The airship panic of 1915 — III

In my previous post on the possible airship panic of 1915, I used n-grams for 'Zeppelin' and 'rumour' derived from the British Newspaper Archive to try to work out when exactly it was. The answer was that it began in late December 1914 and finished in early February 1915. But is the answer right? Is the method useful? To test that I switched to close reading and checked whether it does indeed relate to an airship panic. The very preliminary upshot is that the principle seems sound, but its application is difficult, or at least more complicated than I've allowed -- while the signals in the data are more or less real, there are a substantial number of false positives and false negatives. There will always be some of these, due to bad OCR or just chance, but there are a couple of systematic reasons increasing the difficulties.

The first problem, an obvious one, is that a wider range of key terms is needed: 'Zeppelin' is pretty sound for this period (though occasionally 'airship' and 'dirigible' appear in its place), but 'rumour' needs to be supplemented by other terms such as 'panic', 'scare', or even a phrase like 'it is said'. And of course ostensibly sober and objective analysis of the prospects of Zeppelin raids won't get picked up by a search like mine which is looking for discussions of panic. So there are these false negatives (things I've missed) -- such as the claim in early January that Germany was planning to send ten Zeppelins to raid London at the end of the month with 'the task of crippling the British fleet, and also cause a panic', or the story that a 'huge box kite' being used to test London's anti-aircraft defences led to speculation 'as to whether [a?] Zeppelin has arrived at last'.1 The second, and less soluble, problem is that BNA isn't always very good at detecting when one article starts and another one begins. In fact, it's quite common to find a dozen or two short articles joined together. This means that BNA could (say) consider an article mentioning Zeppelin operations over France, and another discussing rumours that the Germans have mined Brussels so that they can destroy the city if forced to evacuate it, to be part of the same article.2 These are false positives.

All of that being said, how does the 1915 airship panic look in BNA? I'm not going go into exhaustive detail, but these are the most interesting results:

  • 3 January: a rumour circulates in Coventry of an air raid on London, which 'appears to have originated in London, where on Sunday afternoon and evening it was erroneously gossipped that Zeppelins had been driven off in the vicinity of the metropolis'.3 This may have been the same rumour which circulated on the same day at Chelmsford in Essex, which also made it to London from where journalists came to look into the story. According to the Stratford Express,

    That Zeppelins had been at Chelmsford on Sunday was announced at the evening service at Leyton Parish Church, and created a good deal of alarm. Canon Thornton-Duesbery [sic] said the Zeppelins had encircled the cathedral, and the fact that the church had escaped might be attributed to the prayers that had been offered for the preservation of the cathedrals and churches of the country.4

    The origins of the rumour were unclear, but the Stratford Express suggested that it may have had something to do with a mobilisation of Essex's special constables.

  • 7 January: reports from the French coast this morning of a Zeppelin heading towards England, with it being 'rumoured that two other Zeppelins had preceded it', according to a Daily Mail correspondent.5
  • Before 9 January: London has been full of rumours about Zeppelins 'during the past few days'.6 In part this refers to the Chelmsford episode on 4 January; but also 'At another time it was stated that hostile aircraft had been seen over the eastern extremity of the Metropolis, and before the day was out gossip had located the enemy over every other part of London.'7
  • Before 10 January: 'a report, which nobody believed, that Zeppelins had been seen over the East Coast during the week' (which may relate to any of the preceding rumours).8
  • Before 15 January: a rumour belatedly passed by the censor 'that one or more Zeppelins had penetrated the South Coast, and were last reported being seen over Crowborough Camp' in East Sussex.9 The story 'appears to have been started by an anonymous person ringing a City Police Station, and stating that Zeppelins were approaching London across Kent and Sussex', with rumour filling in the gaps by specifying Tunbridge Wells and Crowborough.10 The War Office blames 'some malicious alien in our midst'.11
  • 19 January: the first (real) Zeppelin raid attacks targets in Norfolk.
  • 19-21 January: after (or during) the raid, stories circulate about 'mysterious motor cars and travelling searchlights', and that 'the enemy aircraft was shown the direction of her route by a motor car, which is said to have been by seen several persons dashing along the main road from Wells to Lynn at a high speed'.12
  • 22 January: the Press Association issues a report that a second air raid was in progress after two or more Zeppelins were seen at Cromer in Norfolk, linking this to a Zeppelin seen over the Channel. Both claims were officially denied the following day; the former may have originated in the sound of a British seaplane, while the latter, which was investigated by Scotland Yard, perhaps had something to do with the 'dreadful buzz' heard at Deal on the south coast -- 'A crowd assembled on the seashore' to watch for the raider, but nothing was seen.13 Headlines refer to 'the Zeppelin scare' and 'imaginary Zeppelins', while the Yorkshire Evening Post asks 'Are we prepared for more air-ship raids?'14 The London Star is reminded of 'the "scare ship" reported over Yorkshire and other parts of the country two or three years ago'.15 In the evening, Burwell in Cambridgeshire is 'not alarmed, but alert, at the rumour that a Zeppelin had visited the village' after 'A young lady at High Town saw the flash of a powerful light, and a well-known farmer opposite heard the whirr of engines'.16 Both appear to have been due to a motor car.
  • 23 January: 'Some waggish person' starts the rumour that the collapse of a shed at a Ryehill farm the previous day 'was due to a bomb dropped from a Zeppelin', which by evening is being circulated in nearby Hull.17
  • before 26 January: 'within the last week there have been baseless rumours of aeroplanes or Zeppelins having been seen or heard passing over Stirling and district at night', prompting authorities to issue a list of precautions to be undertaken in the event of a raid.18
  • 26 January: Lincoln's lights are extinguished 'on receipt of a message from Ipswich that enemy airships had been sighted'.19 Nothing was seen, 'although there were many rumours'.20
  • before 29 January: 'The Zeppelin scare has "got on the nerves" of many people', particularly in rural Northamptonshire, resulting in 'rumours of enemy aircraft passing over this or that village, and anxious mothers have told their children on no account to be out after dark'.21
  • 1 February: there are rumours in Dover that 'hostile aircraft were detected approaching the town', which presumably is connected with the gun and searchlight batteries going into action (although submarines were also suspected, and the actual culprit seems to have been a steamer which failed to follow port regulations).22 The same night, London is awash with 'rumours to the effect that a fleet of Zeppelins were on their way to London'.23 It is claimed that 5 Zeppelins were seen over Hornchurch, though the number varies and anyway the report is treated 'as a joke' by the police.24 It is treated more seriously in London, where Woolwich Arsenal's lights are extinguished and some railway stations darkened.25 Special constables are called out on duty by Scotland Yard, and 'telephone exchanges were kept busy for more than two hours by subscribers anxious to know the latest'.26 According to the London correspondent of the Bucks Herald,

    The rumour reached me about nine o’clock as I was seated at a cinema performance some 15 miles outside London. The manager in charge quietly invited any special constables present to go outside, as they were wanted in connection with a Zeppelin raid. One or two men instantly rose and left. A little later it transpired that the 'Zeps.' had got far as Dover, and had been turned back, but in London at least five of the enemy aircraft were believed to have hovered over Hornchurch, in Essex -- which is no great distance, as the crow flies, from the sewerage works at Barking. It has since been said that long cigar-shaped clouds were apparently mistaken for Zeppelins. 27

    In order to help the public to work out what they are looking at in the sky, 'Very soon the Home Office will distribute specially-drawn posters depicting Zeppelins and taubes and British aircraft'.28

So yes, there was a 1915 airship panic -- a phantom airship panic, in fact. It resolves here into two phases. The first one is in the first week or two of January, though due to the often vague press reports it's hard to tell if the rumours were as frequent as they appear, or if the same ones are just being repeated. The second phase is much more sharply defined, which is presumably because it took place in the couple of weeks after the (real) Zeppelin raid of 19 January: either the press took more interest in the rumours, or there were simply more rumours, or both.

Clearly, relying on the press is problematic, whether due to the limitations imposed by the method or the sources (and I haven't attempted to use anything other than the BNA), or by the interest or knowledge of the newspapers and the censors. But there are other sources, and in my next post on the 1915 airship panic I'll look at the view from the archives.


  1. Western Times (Exeter), 11 January 1915, 4; Daily Mail (Hull), 19 January 1915, 4

  2. Birmingham Daily Post, 28 December 1914, 4

  3. Midland Daily Telegraph (Coventry), 5 January 1915, 3

  4. Quoted in Essex County Chronicle (Chelmsford), 8 January 1915, 8

  5. Birmingham Gazette, 7 January 1915, 5

  6. Daily Record and Mail (Glasgow), 9 January 1915, 4

  7. Ibid. 

  8. The Post Sunday Special (Dundee), 10 January 1915, 2

  9. Kent and Sussex Courier (Tunbridge Wells), 15 January 1915, 5

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Aberdeen Daily Journal, 21 January 1915, 5. Note that I've cheated slightly here, as the word 'rumour' in this article doesn't appear in reference to the motor car story but to speculation about why Hunstanton was not bombed. 

  13. Liverpool Echo, 23 January 1915, 4

  14. Ibid; Midland Daily Telegraph, 23 January 1915, 3; Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds), 23 January 1915, 5

  15. Quoted in Midland Daily Telegraph, 23 January 1915, 3. 

  16. Cambridge Independent Press, 29 January 1915, 8

  17. Daily Mail (Hull), 26 January 1915, 5

  18. Stirling Observer, 26 January 1915, 2, and 30 January 1915, 5

  19. Sheffield Daily Independent, 26 January 1915, 3

  20. Ibid. 

  21. Northampton Mercury, 29 January 1915, 5

  22. Edinburgh Evening News, 2 February 1915, 5; Birmingham Daily Mail, 2 February 1915, 6

  23. Birmingham Daily Mail, 2 February 1915, 6. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Ibid.; Liverpool Echo, 2 February 1915, 4

  26. Birmingham Daily Mail, 2 February 1915, 6. 

  27. Bucks Herald (Aylesbury), 6 February 1915, 5

  28. Ibid. 

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