Sounds

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VOTES FOR WOMEN

A common complaint1 about this blog is that it doesn't feature nearly enough pictures of airships. So here's one, a 27-metre long non-rigid which belonged to Henry Spencer, scion of a remarkably airminded family (sixteen aeronauts across four generations). Indeed, he built it with his brothers. The photograph was taken on 16 February 1909 and apparently shows the first ever powered flight from Hendon aerodrome, though neither Spencer nor his airship are mentioned in David Oliver's Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1994).

But much more interesting than the airship itself, it must be said, is what it was used for. The clue is the slogan emblazoned on the side of the envelope: 'VOTES FOR WOMEN'. Spencer had hired his airship out as a propaganda platform to Muriel Matters, an Australian-born suffragette who was very active in the Women's Freedom League (a non-violent breakaway from the better-known WPSU). Matters had won some publicity the previous year by chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons. Her airship flight was also designed to make Parliament take notice of the suffragist cause: the new session was opening that very day and it was her intention to fly over Westminster and drop Votes For Women leaflets on it. In the end Spencer and Matters didn't make it there, having been blown off course into a tree in Coulsden, well to the south. Three decades later, Matters herself gave a wonderful account of her flight to the BBC, which can be heard online here. (Ignore the photo there, which is of the Army airship Baby.)

The photograph above is from a scrapbook belonging to an American women's suffrage organisation, so the message did travel quite some distance, albeit to a receptive audience; I couldn't find any mention of Matters' flight in a quick search of the British press. It took nearly a decade for the WFL's demand to be partially fulfilled. And it's nice to see that the part Matters played in using airpower for progressive causes is still remembered in her native South Australia.


  1. From me. 

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'The Hum' is a mysterious low-frequency sound just at the edge of hearing which seems to infect some places, but which only some people can detect. What causes it is unknown -- theories range from factories and air conditioners to gravitational waves -- and responsible authorities often deny that it exists at all. The most famous example from recent times is probably the Taos Hum from New Mexico, which seems to date to the 1990s, but the Bristol Hum in the UK was apparently around in the 1960s and featured in the national press in the 1970s. Before that, questions were asked in Parliament (one question, anyway) about a hum heard in East Kent; and there was the Manchester 'hummadruz' which was discussed in the local press in the 1870s but was heard in the 1820s; and Gilbert White heard something similar (though louder) at Selborne in the 18th century. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that something is going on, though whether the Hum is a real sound or just something human psychology tends to come up with time and again is debatable.

Here's an example I haven't been able to find a reference to: the London Hum during the Second World War. The following is from Philip Ziegler's London at War, from a chapter discussing the mid-war years so 1942 or 1943:

The absence of traffic, together with the rarity of raids, should have given Londoners some precious silence, but from all over the capital came complaints of a mystery noise which seemed to emanate from the same area but was curiously hard to track down. 'Not only is there almost incessant "hum",' complained Gwladys Cox, 'but a "shaking", for want of a better word; at night my very bed vibrates and I feel intermittent stiff "jerks".' One indignant victim pursued the matter with the police, the Home Office and the Ministry of Health, but got no satisfaction. Eventually he decided he had identified the culprit, a factory in west London, but was met with a bland assertion that, though they might be making a little too much noise, this was unavoidable in view of the essential war work on which they were engaged. So far as it could be established, the testing of aero-engines was responsible.1

Unfortunately, Ziegler doesn't provide citations (though Gwladys Cox was a civilian diarist living in West Hampstead; her diary is held at the Imperial War Museum). A quick search of wartime newspapers doesn't throw up any obvious references to a London hum, but Ziegler's account suggests it was a widely experienced phenomenon. Perhaps the unusual lack of traffic noises made other sounds more noticeable; perhaps the habit of listening for bombers made people more sensitive to sounds they'd usually block out. Either way, I wonder why it seems to have slipped through the cracks of memory.


  1. Philip Ziegler, London at War 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 2002), 244. 

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It's seventy years today since Britain and France declared war on Germany. At 11.15am on Sunday 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke to the nation via the BBC. At 11.28am, less than a quarter of an hour later, air raid sirens went off in London and (at differing times) across much of the country. This was in fact only a false alarm, caused by an unscheduled civilian flight from France. But as far as civilians were concerned, this looked like precisely what they had been told to expect when the knock-out blow came: mass air raids simultaneous with the outbreak of war. So their reactions to the alarms give us a little insight into their fear of bombing at the end of the scaremongering 1930s.
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