Tuesday, 18 May 1909

This post is part of a series post-blogging the phantom airship scare of 1909. See here for an introduction to the series, and here for a conclusion.

The phantom airship stories are starting to spread politically and geographically. So far only conservative newspapers have taken much interest in the 'fly-by-night', and so far it has only been seen in Norfolk and nearby areas. Both of these limitations make some sense: national defence is a particular concern of conservatives, and a single airship might conceivably have been the cause of all the sightings in the course of a few weeks' worth of test flights from a nearby secret base. But now the Liberal Manchester Guardian has its first report (p. 7) on the mystery airship, and it's from Belfast! The full text of the telegram from Belfast is as follows:

Wonderment but feebly expressed the feelings of over a score of Belfast people residing in different districts, who just after dusk last night witnessed the manœuvring of a strange aerial visitor as it passed over the southern suburbs of the Irish commercial capital, and which, high in the heavens, sped swiftly in a north-easterly direction towards the Irish Sea. The accounts of those whose attention was attracted to the strange visitant substantially agree as regards the main incidents of the mysterious occurrence.

Probably between two and three thousand feet high, a brilliant moving light was first observed about ten o'clock in the direction of Collin Mountain. It moved speedily onwards, occasionally dipping towards the ground, but always keeping at a high altitude. As the remarkable visitor came more directly over Belfast it was just possible in the gloom to distinguish a cigar-shaped object leaving no doubt in the minds of the observer that the strange spectre was an airship. That someone was on board the occasional flashing of a red light conclusively proved. All the spectators are agreed as to the brilliant headlight of the visitor.

When fairly off the residential parks off Malone Road, it slackened speed, sailing slowly but steadily. Then, rising majestically, it disappeared in the darkened eastern sky.

So what are we to make of this? Belfast is a long way from East Anglia; it's stretching credulity that the same airship could have flown from one place to the other without being seen. (Nobody has even flown the English Channel yet, let alone the Irish Sea.) So are two separate inventors making test flights? Two separate German warships launching airships on reconnaissance flights? One of each? Something else entirely?

The Manchester Guardian's London correspondent also discusses (p. 6) the mystery (though was evidently unaware of the Belfast sighting at the time of writing). They think that, although there has been some hoaxing going on ('One or two messages have been crude impostures' -- I'm not sure what this refers to, unless it is the strange object found at Clacton), the whole affair is 'too stupid to be only a hoax when it is done so woodenly'. And 'so many quite uncomical people like doctors and lawyers and so forth' have seen or heard something strange that there is a feeling that 'flight must be going on'. But the correspondent doubts the popular theory that some inventor is testing their airship at night to avoid detection. Not that secretive inventors are improbable -- the Wright brothers, who visited London recently, prove otherwise -- but that it is 'incredible that any man can be successfully using an airship by night'. (Again, no aviator has successfully carried out a night flight.) 'No, it really will not do as an explanation' -- but no alternative is offered.

There was also some parliamentary scareship activity yesterday. After the War Minister, Richard Haldane, was questioned by a Conservative MP on German funding for airships and whether Britain intends to follow suit, a Liberal backbencher, Horatio Myer (Lambeth North), asked Haldane the following:

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in any Report he may circulate, tell us about a certain dirigible supposed to be hovering about our coast?

That's from the online Hansard. According to the report in The Times today (p. 7), Myer's question was followed by laughter. Haldane gave no answer, which means that even though Haldane and Myer are from the same party, this is not a Dorothy Dixer (to use an Australian anachronism). Perhaps it was intended to make the preceding questions on airship funding look ridiculous by association?

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6 thoughts on “Tuesday, 18 May 1909

  1. Erik Lund

    Haldane was a Liberal Imperialist, at least until he joined the Labour cabinet in 1923.
    And a secret German agent! Dastardly Germans. Now I wonder whether he might have been a lesbian, too. P.B. would know.

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  3. Post author

    The Liberal Imperialists were a faction within the Liberals, not a party, so I'm not sure what your point is there. I know party discipline was not as strong as it is now, but if Haldane was being sniped at from somebody within his own party it would be from the left, I would have thought, and wouldn't draw attention to deficiencies in defence.

  4. Erik Lund

    "Even though Haldane and Myer are from the same party...." Haldane was a Liberal. You note a Conservative-Unionist MP questioning Haldane, and then move on to the Liberal Myer.
    And I got confused between the unnamed Conservative and Myer. I blame lack of sleep, the kids next door, and Michael Ignatieff. Also, my parents.
    Can't anyone see? I'm the victim here!
    Anyway, sorry for mixing up your blog, Brett.

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