A snippet from David Hall's Worktown, on the Mass-Observation project in Bolton, a textile town near Manchester:

At 2.40 [pm] the most interesting event of the day took place. Eight aeroplanes flew over -- a rare sight in Worktown, which is nowhere near a military airport and some distance from a civil one. 'Two men in the garden of no. 84 [Davenport St] shout to attract the attention of two women. Young woman points and says, 'Look at them!' Other woman points and says, 'That's war!' and laughs. The butcher at the Co-op shop and the landlord of the Royal pub come out to see.'1

The date is not clear but it's a workday in (probably) 1937, perhaps in spring; the quotation within the quotation is evidently from the much later account of Brian Barefoot, one of the observers, or possibly from a M-O report written up at the time. This particular episode is from the compilation of 'A Day in the Life of a Street', Davenport St, the location of the M-O HQ.

Without any more information it would be difficult to identify the aircraft, though I would say the formation flying suggests they were likely RAF. There is a bit more we can dig out, though. In emotional terms, there's curiosity, with at least six people stopping what they were doing to look upwards (and the M-O judgement that it was 'the most interesting event of the day'!) There's also the assumption that other people will find the sight interesting ('Look at them!')

Beyond that, there is evidence for the response of one woman, older or at least not young. She laughed but not, it would seem, out of joy. Instead it appears to have been either a sardonic or a nervous laugh at her own comment: 'That's war!' Presumably, she didn't think the formation of aircraft literally meant war; but equally clearly she did relate it in some way to war. Whether that's because she knew or guessed that aircraft flying like that were likely to be military, or whether she associated formations of aeroplanes with militarised aerial theatre she'd seen at the cinema or air displays, I can't say. But she certainly didn't associate the spectacle above her with peaceful civilian flying. And this was just one street: similar scenes must have been replicated all over Bolton (population approx. 163,000). Probably hundreds of others witnessed this spontaneous aerial theatre; how they responded can only be guessed. But there must be more nuggets in the Mass Observation Archives.

  1. David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass-Observation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), 113. 

Mosquitoes over Brisbane. 1945

The State Library of Queensland identifies this image as 'R.A.A.F. Mosquito bombers, ca. 1945'; I suspect it's from a RAAF march and flypast put on for the Third Victory Loan in the centre of Brisbane on 6 April 1945. On that occasion, according to the Courier-Mail,

The veteran Lancaster bomber 'G. for George,' will lead planes flying over the city during the march. They will include 6 Liberators, 15 Beaufighters, 9 Mosquitoes, 12 Beauforts, 6 Spitfires, and 3 Kittyhawks.

Either way, it's a nice bit of aerial theatre.

In my previous post I looked at who was behind the leaflet drop drop on striking workers at Coventry in December 1917. The official answer was that it was an obscure MP and military administrator, Major H. K. Newton; I suggested that it was actually an RAF officer and Ministry of Munitions propagandist, Captain Ernest Andrew Ewart, alias Boyd Cable. And there is some more evidence to support the existence of a wider campaign by the Ministry of Munitions.
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So, who was behind the drop of propaganda leaflets on the striking workers at Coventry in December 1917? Most of the press accounts in fact avoid identifying the aeroplanes involved or who was flying them. At least one, however, says they were 'military pilots' and this seems likely. While civilian flying didn't stop entirely during the war, it was restricted and there were simply far more military aircraft around at this stage of the war. Radford aerodrome nearby was used for testing; it was originally owned by Daimler but at some point came under military control as No. 1 Aircraft Acceptance Park. So this could be where the leaflet-droppers came from, one way or another. But whoever the pilots were, presumably they were acting on somebody's orders. Whose?
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Coventry Graphic, 4? December 1917

This photo purportedly shows a British military aeroplane dropping leaflets on the streets of Coventry in early December 1917. I suspect it's a fake, a composite, or else it's a bit odd that nobody seems to have noticed all that horsepower roaring just overhead.1 But the event it shows did happen. According to the Daily Mirror,

A considerable number of aeroplanes flew over Coventry yesterday [2 December 1917] at low altitudes, distributing a quantity of literature pointing out the necessity for an increase in aeroplane production.2

A local paper, the Midland Daily Telegraph, provided more detail:

Throughout Sunday a fleet of aeroplanes hovered the city distributing profuse showers of handbills pointing out the vital need for an increase in aeroplane production [...] The doings of the aviators were watched with great interest, and there were frequently exciting scrambles amongst the crowds for the messages which came floating into the streets and gardens of the city.3

So, what was going on?
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  1. The 'spectators' include some Australian soldiers, judging from the slouch hats. 

  2. Daily Mirror, 3 December 1917, 2

  3. Midland Daily Telegraph, 3 December 1917, 3


As I discussed in a previous post, the arrival of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 suddenly made the Aerial League of the British Empire's foray into wartime propaganda films irrelevant. Yet the bizarre coincidence that the film happened to give a prominent place to the time and date of the Armistice suggested the possibility that the League's investment might be recouped by somehow marketing Eleven, Eleven, Eleven as a novelty. The sole mention of the film in the British press, in the Preston Herald in December 1918, was pretty clearly planted with a friendly journalist in an attempt to do just that.1
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  1. Possibly through the offices of E. Jerome Dyer, in effect the film's producer; his name turns up in the Preston press quite frequently in connection with the Vegetable Products Committee which was active there. 


This summary of an unreleased and untitled film is from the 'Grave and Gay' column of the Preston Herald for 7 December 1918:

In this film a man dreams that England is under German rule, and various scenes are shown depicting the organised brutality of the Boche. But, in the dream, there is a movement to throw off the German rule. The head of the movement is a chemist and inventor who has discovered a new force. Secret meetings are held in his underground laboratory, on the walls of which is a huge placard with the words, 'Eleven, Eleven, Eleven!' It is decided that the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is to be the hour of the successful uprising and of England's freedom.1

A couple of things make this interesting, or at least unusual. One is that 'These scenes had all been actually photographed long before the armistice', and so the prominence of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the plot was both 'very remarkable and beyond the possibility of dispute'.2 The other is that the film was produced by the Aerial League of the British Empire, which seems hard to explain, given the apparent lack of any aerial theme at all. So what was going on here?
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  1. Preston Herald, 7 December 1918, 2

  2. Ibid. 

Jon Cooksey. The Vest Pocket Kodak & The First World War. Lewes: Ammonite Press, 2017. A small book on an interesting topic. The utility and portability of the Vest Pocket Kodak camera made it incredibly popular with soldiers in the front lines and behind them, mostly British here (though the French and Germans are not excluded). As you'd hope, well-illustrated, including one or two photos of actual combat and even atrocities -- and a koala!

Lawrence Freedman. The Future of War: A History. Allen Lane, 2017. This looks like a lot of fun. Exactly what you'd expect from the title, though it does concentrate on the post-1945 era (not surprisingly given Freedman's own areas of expertise). I'm please to see the knock-out blow features prominently in the early chapters, though!

Robert Gerwath. The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923. Penguin, 2017. I saw a preview of this research back at the Perth AAEH in 2011 and I'm glad to have finally have the results in my hands. Why did the First World War fail to end? Because violence continued in many parts of Europe after the Armistice, not only in actual wars and civil wars but at the paramilitary level too. The focus is rightly on Russia, Germany, and parts in between, but I'll be interested to see what he has to say about western Europe too.

David G. Morgan-Owen. The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. One I've been looking forward to; a critique of the refusal of British military, naval and political leaders to properly think through the implications of decisions such as the committment to a continental expeditionary force over home defence, forcing the Navy into a defensive and reactive posture when war came. A disturbing lack of Zeppelins in the index, however.

Christopher Schaberg. Airportness: The Nature of Flight. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. What does airmindedness look like now, when flying is as routine as most of the early air prophets dreamed -- but also therefore mundane and often tedious? It could look something like airportness.

Alan Stephens. Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force, 1946-1971. Canberra: AGPS Press, 1995. A random secondhand bookshop find; doubly appropriate as I was reading Coulthard-Clark's equivalent volume for the 1921-39 period at the time. Yoink!

Postcard of Amy Johnson c. 1930

Things have been a bit quiet here lately, which I hope will change soon. But I haven't been entirely inactive in blogging terms: I've written a guest post on the construction of authority in early British aviation for the German Historical Institute's History of Knowledge blog. The history of knowledge is a newish historiographical endeavour, which falls somewhere in between, as well as across, more familiar areas like the history of ideas, the history of science, the history of books, and so on. As explained at History of Knowledge itself:

Knowledge does not simply exist, awaiting discovery and use. Knowledge is produced, adapted, forgotten, rejected, superseded, expanded, reconfigured, and more—always by human beings (at least in this more-or-less pre-AI age), alone or in communities, always in culturally, socially, economically, and institutionally specific contexts.

Knowledge is central to most purposeful human practices, whether at work, in the family, or for worship, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether passed down by hands-on training or through books and other storage and retrieval systems. Both product and basis of human interactions, knowledge has a history. Indeed, human history cannot be understood apart from the history of knowledge.

Writing the post gave me the chance to put together a few ideas I had about how and why certain people -- I mostly discuss S. F. Cody, along with Hiram Maxim, Baden Baden-Powell, Claude Grahame-White, P. R. C. Groves, Amy Johnson and H. G. Wells -- gained the status of aviation experts in the public sphere. It didn't always have much to do with actual flying ability or even experience; it was in least part socially and culturally constructed. Much more could of course be said about the topic, but for the moment you can head on over to History of Knowledge to read my post.

Thanks to Mark Stoneman for the invitation!

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.


I'm very pleased to announce that I have been awarded an Australian Bicentennial Fellowship by the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College London. This is a travel grant which I will use to come to the UK to continue research for my next book, a history of Britain under the German air raids of the First World War, tentatively entitled Zeppelins and Gothas. I'll have more to say about the book in due course (i.e. when I've got a publisher!) but for now it's very exciting to be able to start thinking about my next research trip (it's nearly three years since my last one, which this will be building upon). A few things will have to line up first, but if they do the trip will be in the first half of 2018, likely in the spring, and will take in London and probably Leeds, and perhaps elsewhere. I'll have more to say about all that in due course too.

Here I would just like to thank not only the Menzies Centre for the Fellowship, but also Dr Dan Todman and the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London, who kindly agreed to host me during my stay, as well as the two academic referees who supported my application but who I won't embarrass by naming here!