Small moves

Now that I'm back home, it's time to sum up what my UK sojourn achieved. The short answer, at least in terms of my immediate research objectives, is that it yielded only mediocre results.

The ostensible purpose for the trip was to attend the Empire in Peril workshop at Queen Mary and to give a paper on the 1913 phantom airship scare. This I did, and I think it went well enough (though perhaps in future I should revert to actually reading a paper, rather than speaking to slides). It certainly helped that I was after Michael Paris (Central Lancashire), who set the scene with a discussion of early aerial warfare fiction, and Michael Matin (Warren Wilson), who used the phantom airship scare as a starting point to reflect upon invasion scare literature more generally. This capped off a stimulating two days of papers and discussions about, inter alia, inter-service debates regarding the possibility of invasion (Matthew Seligmann, Brunel; Richard Dunley, KCL), the representation of compulsory service in invasion scare fiction (Harry Wood, Liverpool), the Yellow Peril (Robert Brown, Birmimgham; Ailise Bulfin, Trinity College Dublin); and women writers on Germany (Richard Scully, UNE). A usefully discordant note was struck by Ian Hopper (Brandeis) who questioned just how seriously publishers, authors and readers took invasion scare novels: were they reflective of deeply held fears or simply trivial entertainments adapted to the political themes of the day? Perhaps the standout talk was the public lecture given by Nicholas Hiley (Kent), who reconstructed 'Vernon Kell's perfect nightmare', i.e. the German invasion of Britain as supported by the large number of spies and saboteurs believed to be lying in wait for Der Tag, as was fully expected at the outbreak of war by MI5, and hence prepared for -- but played down after the war in favour of the very different, and less impressive, threat posed by the handful of naval spies rounded up in the first days of the war by Kell's men. Apart from the papers themselves, of course, there was the usual networking: identifying a nucleus of researchers interested in broadly the same topic is a useful thing in itself, and may lead to future workshops, research and publications.

But I spent eight days in the archives, compared with two at the workshop, and here there was less success. The main thing I wanted to do was to see if I could work out what was going on behind the scenes of the phantom airship scare, particularly on the navalist side of things. Admittedly I spread myself fairly thin, but I was able to look at most of the relevant files held by the smaller archives.

  • National Archives: I hoped to find files relating to the phantom airship seen by the Coastguard at Hornsea. According to the press, this was reported to the Admiralty, where it was apparently taken seriously. But the only promising Coastguard files I could locate were actually about land disposal and so on. I did look at the 1913-14 invasion inquiry carried out by the Committee of Imperial Defence, and in particular the April 1913 submission by Lord Roberts, Lord Lovat, Sir Samuel Scott, and Charles à Court Repington, military correspondent for The Times, which placed a very great emphasis on the German airship menace, over and above any threat posed by Germany on land or sea, and consequently the need for urgent expansion of Britain's aerial arm. This mirrored the line being taken by the Conservative press at the time, which is not too surprising given the involvement of Repington; what is more surprising is that the CID subcommittee more or less ignored this part of the submission altogether. Otherwise, there were a number of files I know to exist but couldn't find, because other historians have cited them without giving quite enough information to track them down. This was frustrating, because the little information I have about them suggests that they might be relevant to my interests, but I can't tell without looking at them.
  • British Library: I mostly looked at the Northcliffe papers, particularly his correspondence with his editors and journalists, for any discussion of the phantom airships in 1909 and 1913. I found nothing that previous historians had not already found, along with some annoyingly strategic gaps for the years of interest.
  • Parliamentary Archives (easily win the most atmospheric archives I've been to, being housed in the Palace of Westminster itself): I spent most time looking at the papers of Patrick Hannon, who was general secretary of the Navy League, which in turn played an important role in the airship panic. Unfortunately I didn't anything of direct interest, but I did come across correspondence from a certain Ridge-Beedle during the first days of the war, asking for the Navy League's help in securing imports of French ferro-chromium for supply to several large British armaments and shipbuilding concerns. I already knew that name -- he was very vocal about the airship menace in a meeting of the Glasgow and West of Scotland branch of the Navy League -- and to find that he was effectively a merchant of death (to use an anachronism) was therefore quite intriguing.
  • National Aerospace Library: I looked at the C. G. Grey papers. Since Grey was the editor of the Aeroplane which broke the story of the Sheerness Incident, and intervened more than once in the airship scare, I was very keen to see what his private files might have to say on the matter. Alas, his preserved correspondence is not very voluminous and seems to have been culled. One interesting thing I did find is that in early 1913 Grey was feeding questions on aviation matters to William Joynson-Hicks to be asked in the House of Commons. Joynson-Hicks was one of the most airminded MPs at this time and in fact was the first to raise the Sheerness matter in Parliament, so it seems likely that Grey was his source for this too, though that can't be proven. (Another thing I found out was that a catalogue for the NAL's holdings was imminent, and indeed it's now online. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to index the manuscript collections -- I can't find Grey's in there, anyway.)
  • National Maritime Museum: I examined the Arnold White papers. White was a prominent naval journalist who was prominent in the Navy League's affairs; at its Grand Council meeting in February 1913 he drew upon the mystery airship sightings in urging it to campaign for stronger aerial defence. So it seemed like his papers might shed some light on the Navy League's part in the airship scare. But there are only a few small items from this period, of which the most interesting perhaps are his notes on a visit to Hendon in May 1913, apparently his introduction to actual flying, and a copy of the page proofs for an Aeroplane editorial supporting the Navy League's demand for £1 million on aerial defence, which shows that he and Grey were in touch and in some degree of sympathy. But then there's also a copy of White's Navy League pamphlet from late 1914 (probably), The Navy League and the Public, in which aviation is not mentioned at all in a list of new weapons, while submarines, torpedoes and mines are. This and other absences suggest that the navalist interest in the aeroplane in 1913 was only momentary, though it could just be that the war forced the Navy League back to its dreadnought comfort zone (temporarily, since it took up the issue again in 1916).
  • Marine Society and Sea Cadets: I finally struck something like paydirt. The Sea Cadets is the successor organisation to the Navy League, and has inherited its archives, primarily minute books for executive committee meetings. Although, by their nature, these are terse documents, there was some useful material here. Ridge-Beedle pops up again, for example, as having submitted a paper on 'Air Ships in Naval Defence' in September 1912. This not only demonstrates that Ridge-Beedle was interested in airships before the scare, but since he was told to go bother the Royal Aero Club instead it similarly demonstrates the Navy League's lack of interest! But that soon changed: aviation features prominently in the minutes from December 1912 through September 1913, including a proposal that the Aerial League of the British Empire become a branch of the Navy League (which didn't happen, though they did start working more closely together) and some information about the Navy League's aerial defence poster campaign: unfortunately, I still haven't been able to find a copy of the poster itself, but at least I now know that it cost £200 in total and that it was distributed at 'most of the London Railway Stations and on London hoardings and which has been widely distributed throughout the country'. Even better, the archives also contain the near-complete executive committee minutes of the short-lived National Aerial Defence Association, set up by the Navy League by May 1913 but wound up by the end of the year.

So as a research trip it wasn't a waste: while I wasn't able to find much about the private thoughts and motivations of some of the major figures involved in the phantom airship scare, I did find enough to say something useful about the extent of the Navy League's involvement in the aerial defence publicity campaign which followed. There's an article section here. Time to get writing.

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4 thoughts on “Small moves

  1. A usefully discordant note was struck by Ian Hopper (Brandeis) who questioned just how seriously publishers, authors and readers took invasion scare novels: were they reflective of deeply held fears or simply trivial entertainments adapted to the political themes of the day?

    "Edwardian invasion scares equal modern zombies: discuss"?

  2. Post author

    Pretty much. Will historians a century from now look at the popularity of the zombie genre of the last 40 years or so and conclude that collectively we were actually worried about the possibility that the dead would come back to life and start eating our brains? One hopes not, but the possibility that we are doing the same thing here needs to considered. One point of difference is that there's no parallel serious non-fictional literature arguing that zombies are a real threat that we need to be worried about, as of course there was for invasions (and spies, and bombing). The pot-boiler argument could still be used, but the authors in such cases were far more likely to have invested professional and intellectual capital in their claims: they were trying to persuade, not entertain (though they still could be exaggerating the risk for other ends, e.g. conscription to fight a war on the Continent). At the other end of the process, another point of difference is that some readers clearly believed that they had independently observed evidence of German spies or airships wandering about Britain. So they were in fact, to some extent, persuaded by the claims of a German threat. That hasn't happened in the case of zombies that I know of, at least not on a significant scale (Wikipedia says that the Miami cannibal attack last year led to people being worried that the zombie apocalypse was at hand, but the source provided doesn't really substantiate that claim).

    But alien invasion might be a better comparison -- there certainly is a serious (if not exactly credible) literature about the possibility of hostile aliens visiting Earth, though it's more about alien abduction etc than Independence Day-style attacks. And people do sometimes believe they see alien spacecraft visiting us and, on occasion, collectively believe that an alien invasion is actually occurring (1938, obviously, but not only then). So I think the boundaries between fiction and non-fictional are a bit blurred anyway. You need to look at both.

  3. I'd hope the impression of modern scientific illiteracy isn't quite so bad as to countenance zombie apocalypses - but there's serious social conclusions to be drawn from that other peer scenario - the US sublimated paranoia of reds-under-the-bed in the sci-fi movies of the 1950s.

    In Australia, currently, a better comparison would be the scaremongering of the supposed effects and criminal status of boat-arrival asylum seekers. Like invasion scares, there's a major disjunction between the political/media presentation and the actual numbers and status of seeking asylum. Differences (between hostile invasion and the perennial 'foreign people taking over/jobs etc.) of reality and potential, aside, of course.

  4. Post author

    there's serious social conclusions to be drawn from that other peer scenario – the US sublimated paranoia of reds-under-the-bed in the sci-fi movies of the 1950s.

    Yes, and a similar sort of argument can easily be argued for zombie movies too (social atomisation, anomie, suburbia, etc). But that leads to a tricky question: can it be made for Edwardian invasion novels too? If so, then to analyse them in terms of the balance of power, the dreadnought race, the Agadir crisis, Zeppelins, etc, would be missing the point. However, while there are certainly other things going on as well (fear of racial decline, for example), I think that in the main a cigar is a cigar here.

    In Australia, currently, a better comparison would be the scaremongering of the supposed effects and criminal status of boat-arrival asylum seekers. Like invasion scares, there's a major disjunction between the political/media presentation and the actual numbers and status of seeking asylum. Differences (between hostile invasion and the perennial 'foreign people taking over/jobs etc.) of reality and potential, aside, of course.

    Though again this evidently works in a slightly different way, in that there's not the same volume of fictional representations of dastardly asylum seekers that you might expect -- novels, films, TV shows. The public representations are instead driven by the media and politicians in the first instance. Though having said that, I think we do focus too much on the invasion scare fiction as opposed to the non-fictional representations in the press and so on. So maybe it's not that different after all.

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