Mayfly?

The Bystander, 31 May 1911, p. 13

To mark May Day, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, @FleetAirArmMus, tweeted about the Royal Navy's first rigid airship, which was built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness in 1911 in an attempt to match Germany's Zeppelins:

I was surprised by the comment about the airship's name. Probably because of its brief, non-flying existence, it's known by a variety of designations, including R1, HMA (His Majesty's Airship) 1, and HMA Hermione (since HMS Hermione acted as its tender). But it's perhaps best known by an unofficial name, Mayfly, given because, @FleetAirArmMus said, 'it was laid down on water & then took to the air', just like a mayfly. That's the part that surprised me, because I had always understood it to be much more ironic: it may fly, but it might not. And of course Mayfly didn't: it broke its back in September 1911 as it was being taken out of its hangar for its first flight.

But I don't actually know why I think that. Every secondary source I've checked just says it was 'popularly' or 'unofficially' called Mayfly, without providing a source or even an explanation. I'd also assumed that it was a name given by a sceptical press during the two years it took to build the airship, but Wikipedia, citing Philip Jarrett, says it was bestowed by the 'lower deck', i.e. the sailors. So I decided to look for some primary sources.

The Sphere (London), 27 May 1911, 188

The contemporary press reports show that the Vickers airship was already commonly known as Mayfly from the moment it was unveiled in May 1911. But before then, when the airship was hidden in its hangar, there's no mention of the word 'mayfly'. That immediately suggests that the name did come from naval sources, rather than being a sarcastic name being slung around by cynical journalists. So Wikipedia (and Jarrett) may well be correct here.

Nevertheless, there are certainly plenty of press reports of the Mayfly's first outing, on 22 May 1911, which raised an eyebrow at calling this cutting-edge and hopefully game-changing piece of high technology by such an underwhelming name, even if only unofficially (though not everyone was clear about that, either).

'Mayfly' is merely a popular nickname, disowned by the Admiralty. It is to be hoped that the change to 'Might-have-Flown,' as suggested in the Commons, will not be justified. 1

The Evening News reported that 'The airship has been, rather incautiously, called the Mayfly'. 2The Referee thought '"The Mayfly" is a silly name for a Naval Airship. Why not "The John Bulloon"?' while John Bull asked 'Wasn't "The Mayfly" rather a dubious name?' 3 'THE "MAYFLY" MAY FLY, BUT HASN'T DONE YET', noted the Midland Counties Tribune, rather gleefully. 4

Some of the jokes do refer to the insect's short lifespan:

The Official Joker has not been allowed to call the Navy airship HMS Mayfly. Given the ephemeral nature of the mayfly, it would have been as ominous as calling it HMS Zeppelin. 5

And:

The naval airship launched at Barrow yesterday has been christened the 'Mayfly.' It is to be hoped it will not be as short-lived in its winged state as the ephemera usually are. 6

I only found one discussion of the name Mayfly that was at all serious, in the Birmingham Gazette and Express, and it does in fact plump for the insect connotation:

The name—the Mayfly—will puzzle most people. It in not a punning intimation that she may not fulfil the purposes for which she is designed, or a hint at her birth-month. Briefly, she is named after the ephemera that trout love—the Mayfly. That insect symbolise the purposes the airship is designed to fulfil. She is born upon, almost in, the water. She is intended to fly awhile in the air, and to return and rest upon the water. There, we will hope, the resemblance may end, for the ephemera return to water but to die after a brief hour in the sunshine; return to die and feed the trout, having procreated their species. Should the parallel be carried unhappily further, than we hope the British naval Mayfly may leave behind her the germs of a new and more successful generation. 7

In the end, there's no firm evidence either way, and I still lean towards my original understanding of the name's origins (if it did come from Hermione's lower decks, I tend to think they would have been extremely sceptical of this ridiculously non-nautical contraption that had been foisted upon them, whereas if it had come from the Vickers workers who actually built it, say, then they might have been prouder of the fruit of their labours). But there's enough doubt that I'm going to have to stop blithely claiming that Mayfly was a joke.

And in more ways than one: David Hobb's account of Mayfly persuades me that it was in fact an advanced design for its day (if too ambitious in the end). 8 Its loss turned the Royal Navy away from rigid airships for a crucial period just before war came, and it's interesting to speculate what would have happened if the Grand Fleet had some effective longrange aerial scouts at its disposal -- that's if they could have avoided the temptation, as the German navy could not, of expending them fairly fruitlessly in the strategic bombing role. But that's another question.

Image sources: The Bystander (London), 31 May 1911, 13; The Sphere (London), 27 May 1911, 188.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. The Sketch (London), 7 June 1911, 58.[]
  2. Evening News (London), 3.[]
  3. The Referee (London), 4 June 1911, 13; John Bull (London), 3 June 1911, 36.[]
  4. Midland Counties Tribune (Nuneaton), 23 May 1911, 3.[]
  5. The Sketch (London), 7 June 1911, 12.[]
  6. Birmingham Daily Mail, 22 May 1911, 2.[]
  7. Birmingham Gazette and Express, 25 May 1911, 4.[]
  8. David Hobbs, The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2017), 6-17.[]

4 thoughts on “Mayfly?

  1. Roger Horky

    No help in your search for the name's origin, but I did find this in Hansard: during a 1943 debate about the need for aircraft in the Royal Navy, which depended on the RAF for procurement, John Seely, Lord Mottisone said "Has the noble and gallant Lord forgotten that he is very vulnerable when he is speaking about things when the Navy had control? Has he forgotten the airship built when the Navy had control called the "Mayfly" and how with one great laugh it was rechristened the 'Wontfly'?" [Hansard, HL debate, 23 February 1943, column 187]

  2. Roger Horky

    Speaking of Hansard, here's an interesting thing:

    The November 1911 issue of the United States Naval Institute Proceedings contains this exchange (apparently taken from Hansard) on page 1059:

    Mr. BURGOYNE asked why the naval airship "Mayfly" has been rehoused without flight; and when it is expected she will really be available for effective service?
    §Mr. McKENNA Naval airship No. 1 was taken out of the shed in order to carry out certain experiments which could not be done inside. The ship will not be ready for service until she has been accepted from the contractors.
    Mr. BURGOYNE: In view of all the circumstances, will the right honorable gentleman consider the advisability of changing her name from "Mayfly" to "Might-Have-Flown?"
    Mr. McKenna: Both names are the invention of the honorable gentleman.

    A glance at the online Hansard reveals that the last two statements are omitted.

    [this is not the first time I have encountered omissions in the electronic edition of Hansard]

  3. Richard

    As an aside, the Royal Navy apparently had two (seaborne) vessels - a torpedo boat launched in 1907 (which was renamed TB-11 while being constructed) and which sank after hitting a mine in 1916, and a 'Fly' class gunboat which survived the First World War.

    Could any official distancing from the name 'Mayfly' be at least partly an attempt to avoid confusion?

  4. Post author

    Roger:

    Thanks -- as you say, it doesn't quite help with nailing down the origins of the name, but it does show much it opened up the Navy to mockery.

    I've noticed similar omissions too. I know there's sometimes a difference between press reports of parliamentary debates and questions and the formal published versions, particularly when it comes to interjections or facetiousness. That might explain why 'Might-have-flown' got dropped.

    Richard:

    Interesting suggestion. I don't know enough about RN naming practices to say whether this would have been a concern, but even if it wasn't would a name from the lower decks have been accepted as a formal name? Particularly for what (it was hoped) would be the first of a new class of advanced weapon. But as I say, I don't really know!

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