Claude Grahame-White

GRAHAME-WHITE, Claude, aviator and aeronautical engineer; 2nd s. and y. of family of three; b. 21 Aug. 1879; m. 1st, 1912, Dorothy, o. d. of Bertrand Le Roy Taylor, New York; 2nd, 1916, Ethel (Grace) Levey. Educ.: Crondall House Coll.; Bedford Grammar School. Owned one of the first petrol-driven cars in England; toured South Africa; established motor engineering business in Albemarle Street; became interested in aeronautics 1909, the first Englishman granted a certificate of proficiency as an aviator; started a school of aviation at Pau -- the first British flying school; contested for the London-Manchester £10,000 prize with Paulhan in April 1910; in the same year won many flying prizes in this country; also toured America and won Gordon Bennett trophy; on returning, formed the Grahame-White Aviation Company, which became proprietors of the London Aerodrome, Hendon, and is now known as the Grahame-White Company; Flight Commander, 1914; resigned to superintend the carrying out of Government contracts for building aeroplanes; the London Aerodrome, Hendon, and the whole of the companies' factories and assets were acquired by H.M.'s Government Dec. 1925; owner of S.Y. Ethleen, 485 tons, M.Y. Mairi, T.S.M.Y. Rio Verde, and several fast racing motor boats. Publications: The Story of the Aeroplane; The Aeroplane, Past, Present, and Future, 1911; The Aeroplane in War; Aviation, 1912; Learning to Fly, 1914; Aircraft in the Great War, 1915; Air Power, 1917; Our First Airways, their Organisation, Equipment, and Finance, 1918; Books for Boys; Heroes of the Air; With the Airmen; The Air King's Treasure; The Invisible War-Plane; Heroes of the Flying Corps; Flying, an Epitome and a Forecast, 1930, many contributions to the daily papers, reviews, and monthly magazines dealing with the subject of aeronautics in its military and commercial aspects. Recreations: shooting, yachting, motoring, cricket, and flying, principally attention to his business. Address: Balfour Cottage, Balfour Place, W.1. T.: Mayfair 2379; Quayside, Cowes, I.O.W.T: Cowes 277; Miraflores, Palm Beach, Florida, U.S.A; Belair, Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A. Clubs: Royal Automobile, Royal Motor Yacht, Authors', Overseas; Royal Mersey Yacht; Aero of America.

Who’s Who 1938. London: A & C Black, 1938.

Claude Grahame-White (1879-1959) was an aviation pioneer and the most famous aviator in Britain before the First World War. Among his many achievements: the first Briton to hold a pilot's license (albeit a French one, not British); the first night flight (during his failed attempt to win the London-Manchester prize); the founding of Hendon aerodrome; and the first official airmail delivery (London to Windsor). Hendon was extremely popular with the public as the site of flying displays, and was also where Grahame-White set up his own aircraft design and manufacturing company.

Grahame-White was also a propagandist. He was always looking for ways to highlight Britain's vulnerability from the air. From 1911 he gave demonstrations to the Parliamentary Aerial Defence Committee, dropping flour bombs on the painted outline of a battleship, for example. In the summer of 1912 he flew around the country in his 'Wake up England!' campaign. He also wrote widely on the subject, including The Aeroplane in War (1912), with the Daily Mail's air correspondent Harry Harper.

When war came, Grahame-White was briefly in RNAS service: on 5 September 1914, he patrolled over London looking for a reported (but non-existent) Zeppelin: supposedly the first air patrol in defence of a city. He took part in the Cuxhaven raid but had to ditch in the ocean before reaching the target. After resigning his commission, he turned his energies to aircraft production with some success. He continued to write with Harper. Their most notable publications were 'Two years of aerial war' (Fortnightly Review, August 1916) and Air Power: Naval, Military, Commercial (1917), which were the first to outline the theory of the knock-out blow, which predicted that the next war would be won through the bombing of cities.

After the war, protacted post-war legal wrangles with the government over monies owed him for aircraft production and for Hendon (compulsorily acquired) soured him on the aviation industry, from which he largely withdrew. Instead he took up real estate, and made a fortune in Britain and America.

Few of Grahame-White's writings appear to be online. An exception is Learning to Fly (with Harry Harper, 1914).

See also Graham Wallace, Claude Grahame-White: A Biography (London: Putnam, 1960); Oxford DNB; The Pioneers; Early Birds of Aviation.

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15 thoughts on “Claude Grahame-White

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  4. Aliya Musa

    Claude Grahame-white was my father’s great uncle by blood, in fact my brother (named Graeme Wilson White after Claude) and my father both bear a close resemblance. I am gathering information about him,in order to write a biography.) It should be very entertaining – he was a very interesting character.

    Regards

    Aliya Musa (nee Alison White)

  5. Post author

    Indeed, he was that and more! I look forward to your book: he certainly deserves a new biography, I’m not aware of any since Graham Wallace’s in 1960. I’ve noticed a bit of interest in him in the last week or so — possibly because the BBC aired a programme about the physical relocation of his Hendon tower recently. (Thanks to Nicholas Waller for the lead! Though I can’t watch it over here, sadly.)

    I read Hugh Driver’s The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997) not long ago; it has some useful information about Grahame-White’s early career. It’s particularly good on the industrial and business side of things.

  6. GARY WELLZ

    Very interesting reading.I have a photograph (of a postcard which unfortunately have lost) of Mr Graham-White.sent to my Grandfather Alexander.Not sure of the dates or aircraft but the story goes he force landed at Odd Down Bath England & ended up in my Great Grandmothers back garden & so my Grandfather was Christend Alexander Graham Rigsby.Card reads;-To Alexander Graham Rigsby
    Best wishes from Claude Graham-White February 21/13.If anybody has info on this,date/aircraft I would love to hear from you & I am happy to email a copy to anybody who would like one. wellz100@live.co.uk

  7. Maureen Davis

    Investigating the family history of my parents family my cousin forwarded to me an article regarding the Graham White Company when the King and Queen visited the site in 1917. It is very interesting as it lists all present who were working there at the time and three of my family are listed. I am trying to find more information.

  8. Post author

    Gary:

    I’m afraid I don’t have a definitive answer for you, but according to Flight, 25 May 1912, 480 (see here), Grahame-White organised the first aviation meeting (essentially an air show) at Bath between 21 and 24 May. He himself ‘left for Bath’ (I assume by air!) on 23 May. The weather on 21 May was reported as ‘atrocious’, perhaps that carried on through the following days and could account for his being forced down (though it could have been any number reasons, such as engine trouble). If so then it would have been 23, 24 or maybe 25 May (assuming he flew back the day after the meet). Of course, he might just have been flying near Bath, not to Bath, so it might be none of those dates.

    It might also be worth searching in the British Newspaper Archive.

    Maureen:

    Sorry, I have even less information for you! I don’t have any good sources for that. You might try contacting the RAF Museum at Hendon, which has restored part of Grahame-White’s factory.

  9. owen sekree

    Aliya, I have some personal information concerning CGW I believe you would find very interesting. I do hope you will contact me.

  10. For those of us in Australia, there is currently an excellent programme on the rebuilding of Grahme-White’s watchtower and part of his factory complex, on SBS’ ‘On Demand’ online replay – for the next seven days:

    “Presented by Dan Cruickshank and Charlie Luxton, this series brings back to life some of Britain’s most historic buildings which no longer exist. In this episode, Dan and Charlie follow the reconstruction of one of Britain’s earliest aviation buildings: Claude Grahame-White’s watchtower. Graham-White was a heroic pioneer of early aviation and his watchtower was the nerve centre of the vast aircraft factory he built to supply warplanes for World War One.”

    http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/2286222085/Rebuilding-The-Past-S1-Ep2-Hendon?

    Mrs JDK & I caught it tonight, and were pleasantly surprised on the quality of the programme – better than the other episode we have also watched. Well worth a look.

  11. I think lots of people agree that a fresh biography about CGW would be timely. This note is mainly for Aliya Musa (nee Alison White) and for anyone else interested in supporting such a biography. The Royal Aero Club Collection has photographs and papers relating to his career, available for inspection (by prior appointment) at the RAF Museum, Hendon, who also have important archives about him. I can be contacted through our web-site at http://www.royalaeroclubcollection.org

  12. Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Andrew — for your support of the idea of a new Grahame-White biography but more particularly for your link to the Royal Aero Club Collection, which I must confess to not having heard of before now. I’ve written a short post highlighting your holdings for others who might be similarly ignorant.

  13. I am interested in Claude’s first wife Dorothy Caldwell-Taylor (or Cadwell-Taylor) who went on to marry the Italian Count di Frasso, and have affairs with everyone from Gary Cooper to Bugsy Siegel. She was heavily involved in restoring the wonderful house and gardens at the Villa Madama outside Rome, which is where my interest lies.
    Someone left a comment on my blog a couple of years ago, saying “Countess diFrasso was my husband’s aunt and I have some information about her life at The Villa Madama. I have letters she wrote her father and some records of upkeep and maintenance. I am currently compiling this information in a ‘report’ which may be used by a museum in England for the 100th commemorative event in 2012 to celebrate her marriage to Claude Grahame-White. At some point, my hope is to donate the pictures and records I have back to The Villa Madama.’

    If anyone knows who this commenter is, or has seen the letters, photographs or report she mentions, please do let me know!

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