Retired businessman Richard Hill enjoys travelling the world but still takes a keen interest in his home surroundings. Indeed you can even call him a local historian. He’s written a book on the history of a part of Bath he really loves, ‘Prior to Now, Over 250 Years on Combe Down’ which now has it’s own Combe Down website – http://www.combedown.org/.
Richard – very kindly – has allowed the Virtual Museum of Bath to reproduce one of the stories from it which reveals the part this hillside city area played in the early days of aviation.
Do read and enjoy and check out his Combe Down website.
One thing really intriguing about local history is looking at local newspapers and seeing what was going on. Our forbears being human, little has changed in the way of behaviours – births, marriages, deaths, crimes, punishments, disasters as well as houses for sale and other local news such as fetes are all recorded much as they are today except for the lack of photos and somewhat more formal language.
But, once in a while one stumbles over a little known gem – e.g. the Glasshouse Farm flying ground on Combe Down.
It’s well-known that the Wright brothers invented and built the world’s first successful aeroplane, making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier than air, fixed wing human flight on December 17th 1903. It was their invention of three axis control allowing the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium that made all the difference. Their first 3 flights covered 120 ft, 175 feet and 200 feet.
Those distances give us an idea of how ‘primitive’ things were, especially as intercontinental flights are now routine.
Although the first powered heavier-than-air flight in Europe was in Paris in 1906 it was not until Wilbur Wright travelled to Europe in 1908 and gave a series of flight demonstrations at Le Mans that the importance of their control was recognized. Once it recognized, it was realised that the ‘dream of flight’, something humans had desired for thousands of years, had become a reality. On 25th July 1909 Louis Blériot won world-wide fame by winning the £1,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail for a flight across the Channel. A mania had begun.
There was no regulation until 1910 when the Aero Club was granted the Royal prefix, took responsibility for controlling all private flying in the UK, and started issuing the first British pilot licences. Meanwhile landing strips and flying grounds sprang up to cater for the new craze – most were entirely grass and the Glasshouse Farm area was unbuilt at the time.
In 1912 Herbert Matthews a Bath architect who had helped to organize the hugely successful Bath pageant of 1909 and a friend, Claude Grahame-White, the first pilot to make a night flight, during the Daily Mail sponsored 1910 London to Manchester air race decided that Bath should be one of the venues for their aviation meetings. Flight magazine of May 25th 1912 announced:
THE FIRST BATH AVIATION MEETING
In addition to running weekly aviation meetings at Hendon, the Grahame-White Aviation Co., Ltd., have decided to inaugurate several meetings in the provinces. Bath was selected as the first provincial city to visit, and arrangements were made for such a notable quartet of flyers as Messrs. Claude Grahame-White, Gustav Hamel, B. C. Hucks, and W. H. Ewen to give exhibitions at the Glasshouse Farm flying ground, Combe Down, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week.
Of these four, Hucks flew down to the meeting from Hendon on Tuesday morning, while Hamel intended, if the weather permitted, to fly down to Bath on the machine with which he flew on Tuesday last from Paris to East- church in company with Miss Trehawke Davis. Hucks started at 5.55 in the morning, bearing with him a letter from the Lord Mayor of London to the Mayor of Bath and a special aeroplane edition of the Daily Mirror.
He reached the exhibition ground, a distance of 106 miles from Hendon, at 7.40, having encountered two severe rainstorms on the way at Reading and Swindon. Mr. Grahame-White left for Bath on Wednesday. At the time of going to press the accounts of the first day’s flying to hand give the weather as of a most atrocious nature, but that both Hucks and Ewen provided exhibitions. Mr. Gustav Hamel, we know, had the intention of making an attempt on the world’s altitude record while at Bath.
The aviation meeting was a huge success. The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette for Saturday 25th May 1912 states that ‘the several flights made during this week have been witnessed by thousands of spectators both inside and outside the aviation ground’. It also said:’…In the afternoon Mr Ewen for nearly half an hour circled immediately over the field and the spectators had every opportunity of witnessing the ease with which his dainty-looking machine was manipulated.
Cheer a upon cheer rang out when he alighted and the applause was renewed when he brought it to a standstill before the enclosure…Mr. Hucks distributed some of Jolly’s vouchers and as the crowd swarmed the ground the police and officials called in van for them to clear. Mr, Ewen, seeing the danger, brought his machine within thirty of forty feet of the ground. It had the desired effect, for even the stalwart constables took to their heels. Both aviators made safe descents and were awarded with round of applause…’
Of course, the flying field did not last. By the 1930s housing development had taken priority. But, just for a moment…