Sunday, 12 May 1918

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918. See here for an introduction or here for a list of all posts.

Frank Shann, 12 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 202 is a letter from Frank Shann, headmaster of Trinity Grammar School, Kew (a suburb of Melbourne), to Commander F. G. Cresswell (the Navy's Director of Radio Service -- no connection to Rear Admiral W. R. Creswell, the Navy's senior officer). Shann is reporting 'an extraordinary and possibly suspicious occurrence':

One night during the week ending the 4th May [1918], I think on the night of the 3rd, my wife observed from the window of our bedroom, which faces nearly due south, what appeared to be a search light being operated from a point approximately at the corner of Riversdale and Glenferrie Roads [Hawthorn]. The light appeared to be used for the purpose of signalling, but as I do not understand the morse or any signalling code, I was unable to make anything out. On that occasion the light was turned towards my house on one or two occassions only. The time of the occurrence was about 3 a.m.

Shann observed something similar on two subsequent occasions: at about the same time on [I infer] 11 May, 'when all lights along the Prahran and Malvern Tramways and along the Hawthorn Tramways lines were out, and only the main lights at the principal intersections remained', and at 2.10am last night [presumably meaning the morning of 12 May] 'a similar light appeared on the southern horizon apparently just to the right of the Malvern Town Hall [...] but the signalling seemed to ease with the coming of a heavy rain storm'. It reappeared again at 4am 'when Mrs Shann was attending to baby's bottle'. Shann has been in touch with Cresswell about these signals before, and has promised to call him when he sees them; he did so on the second occasion, which since it was early in the morning suggests that they might have known each other socially (Cresswell lives about 1.5 miles away, as NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 203 reveals).

What were the Shanns looking at? I want to say (as usual) Venus, which rose at about 3.20am and was startlingly bright (Cresswell notes in NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 203 that Shann initially described the light as 'like a searchlight' and was even 'sufficient to show distinct light on the verandah'). But Venus was then due east, and everything Shann says suggests they were looking southwards (I assume they lived in the headmaster's residence near the school). And Venus couldn't have been seen at 2.10am, the time of the most recent sighting. Canopus was setting to the south about then, which might account for the most recent sighting, but couldn't explain the earlier sighting. But otherwise there aren't any good candidates. My other thought was something to do with the overhead wires for the trams that run along the streets named by Shann, but he was clearly well aware of this possibility and discounted it. So I don't know.

I've been a bit disingenous in citing this in my article. There I use it as an illustration of my observation that the most common occupation of mystery aeroplane witnesses was teaching; it doesn't hurt that Trinity is a well-known Melbourne private school (though it was less prominent in 1918, I think). But Shann doesn't actually claim to have seen an aeroplane, only a search or signal light. Admittedly, while people had been reporting suspicious lights like this since the start of the war, this particular one was clearly being interpreted by the Navy in the context of the mystery aeroplanes, presumably as a signal from the ground to the air; the presence of Shann's letter in NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066 proves that (and it's the original too, not a copy). Still, it's not evident that Shann thought what he was seeing had anything to do with aeroplanes, and I should have made that clear.

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