A question about the phantom airship scares which has bothered me for a while is, how accurate are the press reports of people seeing something strange in the sky? That is, did people actually see something strange in the sky, or were the press reports made up or otherwise distorted? There is some evidence from other countries that this happened. One case in New Zealand in July 1909 involved a teacher and 23 schoolchildren, who gave their accounts to a journalist and even drew pictures of what they saw. In the late 1960s, three of the now-elderly witnesses were re-interviewed. But although they could remember the fuss at the time, they could not remember having seen anything out of the ordinary. Then there are the American mystery airships of 1896 and 1897, which were sometimes just completely fabricated. For example, the supposed crash of an airship at Aurora, Texas, in April 1897, which was almost certainly a hoax by a town-boosting journalist.
But there are also reasons to think that in the British case, at least, most press reports were accurate enough. Unlike the United States or New Zealand at this time, Britain had many competing national (or at least London) newspapers. I don't think it was usually in a newspaper's interests to just make up a story, because a rival could easily enough check it out (through its own reporters or a local stringer — both were done) and cry foul. It might then be argued that all the newspapers were in on the lark, that they were all selling too many newspapers to spoil the fun. But newspapers were divided politically too. Liberal-supporting newspapers were generally much more sceptical than Conservative-supporting ones, and were quick to accuse the latter of credulous scaremongering — but not lying. And the sceptics often reported the same stories bought into the phantom airships, albeit only briefly. This doesn't seem to fit with widespread fabrication (though of course, it could have happened sometimes).
There are other arguments I could make, but won't because I want to finish this post sometime. But they basically are enough that I feel I can trust that the phantom airship scares did actually have a reality outside of the press. Now comes the verify bit. Recently, the National Archives released the 1911 census data two years early. Unfortunately, you have to pay to see the full returns (I guess there aren't too many taxpayers left from 1911 to complain about having to pay again for something they had already paid for a century ago!) That's a pity, but you can still get some useful information for free: name, age, sex, location. As it happens, 1911 is right between the two phantom airships scares in 1909 and 1913. So there must be a good chance that any witnesses were living in the same place in 1911 as they were when they saw the phantom airship. Hopefully, then, I can take names from the press accounts, feed them into the census search engine and find somebody in the right location. This would at least verify that somebody of that name did exist in that place, and presumably did see something strange in the sky (or else they'd complain when their names were used in vain).
I don't have the time to do this fully, but let's take a sample from my scareships site. Not all counties have their census data online as yet, but Norfolk does, and Norfolk had a decent number of sightings with named witnesses:
- Mrs. Fricker in Great Yarmouth
- Captain Hervey in Broome
- Mr. Edwards of Lowestoft
- Mrs. Turner in Catton
- Mr. Chatten in Tharston
- Mr. and Mrs. F. W. Boulton in Great Yarmouth
- Walter Hack in Great Yarmouth
- Herbert A. Pertwee in Great Yarmouth
Note that I mostly say 'in' rather than 'of' — the place where the witnesses saw their phantom airship is not necessarily going to be where they lived, though often it will have been, especially if the sighting was late at night. So here goes.
- Mrs. Fricker: one in Yarmouth: Amelia Fricker, age 66 in 1911
- Captain Hervey: none in Broome, two adult males in Norfolk, aged in their 50s. Neither close to Bungay — but then Hervey was a local government inspector, and may have been traveling in the course of his duties
- Mr. Edwards: too many possibilities
- Mrs. Turner: too many possibilities
- Mr. Chatten: there's one male named Chatten in Tharston, but 56 seems a bit old for a solicitor's clerk … could be a relation though
- Mr. and Mrs. F. W. Boulton: none in Yarmouth or Norfolk. No F. W. Boulton in England/Wales
- Walter Hack: none in Yarmouth or Norfolk. Too many possibilities in England/Wales
- Herbert A. Pertwee: none in Yarmouth or Norfolk. But one aged 49 in Maldon, Essex
Hmmm. Only one fairly clear hit — Mrs. Fricker — out of eight, and then it's only a surname match in a fairly large town — it could be due to chance. Herbert A. Pertwee sounds like a pretty unusual name (though there are two other Herbert Pertwees in England and Wales) — maybe he moved in the meantime. Nothing else is very compelling. I must say I'm disappointed: with some of these unusual surnames I had hoped for more successes. It's not conclusive, there's more data to check and there are ways to explain (away) these results. Edwards and Turner are common names, especially without any clues as to first names. Yarmouth and Lowestoft were biggish places, lots of hits are likely there. Maybe people were more mobile than I assumed — Mr. Chatten the solicitors' clerk would be a good candidate. If he was 18 or 20 in 1909 when he saw a phantom airship, he would have been a couple of years older in 1911, and maybe had moved to Norwich or London to find work, or joined the Navy or something. And so on.
Even so, this is not particularly good evidence that the phantom airship witnesses existed — let alone that they did see what the newspapers thought they saw. Some of the witnesses certainly existed: the Chief Constable of Glamorganshire, Captain Lionel Lindsay; Patrick Alexander, an aviation expert; the inhabitants of Sheerness who were interviewed by the Admiralty and the Daily Mail.
Still … don't trust but verify?
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.