Trust but verify

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:

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?

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4 thoughts on “Trust but verify

  1. “Unlike the United States or New Zealand at this time, Britain had many competing national (or at least London) newspapers.” I beg to differ with this statement. More than 10 years previous to 1908, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were fierce competitors in the newspaper business in New York. Their battles for circulation between 1895 and 1898 actually gave rise to the term “Yellow Journalism.” The St Louis Post-Dispatch and the San Francisco Examiner were also major circulation US papers in the 19th century, and these cities also were home to numerous, competing papers. In the 1860s, before he was known as Mark Twain, the author Samuel Clemmens worked as a correspondent for several different San Francisco newspapers. These are just a few examples.

  2. Dominic Temple

    I’ve found that the census information seems to be rather lacking, having searched for both my own and my wifes relatives (names, ages & locations known) to no avail, it came as rather a surprise. I can’t imagine that these families would have avoided the census (if indeed that was possible), so where are they? I don`t think that absence from the census is necessarily absense of existence, if that is any help.

  3. Dimitrios

    This brings to mind an episode of a show on Canadian television recently- “The Murdoch Mysteries”, set in 1890′s Toronto.

    In the farmlands northeast of Toronto, various rustics are seeing UFOs. There is a death, seemingly from an attempted abduction, and much speculation about visitors from Mars. The investigation by the main characters of the series (members of Victorian Toronto’s police force) is brought to a halt by order of the Canadian Prime Minister. It turns out the stories of Martian spaceships are cover for a secret military airship project run jointly by the United States and the British Empire, worried about Germany’s airship capacity. Soon after the project is exposed, the researchers disappear. The characters speculate on where the airship project has been moved to…perhaps the deserts of California, or New Mexico…

    An amusing little entertainment, but its fun to see turn of the century airship concerns reflected in TV pop culture today.

  4. Post author


    Yes, you’re quite right about yellow journalism, which goes against my argument that competition between newspapers necessarily means more scepticism and fact-checking. But I’ll stand by my comment that the US didn’t have ‘many’ competing national newspapers, at least when compared with Britain. Here’s a list of the the major national newspapers: I count 31 for 1913. And it was a much smaller market, in terms of both population and geography, which was dominated by the London press (a paper printed in London in the early hours of the morning could be on sale in Edinburgh by the afternoon or maybe even noon). Anyway, that’s partly why I expected that wholesale fabrication wouldn’t happen.


    Thanks, it’s true that there will be gaps for many reasons (and not all of it is up on the web yet). And it’s a small sample anyway so no firm conclusions can be drawn.


    Very cool! It’s probably unlikely to air down here but I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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