A thrilling 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 stuff of dreams of many young boys across the decades, the veracity of this specific moment in time and the identities of the people involved in the event remains open to serious discussion to the present day and the actual truth is still argued openly and keenly. This is especially so amongst aviators and other interested parties 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 achievement of manned flight was one by many leagues, one of the most iconic moments in the history of mankind, perhaps even more important than the first use of the wheel and more recently perhaps, the discovery of DNA. Imagine the world which we inhabit today without the now commonplace availability of powered flight to speed us on our way!
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 time 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.
THE DAY THAT ‘FLYING MACHINES’ VISITED MELTON MOWBRAY
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.
A £10,000 TEMPTATION
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.
STAGE TWO - TO EDINBURGH VIA MELTON MOWBRAY.
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 GRANTHAM JOURNAL, SATURDAY, JULY 29, 1911
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..
HOW THE AEROPLANE RACE WAS SEEN
IN THE MELTON DISTRICT.
FOUR DESCENTS PROVIDE A THRILLING SIGHT.
PIZEY’S UNFORTUNATE PLIGHT.
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 ...
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, and ...
EACH COMPETITOR AS HE ARRIVED
... 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.
“THE FIRST ARRIVALS”
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 ...
.. OVER THE TOWN OF MELTON ITSELF...
... 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 ...
...A TREMENDOUS OUTBURST OF CHEERING...
... 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 ...
...EFFECTED A “LANDING”...
... 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)
‘AEROPLANES AS CHEAP AS BICYCLES.’
‘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  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: