What the showman saw

Weekly Mail, 22 May 1909, 7

Chatting to Andrew Gray the other day, I realised that I'd never got around to posting about a small discovery I'd made about one of the most sensational sightings from the 1909 phantom airship scare. This is the claim by a Welsh showman named Lethbridge that he had actually seen an airship on the ground, seen its crew, seen them board the airship and take off. Here's how I summarised this incident when I postblogged 20 May 1909, quoting from the London Standard (and ultimately the Cardiff Evening Express):

a travelling Punch-and-Judy salesman by the name of Lethbridge was walking back home from Senghenydd to Cardiff over Caerphilly Mountain. At about 11pm [on 19 May 1909] he saw an airship which had landed on the mountain, and its crew. At least, that seems to be the implication of the interview he gave to the Cardiff Evening Express yesterday.

At the mountain's peak, he saw 'a long, tube-shaped affair lying on the grass on the roadside, with two men busily engaged with something near by'. The men wore 'big, heavy, fur coats, and fur caps fitting tightly over their heads'. When he got within twenty yards 'they jumped up and jabbered furiously to each other in a strange lingo -- Welsh, or something else; it was certainly not English'. They picked up something from the ground, and the object started to rise into the air. The men then 'jumped into a kind of little carriage suspended from it', with wheels. Once it had cleared some telegraph lines, it turned on two lights and headed towards Cardiff.


Unusually for a mystery aircraft report, journalists investigated Lethbridge's claim, at least to the extent of accompanying him to the spot the following day -- again, quoting myself:

Lethbridge took a journalist to the place where he had seen the airship; although the ground was hard there were signs of a disturbance, as though 'a ploughshare or some such hard contrivance had been drawn across it'. The showman estimated that the airship had been 45 feet long. Nearby they found 'a red label attached to a chain and small plug'; the label was in French and referred to the use of a tire valve [...] The Manchester Guardian has details (p. 7) of some papers found at the site. One bore the letterhead of a London stockbrokers, cut in half. On the lower portion were faint traces of some typed words: 'provincial centres', 'rest assured that we shall not', 'the fullest confidence', 'this letter simply justified'. The Manchester Guardian concludes that 'Whatever kind of ink was used for this letter it certainly is not of an indelible nature'. There were also scraps of newspapers, nearly all of which contain references on airships or the German army. And small pieces of blue paper, with numbers and letters written on them 'in a style distinctly different to that of the average English hand'. Some 'pulpy paper [...] not very dissimilar from the appearance of a cartridge wad'. Finally, an empty tin of metal polish.

The first discovery I made in WNO is the set of photographs at the top of this post, which were published by the Cardiff Weekly Mail at the time: one showing the spot on Caerphilly Mountain where Lethbridge saw the airship; one showing Lethbridge himself, pointing at the sky; one showing the aforementioned French red label. Sadly, it doesn't seem that Lethbridge was responsible for the little airship drawing, or at least if he was the caption makes no reference to it. But there are surprisingly few illustrations relating to phantom airships, at least that I've seen, so these are valuable in themselves.

Lethbridge's encounter came at the peak of the 1909 scare, which collapsed in a cloud of scepticism soon after (and the label turned out to be from a motor car, not a flying machine). But what's interesting is that neither the Weekly Mail nor Lethbridge let it go at that. Nearly two months afterwards, a Dr M. B. Boyd came forward to claim that he had invented an efficient airship, smaller but more powerful than the Zeppelin, and that his test flights had been responsible for at least some of the phantom airship sightings, including the one at Caerphilly. Lethbridge was then reinterviewed by a Weekly Mail journalist to see whether he stood by his story and whether he believed Boyd's. This is the second discovery I made, and here is what he had to say:

Seen by a representative of the 'Weekly Mail' at his home in Roland-street, Adamsdown, on Tuesday evening, Mr. Lethbridge said he had nothing to add to the graphic story which he gave to our reporter of the appearance of the airship on Caerphilly Mountain on May 18 last. 'I am quite positive, however,' he added, 'that it was an airship I saw that evening as I was trundling my truck along the road over the mountain. The night was a bit dark, but I distinctly saw the object rise from the ground in front of me and fly away in the direction of Cardiff, after two men had jumped into it. What, I thought were rockers upon which the airship was resting on the ground now appears to have been the wheels on which it was carried along after it came to earth. I am not a practical man in this respect, and, of course, cannot enter into the details from a scientific point of view.

'You ask me whether I have been chaffed over the matter,' he said, when our reporter inquired as to his experiences in every-day life after having told his story to the 'Weekly Mail.' 'Why, I should think so. I cannot go to the docks looking for work but I am assailed right and left, and I am sick of the whole matter, although I take all the badgering in good part.' 'You know,' he added, 'I am a workman at the docks, and when there is no employment to be got there I go about with my Punch and Judy show by invitation. I do not know how they may feel now, but down at the docks it has been extremely funny to me to hear the remarks passed as I walked along. "Our airship is all the go again," says one, and from another quarter the finger of scorn has been pointed at me as if I had been "boozed." Why, I don't drink to excess on any occasion, and I only had a sleever that night before I crossed the Caerphilly Mountain. Coming back, however, to the main part, I say that Dr. Boyd's story of his invention and his experiments bear out in their entirety my statement of what I saw on that evening, and I will not forget it."

This doesn't really do anything to verify Boyd's claims (who, despite receiving cautious support from Flight, seems not to have ever done anything in the way of producing an actual, verifiable airship); indeed, Lethbridge seems openly willing to modify his own account to match the description of Boyd's airship, which had wheels, not rails. But what it does show is that after some six or seven weeks, Lethbridge stuck by his original, extraordinary story, despite still being teased by his workmates, and that he was still prepared to talk about it -- he could easily have said no when the reporter knocked on his door. It also gives a clue which can be used to verify the showman's existence, Roland Street, the name of the street where he lived, which is particularly useful since his first name is never given, only his first initial, C. So from census data it can be confirmed that in 1911 a Charles Lethbridge lived (with his wife and three daughters) at 29 Roland Street, Cardiff, aged 59 and employed as a dock labourer. All of that fits, so the man did exist. Presumably he actually made the claims reported in the press, more or less. Did he himself believe what he said and, if so, what did he actually see? That's a question that I can't answer.

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