle of the 19th century, a James Summerfield lived with his wife Elizabeth in the small village of Twyford, having inherited a smallholding of about 25 acres from his mother, Dorothy. As a grazier, James’ income was derived from producing and preparing cattle to be sold at market. The couple married in 1848 and over the following 12 years they produced six surviving children; starting with John in 1848, there followed Dorothy, James, Joseph, Mary and bringing up the rear, Samuel who was born in 1860.
As the youngest son, Samuel was not in line to inherit the land which his father had owned and farmed; by tradition, this would have been inherited by his brother and first-born child, John Summerfield. Samuel worked variously for a coal merchant and later as a shop assistant during which time, in the summer of 1886, he married Alice Colclough – four years his junior - who was a resident of the neighboring hamlet of Linton, Derbyshire. Following this marriage Samuel seems to have returned to work in agriculture, possibly in an effort to earn a better living and then, following his father’s example, he and Alice moved about the neighbouring area to reside in a succesion of smallholdings from where they ‘raised’ cattle, sufficient to provide for their new and growing family. The couple were to produce eight children in all, commencing with James who was born in 1886, followed by Alice, Dorothy and Joseph; Samuel Summerfield – the namesake of his father and the subject of my interest - was born on Sunday, 18th March 1894. Following him came brothers Sidney in 1895 and Albert in 1897.
Samuel and Alice appear to have been successful in their efforts to earn a living from raising cattle and around the year 1900, together with their five sons and two daughters, they re-located from their home in Derbyshire to the tiny village of Sysonby at the edge of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire; a distance of around 30 miles – a mere walk in those long distant days! Establishing themselves in a small cottage next to the tiny church in the very small hamlet, the 'incomers' continued to raise the cattle which they hoped would realise their future fortunes.
In 1910, long after the family had moved to Leicestershire, there was an addition to Samuel’s family with the arrival of a baby girl, Eileen, which, if the record is correct, must have come as something of a shock to all concerned. Their children, by then all under the age of 14, would not have been of great assistance initially but within the next decade the family – now including Eileen - moved home yet again after what seems to have been a thriving period business-wise and by 1911, Samuel Summerfield was ensconced with Alice and their family at No. 38 Nottingham Street, in the market town of Melton Mowbray where they now lived and operated a butcher’s shop which was tightly squeezed between the Bell Hotel and the Half Moon public house. Though modest in size, the shop was indeed a prestigious business address and had the rooms upstairs sufficient to accommodate their growing family. As the children grew, eldest son James, together with his mother and his sisters Alice and Dorothy seem to have become gainfully employed in the running of the shop, but there were more than likely insufficient jobs available at home for son Joseph who worked in the town as a stationer’s assistant, thought to be at the W. and H. Smith branch at the nearby railway station at Burton End. Young Sam, 17 in 1911, was by now gainfully employed as a clerk at the local gas works in Brook Lane, Melton, his brother Sydney, by now 15, was earning a living as a clerk at the Great Northern Railway Station on Snow Hill whilst his youngest brother Albert at the age of 13 yrs had one more compulsory year to attend at the local school. As already mentioned, the record shows that in the previous October, Eileen Summerfield was born at Swadlincote in Derbyshire – some 12 years after the birth of Albert, the family’s last-born child. Although declared on the census record as a daughter of Samuel and Alice, there is the distinct possibility that this child might have been the child of their eldest daughter Alice who, like all of the children at this time, was still single.
In between day-to-day life at the butcher's shop which served as his home, his daily trips to work and other domestic matters, more than humdrum things were going on in the life and mind of Samuel Summerfield, the young clerk from the gas board and you could be sure that most of his musings and meanderings would have been predominantly related to the subject of ‘flying’, his dream which was to be so formative to future life and times. The idea of flying a machine in the sky had become an obsession.
Flight - Man's Great Dream - To reach for the skies.
In the New World of America on December 17th, 1903, on the deserted beaches of the romantically named settlement of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had created a colossal moment of history which was destined to revolutionise the future of the world and all its inhabitants when, in competition with many like-minded persons in Britain and Europe, they were to make what is today accepted as the first powered and controlled flight in a heavier-than-air flying machine. It was without doubt a miraculous moment in time and one which will always remain as one of the most significant achievements of man since he first discovered the wheel. Many years of trial and failure, intelligent and technical argument and much death and destruction to man and machine had preceded this iconic moment, as the ‘early birds’ struggled vainly to conquer the grip of Earth’s gravity. That vital moment by the edge of the Atlantic Ocean wasn't so much on the day - just 12 seconds in duration and a mere 120 feet above the ground - but it was sufficient to establish the event for the U.S.A. as one of the greatest scientific moments of any century and an achievement which was to influence the imagination and determination of men and women around the world for many years to follow.
But here, sadly, I must dispel the idea that the ticker-tape flew and that tea parties were arranged across the country on the news of this momentous event; not so. Search the newspapers of this iconic date and you will find perhaps two or three original stories which actually covered this isolated event. There were no press present at Kitty Hawk on the day and photographs or descriptions of the occasion are as rare as hen's eggs. The truth was, like many other experimental matters, that too many false dawns were being announced on a regular basis around a planet full of would-be aviators, all besotted with the concept of manned flight and when the day finally arrived it passed unannounced and for a while, unnoticed.
Back in the green and pleasant fields of Leicestershire it seems that this iconic moment had not been missed by a young Samuel Summerfield, it would have occurred about the time that his family was making the move between the counties, somewhere in the fields and villages of Derbyshire or Leicestershire. Whatever or from wherever his inspiration, Sam seems to have been hooked on the idea of flying from a very young age, as he was only 9 years old when Orville Wright took his turn at the controls on that momentous occasion. I have wondered just where he might have learned of such things to feed his dreams – no television or radio, just printed matter, journals and word of mouth from travellers about the place - but of course, ‘aviation’ would have been a much talked about phenomenon. Much later in his adult life he would tell those who were prepared to listen, that he was gliding in a home-made ‘flying machine’ at the time of the Wright Brothers’ achievement and it is for sure that before he reached 16, Sam was indeed seriously learning how to control one of these ‘new-fangled and petrol-powered machines’ to fulfill his desire to reach for the skies.
It is certainly true that the obsession of mastering the science of flight and the related skills of manually controlling a heavier-than-air machine was present in many parts of England in the last years of the 19th century and there had always been great competition to see who would achieve the feat first. After the Wright brothers' success at Kitty Hawk, this competition turned into something more akin to a fever in which men and boys made wood and paper models of gliders and occasionally, the full-sized thing in which they launched themselves into the air with varying degrees of success. I like to imagine a small Sam, obsessed with the vision and dream of controlling a flying machine and pestering his father to shell out for his wants and needs or perhaps later, when growing into an inspired and dedicated young man, spending his own wages, hard earned at the Gas Board offices in Melton, to turn his inspirations into reality. But who was there locally to teach him how to fly? In those very early days, especially as a working class lad, the only way forward was to get into the fields and to teach oneself.
Lifted clear from the ground.
The Wright Brothers, in that far distant land, had certainly fired up the imagination of would-be aviators around the world and it is for sure that Sam had been bitten badly. A new publication, ‘Flight’ magazine, appeared on the bookstalls in 1909, specifically to sate the appetite of this growing band of enthusiasts and to inform them of the happenings in this wonderful new world of possibilities. I have few doubts that Sam devoured each and every weekly copy as it arrived – possibly via his brother Joseph at W. & H. Smiths down at the local railway station. I am equally certain that he absorbed with relish a long article in the issue of December 4th, 1909, written by a Horace W.H. Vaughan and entitled ‘Some Experiments in Gliding Flight – the type to avoid and practical conclusions’. This long and often rambling article spread over 3 whole pages of the magazine was illustrated with a wonderful true-scale sketch of Mr. Vaughan’s glider, complete with measurements and minutely detailed instructions for its home construction; it would seem that anyone with a practical mind could have built one. Portability was stressed, as was the cost which was said ‘not to exceed £5’, and the machine could apparently be ‘taken down or set up in under one hour.’ However, the real fun was to be had in the flying – or the trying – as the writer went on to explain:
“The construction during my limited time, took some months, but, at length completed, the machine was taken up in an ordinary cart to some suitable downs about five miles from my house, where I was fortunate in obtaining the use of a shed by courtesy of the owner. The following Sunday morning was fine and a party of us motored up to the ground, but there was no breeze blowing. We set up the glider and hoped for wind, but only the slightest zephyrs played upon our moistened finger. We tried running down the slope, pulling the machine by the 6 ft. cords at each front corner; it was extremely hard work and the machine only once lifted its own weight for a short distance.”
Several Sundays apparently passed with similar disappointments for the writer, until:
“ … the Sunday following was clear with a fine breeze blowing from 15 to 20 miles per hour, as nearly as we could, estimate. We found a slope about 80 yards or more in length facing the wind, and having erected the machine in the lee of the ‘hangar,’ we took her round for action. Upon tilting the front planes, to our joy she lifted up clear from the ground, and showed considerable upward pull, but the angle she maintained seemed greater in relation to the ground than I had expected from accounts of other experiments. As we found she exerted her lift more or less steadily when pulled down the slope, I took my place in the machine, and was lifted clear from the ground for 30 or 40 yards, my friends hauling against the wind.”
Mr. Vaughan goes on to explain how he struggled for many weeks to perfect his control of his machine, with many adjustments being made to its controls and his attempts at the handling of them, but his article sadly ends with a detailed explanation of a disastrous ‘flip’ which succeeded in all but destroying the product of his long labour of love. But it was this and other such articles which most helped me understand the many problems that Sam would have encountered at Brentingby field – though there are precious few hills to run down there. I also appreciate that he would have wanted to move on from gliding - being held at the whim of the wind and the weather, or a taut rope - to the obvious joys and advantages of taking the controls of a powered aeroplane and becoming his own master of the skies.
Within a very short period of time following that momentous achievement in America, heavier-than-air flight was to become an accepted fact of life in England and possibly even more so in France and Italy. ‘Reckless’ young men and occasionally, women, usually rich, would venture into the skies in the flimsiest and most dangerous of home made ‘paper and string’ structures: death and serious injury by crashing and other misadventures such as explosion were commonplace. On the other hand, wealthy benefactors and big business entrenpeurs were quick to realise the investment potential of what was occurring and would increasingly provide grand cash prizes for the winners of marathon journeys or competitions of speed or dexterity by air.
Samuel Summerfield would have been well aware of all of these exciting developments by virtue of the newspapers which also reported the events to curious readers on a regular basis, but he would probably have been too young – or not yet properly prepared - to actually participate at the outset in the most famous commercial challenge of that period. In the high - and extremely hot - summer of 1911 the 'DailyMail', newspaper, which did more to encourage the new craze than most, offered a grand first prize of £10,000 – an enormous amount of money at that time – to the first pilot to complete an aerial circuit of Britain and Scotland. It was to be an event that did so much to advance the cause of the new ‘sport’, not only for the participants as the biggest aviation event yet staged in the country, but for many thousands of captivated people up and down the country it was to be an opportune moment for them to to witness the mystique of 'the aeroplane' for themselves. Sam Summerfield must have been elated when the details of the event were published, to discover that the machines – 17 in all and piloted by some of the most famous names in aviation circles of the day - would not only be flying over Melton Mowbray on their way to the north of England, but also the great bonus that his small home town had been selected to be a servicing post for refuelling, repairs and refreshments. A large area of level grassland adjacent to the railway at Brentingby and known at the time as the venue of the Melton Mowbray Polo Club, was the chosen place.
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
Monday 24th July, 1911 was indeed a red-letter day in the history of Melton Mowbray, the second day of the great ‘Air Race’ which had commenced at Brookfields in Surrey. It is fascinating today to read of how the event was actually received across the country at the time, thus I include this snippet of how the Grantham Journal reported on the event the following day:
‘… Altogether, on Monday, ten of the seventeen competitors who set out from Hendon, either passed over or reached the vicinity … 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 an unprecedented scene 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, …’
It must have been a racing certainty to wager that 17yrs old Sam Summerfield would have been one of the first to be up and about bright and early on that wonderful hot and sultry Monday morning in the summer of 1911, if indeed he actually went to bed that night. Perhaps he was by then a member of the newly formed Leicestershire Aeronautical Club which had offered its services to the event, and perhaps also that it was this moment which was to lay the foundations for his future destiny. He certainly would have devoured all the information which the Daily Mail had printed on a daily basis in their build-up to the iconic event, and he probably knew all there was to know of the famous contestants and their machines like today’s young men know their footballers and club statistics. Most important of all, Sam would get a close up view of the current machine of his desires – the Bleriot monoplane with a 25hp Gnome petrol engine on which he had set his heart.
The 'Melton Aeroplane Company.'
The Melton Times reader from Woking who had requested information from the editor and reminisced about an aeroplane business in the town, correctly referred to one of Samuel Summerfield’s business ventures which was yet another pointer to the undoubted enthusiasm and dedication of the young man – and apparently, to an increasing number of enthusiasts in the vicinity. In the edition of January 1st, 1910, the nascent ‘Flight’ magazine published the following letter:
‘I see that one of your correspondents wants to know where he can obtain wood for the framework of a model monoplane. The following are useful sizes supplied by the Melton Aeroplane Co., of 38 Nottingham Street, Melton Mowbray:-Boxwood slips, planed two sides, 1/16 in. square by 3ft. 3 ins., 2 1/2d. each; 1/8 in. square by 3ft. 3ins., 3 1/2d. each. I use these as ribs.Hickory sticks, planed true; 1/8 in. by 3/16 in., 3/32 in. by 3/16 in., ¼ in. by ¼ in., ¼ in. by 5/16 in., 5/16 in. by 3/8 in., 3/8 in. by ½ in. Price 1d a foot.Silver Spruce: 3/16 in. by 3/8 in. by 5 ft. 6 in., ¼ in. by ¼ in. by 4 ft., ½ in. by ½ in. by 4 ft. Price 2d a foot.
It seems that Summerfield and Son, the family’s butcher’s shop, was providing more than meat to its customers in the town and I have wondered if this was ever to the chagrin of Sam's long-suffering father. A clue is provided when the following year in the same magazine there is reference to another aeroplane shop in the town but at a different address. An advertisement in Flight magazine for March 4th 1911 offered:
CATALOGUE: Model and full size aeroplanes, engines and accessories.
S. Summerfield, Sherrard Street, Melton Mowbray. Price 3d.
So we can be sure that by this time, Samuel was seriously studying and practising the art of flying a heavier-than-air machine under power and there would be no doubt that this was with the avowed intention of gaining official certification, together with a Pilot’s Licence which he hoped might bring him much fame and fortune, not to mention the obvious enjoyment which he derived from his hobby.
Sam would almost certainly have constructed his first aeroplanes from scratch – plans obtained courtesy of ‘Flight’ magazine - probably at the back of his father’s shop in Nottingham Street amongst the pork pies and carcasses of meat hanging in racks and perhaps later at the shop in Sherrard Street. To purchase one already constructed, even if he could have found a supplier nearby, would have been too prohibitive and in any case, virtually all planes were home-made then. An engine would need to be acquired to complete the construction and this would not have been cheap either. His earlier possessions were bi-plane gliders of the flimsy string and brown paper variety, but by the time he was about 18 his choice was leaning towards the sleek Bleriot Monoplane, made to order and by then proving to be the most popular choice among the knowledgeable, especially after the success of Bleriot’s channel flight. Having constructed his plane, who then was to teach him and where was he to fly it - legally? There were no airfields as such with the facilities required by pilots of today such as supplies of fuel, safekeeping, cover or anchorage in the event of inclement weather. A large flat field with few hedges was the ideal place to fly, but living in the centre of town he was not conveniently placed and he had to obtain the blessing and permission of the local landowners who would not always have been too enamoured at the thought of some ‘mad fool’ flying around his land and scaring his livestock. Of course, there were always those who would have wanted to join in with him.
Sam sorted out each problem as it arrived and he was known to use two or three different fields, all reasonably close the edge of the town, with possibly his first choice being the Polo ground which lies just south of the railway line that passes the village of Brentingby. Long used as a sports venue, it was an unobstructed and level area of grassland that would have suited his needs adequately. His second choice was likely to have been the large field that stretched between Nottingham Road, at the junction next to Sysonby Lodge Farm and the rear of the Wymondham Grammar School Farm on Scalford Road. This was a venue which was later to be used by the Government during the period of the Great War by the fledgling members of the new Royal Flying Corps. Much later, during the 1920’s, Sam would use the new landing field which was then situated at what is now Norfolk Drive, which runs between Sandy Lane and the Burton Road, but this was at a time when the phenomenon of flying an aeroplane had lost some of its pioneering zeal and a club had been started in Melton for the many new recruits and enthusiasts.
1912 was an important year in Sam’s life. Thus far it had been mostly an enjoyable and engrossing hobby but at the age of 18 he would now be old enough to gain his coveted Aviator’s Certificate, a massive acquisition which would be useful to open many doors for him. Years later he would tell of how his father had encouraged his every step towards this target and had even provided £700 towards the purchase of his first ‘proper’ aeroplane; this was an enormous amount of money 100 years since. But to take up his hobby seriously he would have soon realised that he would have to leave his home town.
The Aero Clubs are Formed
The ‘sport’ of aviation emerged rapidly into all corners of the British Isles and though suiting mainly the better-off, it was not totally excluded from the proletariat. It was soon clear that there was a need to maintain some sort of discipline and 'rules-of-the-air' under a controlling umbrella. An Aero Club had been formed on the Isle of Sheppey in 1901 which initially related to balloon flights and general motoring pursuits, but with the arrival of powered flight a decision was made to issue an authority to those who could satisfy the examiners as to their ability to pilot a heavier than air machine. In May 1909, at the Aero Club's landing ground at Leysdown, JTC Moore-Brabazon – later to become Lord Brabazon of Tara - made a flight of 500 yards in his Voisin. Today this is officially recognised as the first powered flight by a British pilot in Britain and in recognition of this achievement the first official Aviator’s Certificate was presented to him. From 1910 the Club, which had been granted the ‘Royal’ prefix that year for its achievements and status, issued the certificates which were internationally recognized under the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. (Driving licences for road vehicles would not be introduced into England for another 20 years.) Local matters were to be soon brought into line when The Leicestershire Aero Club was established at a meeting held at the Bell Hotel in Leicester on Monday, 30th August, 1909. Sir Samuel Faire presided and a committee was formed. Baron de Forest– who was also an early pilot and for a while lived locally at Gaddesby Hall - was formally elected President and Mr S. W. Shaw was made Hon. Secretary.
‘Your Country Needs You’
'... two noticeable pupils at the Bristol School are Messrs. Summerfield and Cheeseman.’
As I have already implied, there was by now a growing anxiety at large in the country of a very real threat from foreign forces; overhead intrusions from German troops in helium filled balloons had occurred as far north as Yorkshire and even damage had been caused to property during unprovoked attacks on our citizens, especially along the north coast. The Government of the day and the heads of the Army and Navy were to realise that the country was indeed increasingly at risk from airborne attack and what was more, they had little to show in the way of any defensive strategy, never mind aggressive deterrance. Good pilots would be needed!
As I would have expected of him, Sam passed his course and completed his solo flight with flying colours; he was duly presented with his coveted Certificate – Number 292 - on 17th September 1912. In their edition of 12th October, ‘Flight’ displayed this quarter page, official portrait and caption, of the smartly attired successful new pilot from Leicestershire.
In the interests of understanding the history of the concepts of the new flying corps envisaged, I append the following summation from the Wapedia website
‘With the growing recognition of the potential for aircraft as a cost-effective method of reconnaissance and artillery observation, the Committee of Imperial Defence established a sub-committee to examine the question of military aviation in November 1911. The following February the sub-committee reported its findings which recommended that a flying corps be formed and that it consist of a naval wing, a military wing, a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations of the committee were accepted and on 13 April 1912 King George V signed a royal warrant establishing the Royal Flying Corps. The Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers became the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps a month later on 13 May.
The Flying Corps' initial allowed strength was 133 officers, and by the end of that year it had 12 manned balloons and 36 aeroplanes. The RFC originally came under the responsibility of Brigadier-General Henderson, the Director of Military Training, and had separate branches for the Army and the Navy. Major Sykes commanded the Military Wing and Commander C R Samson commanded the Naval Wing. The Royal Navy however, with different priorities to that of the Army and wishing to retain greater control over its aircraft, formally separated its branch and renamed it the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914, although a combined central flying school was retained.
The RFC's motto was ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’ ("Through adversity to the stars") and this remains today as the motto of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and other Commonwealth air forces.
The RFC's first fatal crash was on 5 July 1912 near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. Killed were Captain Eustace B. Loraine and his observer, Staff Sergeant R.H.V. Wilson, flying from Larkhill Aerodrome. An order was issued after the crash stating, "Flying will continue this evening as usual", thus beginning a tradition.’
Much has been written in the ensuing years of the 'War to end all Wars' (and yet a great amount more is to be written as we enter an extended period of the Centenary) of the heroics of the Royal Flying Corps and the wonderful tales of ‘derring-do’ against the antics of Baron Richthofen (the Red Baron) and his 80 victories all explained ad nausium in graphic detail. By 1914, Sam Summerfield who was by then 20 years of age and highly respected as a more than competent flier and a general all round 'good old chap', would have been a prime target for the recruiters of the this new elite Corps. I have been unable to trace his official record, but it is a fact that he was deemed to be an excellent pilot and was employed as Instructor to the many hundreds of would-be ‘Barons’ of many nationalities who would later hold him in great respect. I have not yet discovered any certified evidence – only stories recalled by others in their recollections - which would confirm that Sam actually flew in combat as a pilot during those terrible years and it is fair to say that he probably did not do so; he was too good a trainer!. At the end of the war he was retained nominally as a Captain in the Reserve until 1931, but was never called out to serve.
But in 1912, with the War not yet started, Sam, clutching his newly-won certificate was released to spend the next couple of pre-war years with his family and his beloved aeroplanes. Now trained to a very high standard of competency, he would acquire for himself what all pilots of the day coveted, a Bleriot monoplane of the latest marque - after all, the Frenchman had flown the channel in one recently! He might have built his own or with money from the family business, or he could have purchased an original from the workshops in France. Whatever, this was his very first 'proper' aeroplane.
WITH THIS VERY EVOCATIVE ILLUSTRATION OF WHAT I BELIEVE IS ALL THAT FLYING WAS ABOUT THOSE 100 YEARS AGO, I COME TO THE END OF THIS SECTION OF THE STORY. I HOPE TO TELL MORE SOONER, RATHER THAN LATER.