1900s

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Under the terms of an agreement made in 1909 between the three main British aviation bodies, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain concentrated on 'the scientific phases of the movement', the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was responsible for 'sporting and social aspects', and the Aerial League of the British Empire, the one I'm most interested in, took on 'the patriotic and propaganda' side of things.1 In terms of this propaganda role, I've usually tended to see the Aerial League as focusing more on fostering airmindedness among elites than the masses. After all, its ranks were filled with peers, solicitors, generals, journalists, politicians and other examples of the better-off classes of society.

But while this may be fair comment for the interwar League I'm starting to realise that this misrepresents the scope, or at least the ambition, of its activities before 1914. For example, in June 1910 it organised a very successful aeronautical exhibition in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which ran for a couple of months. Claude Grahame-White's weekly aerial displays were the major drawcard, pulling in up to 10,000 spectators; according to Charles Gibbs-Smith, there were nearly riots when bad weather prevented flying.2 After hosting a luncheon for journalists to show them how the grounds had been adapted for aviation (including the construction of 'What is termed an "aerial cottage" -- that is to say, a cottage with an aeroplane shed attached and forming a part of the design'), Colonel H. S. Massy told them 'that the object of the league was to form a great central aeronautical institute with branches all over the country at which young men of small means would be able to qualify as airmen'.3 So although, as far as I know, this scheme was never attempted, there was at least an idea that it would be desirable to help those who could not otherwise afford to learn to fly.

The motive wasn't simply altruism, of course; it was to do with that other part of the Aerial League's remit, the 'patriotic'. As Massy further explained, 'if we, in this country, allowed the fatal drowsy sense of security born of freedom from foreign attack to gain the upper hand with us, we should not only be a laughing-stock, but an easy prey to our neighbours'.4 The same motivation presumably explains the Aerial League's patronage of a play entitled War in the Air, which premiered at the London Palladium on 23 June 1913. It was written by Frank Dupree, a journalist with the Standard who had flown with Gustav Hamel from Dover to Cologne in April, in an aeroplane which was donated to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any detailed descriptions of the plot in contemporary sources, although one London newspaper ridiculed its stage effects, claiming that 'Nothing [unintentionally] funnier has been seen on the veriety stage for years'.5 However, Andrew Horrall gives a useful précis in Popular Culture in London:

War in the Air, a play designed to arouse the nation to the hovering peril, whose cast included a young Noël Coward, detailed the heroics of Tommy Vincent the commander of Britain's fictional Central Aerial Station. As in many melodramas, female weakness caused the trouble. Vincent's fiancée had unwittingly allowed Britain's enemies to dupe his pilots into believing that the north-east coast was being invaded. As the British squadron headed north, the enemy's aircraft attacked Kent. Needless to say, such an evil, ungentlemanly ruse was discovered when the emboldened fiancée cabled a new warning and was avenged unsparingly as Vincent's planes destroyed the enemy fleet over Dover. These aerial battles were carried out between planes suspended on wires above the audience. Subsequent performances in Willesden and Shoreditch proved to Londoners that British pilots would protect them, from both air and seaborne invasions.6

It sounds like it combined elements of the invasion, naval and spy fiction of the period, which I would argue is quite characteristic; the airship panic earlier in the year -- in which Dupree's paper had played an enthusiastic part -- was much the same, and another airship play which opened a few months later, Sealed Orders, had a similar mix.7 I'm not sure if the Aerial League had any involvement in War in the Air beyond its patronage, and sending along representatives on opening night (as did the Imperial Air Fleet Committee).8 It doesn't appear to be mentioned in the minutes of the Aerial League's executive committee. But what was evidently its message -- the need for aerial preparedness -- certainly fit with the Aerial League's goals.
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  1. Flight, 4 September 1909, 532, 533

  2. The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. 

  3. The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Quoted in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 20 September 1913, 4

  6. Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93. Horrall's main source is The Era, 28 June 1913, 19. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. The Times, 21 June 1913, 10. 

As we all1 know, the Aerial League of the British Empire (later the Air League of the British Empire, now just the Air League) was founded in 1909. Less well-known is that the Aerial League also sponsored the formation of the Women's Aerial League (they are often described as being affiliated, or as the latter being part of the former, but while relations were friendly the Women's Aerial League seems to have led its own existence), which itself set up the Boys' and Girls' Aerial League (which I think later changed its name to the Young Aerial League). But even less well-known is that all of these aerial leagues were preceded by what seems to have been an entirely separate and apparently very short-lived air league known as Britain's Air League.

The only trace of this I have been able to find so far is a brief article in the Sunday Times in early January 1909:

BRITAIN'S AERIAL LEAGUE

On all hands the signs are visible that the aeroplane is rapidly becoming an accomplished fact. The appalling prospect which its use as an engine of warfare suggests has led to the formation of 'Britain's Aerial League,' the main object of which is to employ every means possible to bring about an international understanding by which the use of airships, aeroplanes, and other aerial machinery shall be prohibited in war, except for observation purposes. The incalculable damage which could be effected in a few hours by a fleet of foreign airships surely needs no insisting upon. Another object of the league is to urge upon public men, without distinction of party, the necessity for placing the United Kingdom upon a level with other countries as regards the building of aerial machines. It will also assist inventors in giving practical trials of their machines. The hon. secretary of the league is Mr. John Mayou, 1, Pump-court, Temple, E.C.2

The obvious question to ask is whether this might be in fact the good old Aerial League of the British Empire, given that it had its first meeting in February 1909, but with advance publicity appearing in the press in late January, less than three weeks after this article appeared. The name is different, of course, but maybe it was decided to change it before the actual launch -- 'Britain's Air League' is a rather awkward formulation, after all. Or perhaps the name was still under discussion at the start of January and the press was notified by mistake. It could be that this Britain's Air League is a glimpse of the embryonic Aerial League of the British Empire.
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  1. For very small values of 'all', obviously. 

  2. Sunday Times, 3 January 1909, 5. 

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It's been six months since the last one and so it's time for another update of my list of early 20th century British newspapers online.

The most pleasing addition to the list of newspaper archives for 1901-1950 is the Spectator, the most influential conservative weekly of the period. The Spectator archive is free; near-complete from 1828 to 2008; contains both images and text -- and the OCR is high quality; tagged; and is easy to search or browse. However, there is no advanced search function (though you can use Boolean operators such as AND and NOT). While you can use the Trove-style filters to narrow a keyword search down to a decade of interest, you can't zoom into a year, let alone a month, week or day. There doesn't seem to be any easy way to save article images (the best way I've found is to zoom on the page and use the web browser to save as HTML; you get a lot of extra junk but among them are two usable images). And it's a shame that illustration captions and advertisements appear to have been excluded from the text search, though they are visible visually. Still, it's all still in beta, and did I mention that it's free?

Welsh Newspapers Online is expanding rapidly, having added the following titles:

Aberdare Leader
Brython Cymreig
Cambrian
Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard
Cardiff Times
Cymro
Cymro A'r Celt Llundain
Lials Llafur
Merthyr Pioneer
Montgomeryshire Express and Radnor Times
North Wales Express
North Wales Weekly News
Papur Pawb
Rhyl Journal
Rhyl Record and Advertiser
South Wales Daily Post
Weekly News and Visitors' Chronicle For Colwyn Bay
Weekly Mail

The coverage for most of these ends in 1910, as with most of WNO's titles; however, Cymro (published in Liverpool), Aberdare Leader, Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, Lials Llafur, and Merthyr Pioneer all cover at least the period 1914-1919. The war will be mentioned.
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'Excubitor' is Latin for 'sentinel'; it was the pseudonym chosen by a frequent correspondent on naval affairs for the Fortnightly Review. In March 1908, for example, Excubitor contributed an article entitled 'The British reply to Germany's dreadnoughts'; the following January, 'The blessings of naval armaments'. By May 1913, though, a new theme had appeared. 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy' argued that the naval arms race with Germany was over: 'the naval predominance of Great Britain in Europe to-day is greater than it was before the passage of the first of the [German] Navy Acts in 1896'.1 But this didn't mean that Germany was going to give up its ambitions to match Britain at sea: it just meant that it was transferring its efforts to the air:

by the development of the new aerial arm -- airships and hydro-aeroplanes -- they hope to turn the scales in their favour. Germany possesses already about twenty large airships and over a dozen 'docks' of a permanent character, apart from private ships and 'docks' subsidised by the Government and available for naval and military use, and it is now proposed to increase the number of aerial Dreadnoughts to forty, and to build many more 'docks.' Cuxhaven, 300 miles from England, is to become a great airship station, with revolving sheds so as to enable the vessels to be launched whatever the direction of the wind, and to set forth, armed with quick-firing guns and provided with explosives, on missions of reconnaissance over the British arsenals and the bases and the bases where British squadrons and flotillas are being prepared for action. British naval strategy is to be robbed of secrecy, and secrecy in preparation is of the essence of successful strategy. This the Admiralstab in Berlin fully realises.2

According to Excubitor, the danger is grave:

Sea-power is costly, while air-power is cheap: for the cost of a single Dreadnought of the sea, a dozen Dreadnoughts of the air, each with a revolving shed of the latest type, can be constructed. German expert opinion believes that by command of the air Germany can neutralise our superiority on the sea, besides unnerving the civil population and thus embarrassing the Government by cruising over these islands -- high above the reach of artillery -- and dropping bombs. This is the confessed policy of Germany, and we have not a single long-range airship by which we can take the only effective defensive action -- the strong offensive.3

And the hour is late:

We cannot reply to the aerial danger by developing our naval or military strength, but we must take the offensive in the air, threatening with our superior airships, in numbers proportionate to our naval strength, any potential enemy. We are now open to attack by Germany, and we must lose no time in placing ourselves in a position to retaliate.4

But not yet too late:

if immediate steps are taken there is no reason why we should not make as secure our command of the air as we are making secure our command of the sea, convinced that the future will show that aerial power and naval power are interdependent and inseparable. The essential point is that we must adopt in aerial matters our well-tried policy in naval matters -- the bold offensive. Our airships, like our sea-ships, must be able to carry war to the enemy's frontiers and thus free us from its horrors. This is the only policy compatible with safety, and to that policy we must bend all our splendid industrial and scientific resources if we are not to incur the risk of our naval supremacy passing from us.5

As I'll discuss in another post, Excubitor was far from alone in asserting an 'interdependent and inseparable' connection between aerial strategy and naval strategy, that Germany was attempting to use its mastery of the air to overcome its inferiority to Britain at sea.


  1. Excubitor, 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy', Fortnightly Review 93 (May 1913), 868. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid., 868-9. 

  4. Ibid., 880. 

  5. Ibid. 

After outlining the Anglo-German naval rivalry and the tariff reform debate, Alfred Gollin, one of the few historians to discuss the subject in any depth, has this to say about the origins of the 1909 phantom airship scare:

This was the intense condition of Britain affairs when the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, made his announcement about the government's new aeronautical policy in the House of Commons on 5 May 1909. His speech produced a curious and remarkable result.

People in several parts of England now began to see airships in flight, in places where it was impossible for such aerial vehicles to be.1

It's true that it was right about this time that phantom airship sightings took off. However, some of these took place before 5 May, some as far back as March. Moreover, the contents of Asquith's speech (which was quite short and hardly deserves the name) were not exactly sensational and seem unlikely to have caused much apprehension. He had two main points to make. The first was that 'The Government is taking steps towards placing its organisation for aerial navigation on a more satisfactory footing':

As the result of a Report made by the Committee of Imperial Defence, the work of devising and constructing dirigible airships and aeroplanes has been apportioned between the Navy and the Army. The Admiralty is building certain dirigibles, while certain others of a different type will be constructed at the War Office Balloon Factory at Aldershot, which is about to be reorganised for the purpose. The investigation and provision of aeroplanes are also assigned to the War Office.2

The second was to announce the formation of a 'Special Committee' under the presidency of Lord Rayleigh and the chairmanship of H. T. Glazebrook to oversee 'investigations at the National Physical Laboratory and for general advice on the scientific problems arising in connection with the work of the Admiralty and War Office in aerial construction and navigation'.3

It could be that it was the way Asquith's announcement was reported that was the trigger. But while the major newspapers did report it, again there doesn't seem like there was much to excite the general public. Most press reactions that I've looked at treated it as a welcome, if overdue, development, and expressed hopes that Britain would now be able to catch up to Continental standards in aviation -- not only those like the Manchester Guardian which were in political sympathy with the government, but also those which were not, like the Standard, the Globe, and even the Manchester Courier, which by 1913 had definitely decided that the aerial defence of the nation could not be entrusted to the Liberals. It's true that The Times and the Observer did criticise the makeup of the Rayleigh committee (mainly on the grounds that there were very few members with practical aviation experience), but even so there was no suggestion of immediate peril.

So I'm sceptical. But I'm also sympathetic. It's natural to seek some definite cause of these puzzling events -- I do it myself: I think successfully in the Australian case in 1918, with the report of the Wölfchen's flight over Sydney; less so in my 4th year thesis, when I suggested that the outbreak of the First Balkan War was somehow responsible for the Sheerness incident. Why did some people see mystery airships in March 1909? Why did a lot more start seeing them in May? Why did they stop seeing them by the end of the month? The last is actually relatively easy to explain: the scare collapsed under its own weight, as too many airships were being reported to be credible and the press became sceptical. By the same token, the press was certainly crucial in the expansion phase, by reporting on the growing phenomenon and suggesting to people that there really were airships flying around at night. So it's finding the initial spark that is the real problem, and generally there isn't a satisfactory one to be had. I think it's essentially random. People see strange things in the sky from time to time. Sometimes they think they're airships, because what else could they be? Usually they are ignored, even if they tell somebody. Sometimes, though, the reports are picked up and amplified by the press, which is when the scare proper begins. There's no single ultimate cause; it's more the vibe, the popular understanding of aviation. To an extent this process is irrational, then; which makes me think that maybe Asquith's announcement could have been one of the triggers after all.


  1. Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 53. 

  2. HC Deb, 5 May 1909, vol. 4, col. 1047

  3. Ibid., col. 1048. 

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Having updated my list of online early 20th century British newspapers, I have mostly good news to report. The most exciting development comes from Wales. I have previously lamented the total lack of digitised Welsh newspapers from the period 1901-1950, and it appears that in large part the reason for this is that the National Library of Wales has been busy scanning and OCRing, and the first fruits of its labours are now available at the Welsh Newspapers Online site. Already there are 14 titles available, some in Welsh, some in English, some in both:

Aberdare Times
Aberystwyth Observer
Celt
Dydd
Goleuad
Gwyliedydd
Llangollen Advertiser and North Wales Journal
London Kelt
London Welshman
Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser
Prestatyn Weekly
Seren Cymru
Swansea Gazette and Daily Shipping Register
Tarian Y Gweithiwr

Future digitisation plans are ambitious: I count 55 titles with 20th century content scheduled to added later this year, and there's more to come, including many journals. The OCR quality seems very high, which is crucial for search, and the article interface is really very nice and pleasant to use. Best of all, Welsh Newspapers Online is completely free. It's fantastic that Wales has decided to make its cultural heritage open to the world in this way; most other UK newspaper archives are locked up behind a paywall.
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Dellschau 1969

The art of Charles Dellschau has been receiving some attention lately, thanks to the recent publication of a book about his work. Dellschau, who produced thousands of strange and wonderful watercolours, drawings and collages in Houston, Texas, between about 1899 and 1922, is significant as an early outsider artist, but he is mainly of interest to me for two things. Firstly, his subject matter: his artwork is filled with strange flying machines (balloons? airships? aeroplanes?) intermingled with press clippings about aviation. Secondly, his overarching narrative: that his artwork records the activities of the Sonora Aero Club, a secret group of airminded inventors who actually created and flew the aircraft he depicted in California in the mid-nineteenth century. This is a beguiling idea, and some of Dellschau's admirers have tried to find out whether it is actually true (such as Pete Navarro, who is largely responsible for rescuing Dellschau's work). The Atlantic describes it as 'The Amazing Story of an Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed', as though we should be surprised if it had not. But it seems abundantly clear to me that we can in fact say that it pretty much definitely never existed. There is no evidence for the Sonora Aero Club that does not appear in Dellschau's artwork, but plenty against it elsewhere in the historical record.
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In May 1909, the three major organisations promoting aviation in Britain, the Aeronautical Society, the Aero Club, and the newly-formed Aerial League, announced that they would henceforth coordinate their efforts. The Aerial League would be recognised as 'the paramount body for patriotic movements and for education', the Aeronautical Society 'the paramount scientific authority on aeronautical matters', and the Aero Club 'the paramount body in all matters of sport, and the development of the art of aeronautics' (Flight, 8 May 1909, 258.) These are important organisations in the history of British aviation. I've visited the Aeronautical Society (now the Royal Aeronautical Society), to use their library (now part of the National Aerospace Library) and I've visited the Aerial League (now the Air League), to examine its archives, but I've never been to the Aero Club (now the Royal Aero Club), to see what it has. And now I don't have to; or at least soon I won't have to. (Though, actually, most of the material is in the RAF Museum London's collections, which I have visited for other reasons.)

Andrew Dawrant has left a comment on my post about Claude Grahame-White which brought to my attention the existence of the Royal Aero Club Collection. The Collection exists to preserve and promote the Aero Club's historical material, whether generated by itself or donated to it, including photographs and postcards, fine art, and trophies and other artefacts. (The Aviators' Certificates, i.e. pilot's licenses, which were awarded by the Aero Club are available through Ancestry, alas not for free.) But what really caught my eye is the digitisation programme. In the future this will include the Aero Club's papers (an index is already available). Moreover, the minutes of the Aero Club's executive committee from 1901 (i.e. the beginning) to 1956 have been scanned, OCRed and put online. Admittedly (as I know from looking at the equivalent Air League records) it is in the nature of minutes that they generally record only resolutions proposed, resolutions voted, letters read at the meeting, and not the cut and thrust of the discussion and debate. And as agendas were set in advance (and members no doubt wanted to get off home), they are often oddly silent on the great matters of the day, even when they would seem to be of direct relevance. But even so there is a tremendous amount of information to be gleaned from them, even just on a basic level of who knew who and did what when.

This is a great resource and I thank the Royal Aero Club for making it available and accessible to the public free of charge.

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I've updated my list of online British newspaper archives. This time, the new titles are:

Aberdeen Journal
AJR Information
Catholic Herald
Connacht Sentinel
Cork Examiner
Jewish Chronicle
Irish Press
Irish Times
Kilkenny People
Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser
Nenagh News
Northants Evening Telegraph
The Post/Sunday Post (Dundee)
Sligo Champion
Sowerby Bridge News

Many of these are Irish, mostly from from the Irish Newspaper Archives but a couple from the British Newspaper Archive. [edit: I actually forgot my self-imposed rule to only include Irish newspapers before 1922 -- oops!] Thanks to a list of newspaper archives at Wikipedia, I also found the Irish Times, a couple of London-based Jewish newspapers (one, AJR Research, free) and the free Sowerby Bridge News, which appears to be an individual effort. Another great free resource is the Catholic Herald -- for example, here's their response to Guernica, 'Open town bombing a regular practice of Reds'. In addition, 14 titles have increased year coverage, though sometimes this is only a year or two.

With respect to the US-based NewspaperArchive, there's some good news, some other good news, and some bad news. The good news is that they have overhauled their interface and it's now much easier to use. For example, they have adopted Trove-style filters so you can quickly narrow a search by time period or location or title. This means it's more useful for discovery purposes, whereas before it was more difficult than it had to be to find things that you didn't already know were there. The other good news is that they have mostly cleaned up the metadata for their British titles. Previously if you went looking for British titles from the 20th century you would get a lot from the 18th especially, but also the 17th and 19th centuries. Maybe poor OCR was to blame (e.g. 1744 looking like 1944) but it's something that could easily have been noticed and fixed if a human had looked over things now and then. It seems that has now happened; while I did find a couple of errant titles the vast majority were correctly dated (or at least, the vast majority of the ones said to be from the 20th century were; it could be that the reverse problem is occurring too). So these are really positive developments, and signs that NewspaperArchive is committed to improving its service. The bad news, however, is really quite bad, at least from my point of view. It seems that NewspaperArchive has run into copyright or permissions problems, because now none of the British titles it carries go beyond 1904 (which also means that a couple of them, Lloyds News and the Staffordshire Sentinel, have been dropped altogether; the Hackney Express and Shoreditch Observer has been added, but this is already in the British Newspaper Archive anyway). Previously they mostly extended into the 1910s or 1920s. For example, the single most useful title, the Daily Mail, used to be covered up to 1921, so you'd get Versailles, the Great War, the People's Budget, the dreadnought race, the beginnings of airmindedness... now you get, I don't know, the Taff Vale decision? So I doubt I'll be renewing my subscription to NewspaperArchive: there's just not enough stuff for me now. But given the great improvements NewspaperArchive has made recently, I'd certainly join up again if the coverage situation improves in the future.

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Uses of 'Mars' and 'canals' vs uses of 'Mars' only in peer-reviewed astronomical articles, 1861-1970

So, to wrap up this accidental series. To check whether professional astronomical journals displayed the same patterns in discussing 'Mars' and 'canals' as the more popular/amateur ones I again looked at the peak decade 1891-1900, this time selecting only the more serious, respected journals. However, because of the French problem I had to exclude L'Astronomie and Ciel et Terre (the former was apparently more popular anyway). So for my top three I ended up with Astronomische Nachrichten, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP) and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). Astronomische Nachrichten ('astronomical notes') was the leading astronomical journal of the 19th century, founded 1821. It published articles in a number of languages including English. Fulltext Service seems to be multilingual, as it picks up the German (at least) equivalents of Mars/Martian and canal/canals. That doesn't help with the French problem, but that will only affect a small minority of Astronomische Nachrichten's articles. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific was founded in California as a joint amateur-professional organisation. Its PASP is now a very highly regarded journal, although I must admit I don't know if this was always the case. MNRAS is the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain. It also happens to be where my solitary peer-reviewed astronomy article was published (and when I say 'my', I think approximately 1 sentence relates to research I actually undertook), but even so it really is a highly-respected journal.
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