Post-blogging the 1909 scareships: thoughts and conclusions

That's it for the phantom airship scare of 1909. It's been interesting for me, as I haven't looked closely at this material since I did my 4th year thesis some time ago (the 1913 scare made it into the PhD, but not 1909). It didn't last very long, only a couple of weeks. At first, the stories were presented as a curiosity, localised to East Anglia. It seems to have been the Conservative press which took most interest at this stage, though it seems to have been divided as to whether a British aeronaut was responsible or an airship flying off a German warship. It was only when two separate sightings of the airship took place in South Wales -- by dock workers at Cardiff and the Punch and Judy showman on Caerphilly Mountain -- that Liberal papers such as the Manchester Guardian started reporting it.1 It seemed that something was going on.

But almost as soon as the phantom airships became 'serious' news, scepticism set in. Percival Spencer announced that his family's firm had recently sold several small airships for the purpose of advertising. Even though he gave no actual evidence of any connection between these and the scareships, it seems to have been good enough for all the newspapers examined here (bar the Norfolk News): there are far fewer stories about the 'fly-by-nights' thereafter, and those that do appear are sceptical or humorous. And, to be fair, real evidence of a hoax did turn up, in the form of a crashed airship and a claim that Jarrott and Letts, purveyors of fine motorcars from the Continent, had been towing it around the Eastern Counties at night as some sort of advertising stunt (which I still don't understand, but never mind).

That doesn't explain the Cardiff sightings, of course, nor the Irish ones nor the North Sea ones nor the (possible) Belgian ones. I don't believe that there were actual airships involved in these cases, except perhaps the last two. No archival evidence has ever emerged of anyone flying airships over Britain at this time, whether homegrown or foreign, other than those which were well-known at the time -- Willows, Spencer, the Army. Maybe meteors, maybe fire balloons, maybe luminous owls. It doesn't much matter to me. What's more important is why various explanations were offered and why they were accepted (or rejected).

There are several contexts which help make sense of the phantom airships, which made them seem plausible. The most obvious one is the sudden visibility of flight. A Zeppelin first flew in 1900, the Wrights in 1903. But these were obscure events. Somewhat unfairly setting aside Santos-Dumont in France, the era of flight really began in 1908, when the Wrights flew in public for the first time (in France), and Zeppelin had his miracle after Echterdingen. The following months yielded fresh triumphs. Controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight began in Britain in October; on New Year's Eve Wilbur Wright set a new distance record of over 120 km. Newspapers and magazines followed such events keenly, as did the public. They were spectacular and a token of progress. But for all that, not many people had ever seen any sort of flying machine, especially in Britain. To think that airships might be flying over your county connected you to this exciting new world of aviation. It was a time of technological miracles, and even if the skies didn't turn out to be really filled with airships, surely that time was not far off.

Another context is the image of the heroic aviator, who at this time was often also a heroic inventor. The Wrights were lauded when they visited London early in May 1909, as they had been in France. Zeppelin, Santos-Dumont, Willows, Cody and Farman were other extant examples, soon to be joined by Bleriot, Latham, Grahame-White and so on. And there were those who aspired to join them, but failed: Dunne, for example, or the misunderstood genius behind the Wokingham Whale. It seemed plausible that some clever tinkerer might have built an airship in their workshop and was taking it out for a spin now and then. And wouldn't it be wonderful for Britain to make its contribution to the new era, so it could take part in the great advances being made in the United States, Germany and France?

The third context to bear in mind, and perhaps the most striking, is that of the German menace. A dreadnought panic in March, followed by stories and rumours of spies attacking naval facilities, secret arms caches in the heart of London, dummy invasion runs by ships loaded with troops, tunnels being dug under the North Sea -- it looks like at least some sections of the British public felt almost under siege, that an assault could come at any time. With all of these preparations going on, it wouldn't be at all surprising if Germany was sending its new airships over Britain, either as practice for war or to gather information in advance of it.

The press didn't create the phantom airships, but it did affect how they were interpreted, by educating readers about these three contexts. I'm partly drawing on my knowledge of the 1913 scare (which was considerably more extensive) here but the basic breakdown seems to be that Conservatives were inclined to the German theory, Liberals to the British one. For obvious reasons: Conservatives believed there was a German menace, Liberals that there wouldn't be a German menace if everyone would stop saying there was one. Evidence for a German menace could be used by Conservatives -- currently out of power at Westminster -- as a cudgel with which to beat the Liberal government, as a basis to argue for greater defence expenditure. But this only happens very weakly in 1909. In 1913, the mystery airship scare was used by Conservative newspapers as evidence of Britain's inferiority in the air and the need to spend large amounts of money to catch up -- even if they weren't really German airships, they so easily could have been! There's not much of that in 1909; everyone was ready to drop the scareships once evidence of a hoax (and of German derision) came to light.

I think this coyness was because it was so early in the air age, before flight had become militarised. It was not yet clear how aircraft would be used in war, and consequently what kind of threat they were. It's particularly noticeable that there is very little discussion of the danger of bombing; the phantom airships were not seen to be a threat to life and limb in their own right. They were generally thought of as spies, or perhaps troop carriers. Not something which really altered war, or changed the nature of the German menace to Britain.

This satirical letter from E. B. Nye, published in the Norfolk News on 22 May (p. 13) is probably a fitting comment with which to close out this round of post-blogging:

Supposing, which I for one won't do, that our friends the Germans are amusing themselves by carefully observing the fortifications and outworks of Norwich, and other strategical points on British soil, they must be extremely waggish dogs, and after all have we so many important secrets to hide? [...] Maybe they are landing troops one by one, with instructions where to join the main army in 1915. I only hope they have provisions until then. That they are humourists there can be no doubt, otherwise they would hardly have given poor old Norwich a visit. Meanwhile, our nerves are all on edge, and some of the more flabby-minded (to quote the "Daily Mail") will probably end by crowding out our well-filled asylums.

The phantom airships did not return to Britain until 1912; but later in 1909 the they visited New Zealand, Australia and New England. It was a peak year of the Scareship Age.


  1. Though perhaps, seeing as the staid old Times barely took any notice of the whole affair, the real divide was between the quality press and the tabloids: my best sources are definitely of the latter type (Globe, Standard) and it would appear they took much of their reportage from other tabloids (Daily Mail, Daily Express, which I unfortunately haven't looked at for this period). 

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