A phantom airship?

The short answer is, almost certainly not, but more of that in a moment. One of the nice things about blogging is that people send me emails on topics which they think may interest me. Recently I received scans of a photograph from Peter Edwards, who has the original glass plates. They're from a box dated 1907, which belonged to the Londesborough family, which was elevated to the peerage in the Victorian period. They owned a country house called Londesborough Hall, near Londesborough in the East Riding of Yorkshire, which is where the majority of the photos appear to have been taken. Peter noticed something unusual in this photo, hiding behind a flagpole:

Londesborough airship?

See it? Here's a close-up, after a little playing with the contrast:

Londesborough airship?

And this is a close-up of a close-up (plus contrast-playing) taken by Peter, which unfortunately has some reflections from his camera but makes the identity of the object pretty clear, I think:

Londesborough airship?

That's definitely an airship, and from the shape of the control surfaces at the back, it's one of the early Zeppelins. My guess is that it's one of LZ4, LZ5 or LZ6, which would date the photograph to between 1908 and 1910, but it could be a little earlier. For comparison, here's a contemporary German postcard showing what is probably LZ4 and a Nassau-class dreadnought (from the front cover of my 4th year thesis, but originally from a now-defunct website):

LZ4 (?) and Nassau-class dreadnought

Actually the rudder is shaped slightly differently there, but other images of LZ4 show it to be similar to the one in the photo above.

So what was a Zeppelin doing over Londesborough? It wasn't taken during the war, as none of those airships I suggested survived to 1915, and anyway they didn't usually loiter over Yorkshire in broad daylight. Phantom airships were seen over the East Riding, though that was mainly in 1913. And anyway, apart from maybe one incident, I do not believe that the phantom airships corresponded to real airships.

The obvious explanation is that the photo was not taken at Londesborough at all, but in Germany. And I think there is some evidence for this in the photo itself. To my admittedly untrained eye, the rooftops look a bit more urban than rural, and in the lower right it looks like there's a group of power or telephone lines, which again suggests a city or town rather than the countryside at this time. Then there's the flagpole obscuring part of the airship. The flag is hanging loosely, so it can't be seen very clearly, but it looks like a tricolour, and the shades are consistent with the flag of the German Empire (black, white, red). I've seen similar rooftop snapshots of passing airships from the same period before, though usually there are spectators in the foreground gazing at the aerial wonder.

Peter can't confirm that the photo was taken at Londesborough: the rooftops are different although he suggests that there are otherwise some similarities in the architecture. For comparison, here's a photo of Londesborough Hall from his collection:

Londesborough Hall

So my conclusion is that the photo was taken in the late 1900s in Germany, not in Yorkshire. Peter has kindly consented to my posting the image here in the hopes of confirming its origins, so if anyone has any ideas, please comment!

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21 thoughts on “A phantom airship?

  1. Chris Williams

    See the zigzag shadow on the roof of the gable end at the right? This is evidence of a stepped gable end, standard in Germany, but rare (alas, not unknown) in England.

    [I've been honing my photo-interpretation skills nailing down some 1935 cine footage. Just call me Babs.]

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  3. Can we please have a larger, or enlargable image of Londesborough Hall?

    Any other views of Londesborough Hall would also help, particularly rear view.

    Of slight interest is the fact that Otto Kahn was an intimate of the Earl of Londesborough. Kahn was quite the flight enthusiast, and had flown in a Zeppellin.

    Kahn ultimately purchased Londesborough's Regent's Park Townhouse, after renting it for a year.

    viz. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9F0DE1D7133CE633A25752C2A9679D946396D6CF

    I wonder if this could be a view of Londesborough's london residence, St. Dunstan's?


  4. Lester Hawksby

    Sounds like your evaluation is spot on - and two further things support it:

    I can't see how the picture could be at Londesborough Hall, even if LH has a stepped gable end around the back somewhere we can't see, because the chimney styles are too different - and I can't see LH ever having had the style of chimney seen in the Zeppelin plate, which wouldn't fit the architecture at all.

    The tones are exactly right for an Imperial German flag, too - I was initially surprised at how light the red tone looks (given that it's probably not a panchromatic plate at that time, so reds tend towards black*) but it's pretty close tonally to the bricks, which aren't yellow bricks (pale on ortho plates).

    *(I was noticing this very strikingly on a photo of 1914 French soldiers the other day - their dark blue coats look quite light because the film's fairly blue-sensitive, while their red trousers look black on the photo - the two uniform colours' lightness is almost reversed on the plate compared to real life!)

  5. Post author

    I'm very impressed with the knowledge on display here! How did Jakob put it? A surfeit of erudition ...


    Well spotted! By stepped gables, do you mean something like the ones on the Great Hall at Stirling Castle?


    The photo of Londesborough Hall now links to a larger version (you may need to clear browser caches first). I've got some other photos of Londesborough Hall from Peter but they are long-distance and blurry. It's on the top of a slope down to a lake, and there are tall trees (twice as high as the hall itself) behind it. No stepped gables! But you could be right that the Londesborough Hall photos are of St Dunstans ... it doesn't look like there is or was a lake at Londesborough, and there's certainly one at Regent's Park. And the building looks very different to the much boxier one on the Wikipedia page, although admittedly it was remodelled between then and the 20th century. But I don't know that that would help with the airship photo, because there weren't any non-phantom Zeppelins flying over London before 1915 either :)


    Thanks for that. The way in which the colours map to shades of grey on monochromatic plates is definitely something which can trip up casual viewers! I hadn't even thought about that so I'm glad you did.

  6. Londesborough hall was rebuilt in the Elizabethan style, which does correspond somewhat to the "whole" frontal view you show above.

    The boxy one is the "old" one I think.

  7. Lester Hawksby

    Glad to be of some assistance! I'm not all that erudite but photography is one thing I can do.

  8. Charlie Cantlie

    I do have some good quality scanned photographs of Londesborough hall taken around 1907 as the hall belonged to my mothers family until 1922/23 to pay death duties when my great uncle , the 3rd Earl of Londesborough died in his early 30's. There was in deed a lake that did exist around the 1900's as I have a photo of it and some other good photos of the house and surrounding areas. I do not know if Peter would be happy for some copies to be made from his collection as I would be interested in having some as I have very few photographs.

  9. I would suggest this is taken from one of the larger conurbations that LZ4 flew over on its historic attempt to win favour of the German Military authorities with the attempt to make a 24 hour endurance flight on 4/5 August 1908. Its course was from its base at Manzell on Lake Constance along the Rhine valley as far north as Mainz where it turned south towards Stuttgart and met its end near Echterdingen. Perhaps a larger magnification of the little square of open countryside that is visible over the roofs at the right-hand edge of the picture would reveal whether it could be the Rhine valley? Also the sun looks to be pretty much overhead making it more likely to have been taken from one of the towns that the LZ4 passed over near mid-day.

  10. Dr. Roy De Selms

    I just purchased a 100 year old beer stein from eBay 200272455255. There is a depiction entitled "Zeppelins Probefahrt" over "Mainz". I believe this stein was made for purchase by onlookers at Mainz Germany on the occassion of the ill-fated, 24-hr. test flight of the LZ4 on 4/5 Aug. 1908. From my experience, I am absolutely certain that the stein is authentic and of the period. The representation is very similar to the above photo and I wonder if anyone could verify that the LZ4 did indeed look like this and if you could point me in the direction of photos of LZ3-8. If you want to visit the eBay site, you will probably have to do it before 12/08. Thanks.

  11. Post author


    Thanks for your comment. You may well be right! When enlarged, that section of the horizon on the right actually doesn't show any countryside, but more roofs. So at least it suggests that the photo was indeed taken in a big city.


    Judging from the painting on the beer stein in question, I would say it actually depicts LZ3, which first flew in 1906, but was sold to the German Army in 1909, which renamed it ZI (ie Zeppelin I) upon taking it over on 29 June. I don't know if LZ3/Z1 ever flew over Mainz but the Army seems to have flown it about quite a bit -- initially to Metz, which is not too far away -- so it's certainly possible. There's a photo of LZ3 on this page (second image, click to enlarge). You can see it has a very distinctive tail arrangement, which matches that on the beer stein but not the pictures of LZ4 above.

  12. David Collop

    Having lived in the servants flats at the back of the hall,I can assure you that these photo's were not taken at Londesborough Hall. Having carried out extensive work on the roof's the ones depicted in the prints are totally different to the ones on the hall.

  13. Scott Danneker

    This is the LZ6 (ZIII). The absence of upper and lower verticle stabilizers combined with the large barn door rudder makes this clear. Sorry that it took me 14 years to comment on this.
    Trusting that some of you are still alive and give a toss,
    I am,
    -Scott Danneker
    25 November, 2022

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