No longer an island? — III

Santos-Dumont's flight, 12 November 1906

A quick followup to my previous posts about the origins of the phrase 'England is no longer an island', supposedly uttered by Lord Northcliffe in 1906 in reference to Alberto Santos-Dumont taking to the air (above). I've tried to run down a primary source for this, but haven't quite managed it. Here's what I have found.

My go-to source for this quote is Alfred Gollin's (naturally) No Longer an Island:

On 12 November 1906 Santos-Dumont flew again at Bagatelle. After a few disappointing hops his machine, on its fourth trial, covered a distance of 722 feet through the air. On the next day the Daily Mail published a brief factual account of these developments. Northcliffe was outraged. He immediately made one of those telephone calls which were a regular and continuing source of terror to his employees. He told his editor that the news was not that 'Santos-Dumont flies 722 feet', but, 'England is no longer an island... It means the aerial chariots of a foe descending on British soil if war comes'. 1.

(The last line, incidentally, suggests that Northcliffe was thinking of the threat as being airborne invasion rather than aerial bombardment or espionage.) Gollin cites two sources for this passage: Graham Wallace's 1958 biography of Harry Harper, the Daily Mail's first aviation correspondent, and Reginald Pound and Geoffrey Harmsworth's 1959 biography of Northcliffe. 2 This is Wallace's version:

Reading his Daily Mail in bed at 5.30 the next morning, as was his custom, Lord Northcliffe was shocked to find that the real significance of the flight had been missed.

He immediately telephoned the Editor to say the news was not that 'Santos-Dumont flies 722 feet,' but, 'England is no longer an island. There will be no more sleeping safely behind the wooden walls of old England with the Channel our safety moat. It means the aerial chariots of a foe descending on British soil if war comes.' 3

And this is Pound and Harmsworth's:

Northcliffe was angry because his newspapers neglected what to him was an epoch-making occurrence. A Scots sub-editor, on late night duty, 'afflicted', Northcliffe said, 'with the caution of his race', had condensed the report of the second flight into a four-line paragraph for the 'News in Brief' column. Telephoning from Elmwood to the news editor at his home early next morning, Northcliffe demanded: 'Don't you realize, man, that England is no longer an island?' 4

Gollin's account is very close to Wallace's, which is compatible with, though slightly different from, Pound and Harmsworth's. As non-academic biographies, neither Wallace nor Pound and Harmsworth cite their sources. But the latter had extensive access to the Harmsworth family papers (Geoffrey Harmsworth was Northcliffe's nephew), including Northcliffe's own diaries, which as it happens went up to 1906. So that could be the ultimate source for the quotation. But since Wallace published essentially the same story the year before, he must also have had access to a version of it. That could be via Harper, perhaps in his own papers; or there could be an earlier published account. I did check three or four earlier books about Northcliffe, mostly admiring reminiscences by his employees, but only one had the phrase in question, Louise Owen's slender The Real Lord Northcliffe (1922). Owen was Northcliffe's personal secretary for the last two decades of his life, which happily includes Santos-Dumont's flight in 1906 -- but her telling of the story relates to Louis Blériot's flight across the Channel in 1909!

Can it be so long ago as 1909 when my Chief telephoned me early one morning: 'Our country is no longer an island; Blériot has flown the channel, and history is made to-day. Do you realize it is the first time an entry has been made otherwise than by ship? We must send out invitations for a luncheon in his honour.' 5

It could be that Owen got the dates mixed up in her recollections, perhaps attaching Northcliffe's portentous phrasing to a far more memorable event. 6 Or perhaps it was something Northcliffe said more than once. Or both!

Image source: NPR.

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  1. Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902–1909 (London: Heinemann, 1984), 193.[]
  2. Gollin actually says Wallas -- as in the cofounder of the LSE -- rather than Wallace.[]
  3. Graham Wallace, Flying Witness: Harry Harper and the Golden Age of Aviation (London: Putnam, 1958), 52.[]
  4. Reginald Pound and Geoffrey Harmsworth, Northcliffe (London: Cassell, 1959), 300-301.[]
  5. Louise Owen, The Real Lord Northcliffe: Some Personal Recollections of a Private Secretary, 1902-1922 (London: Cassell and Company, 1922), 24.[]
  6. See Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 1-26.[]

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