Aerial theatre

A snippet from David Hall's Worktown, on the Mass-Observation project in Bolton, a textile town near Manchester:

At 2.40 [pm] the most interesting event of the day took place. Eight aeroplanes flew over -- a rare sight in Worktown, which is nowhere near a military airport and some distance from a civil one. 'Two men in the garden of no. 84 [Davenport St] shout to attract the attention of two women. Young woman points and says, 'Look at them!' Other woman points and says, 'That's war!' and laughs. The butcher at the Co-op shop and the landlord of the Royal pub come out to see.'1

The date is not clear but it's a workday in (probably) 1937, perhaps in spring; the quotation within the quotation is evidently from the much later account of Brian Barefoot, one of the observers, or possibly from a M-O report written up at the time. This particular episode is from the compilation of 'A Day in the Life of a Street', Davenport St, the location of the M-O HQ.

Without any more information it would be difficult to identify the aircraft, though I would say the formation flying suggests they were likely RAF. There is a bit more we can dig out, though. In emotional terms, there's curiosity, with at least six people stopping what they were doing to look upwards (and the M-O judgement that it was 'the most interesting event of the day'!) There's also the assumption that other people will find the sight interesting ('Look at them!')

Beyond that, there is evidence for the response of one woman, older or at least not young. She laughed but not, it would seem, out of joy. Instead it appears to have been either a sardonic or a nervous laugh at her own comment: 'That's war!' Presumably, she didn't think the formation of aircraft literally meant war; but equally clearly she did relate it in some way to war. Whether that's because she knew or guessed that aircraft flying like that were likely to be military, or whether she associated formations of aeroplanes with militarised aerial theatre she'd seen at the cinema or air displays, I can't say. But she certainly didn't associate the spectacle above her with peaceful civilian flying. And this was just one street: similar scenes must have been replicated all over Bolton (population approx. 163,000). Probably hundreds of others witnessed this spontaneous aerial theatre; how they responded can only be guessed. But there must be more nuggets in the Mass Observation Archives.


  1. David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass-Observation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), 113. 

Mosquitoes over Brisbane. 1945

The State Library of Queensland identifies this image as 'R.A.A.F. Mosquito bombers, ca. 1945'; I suspect it's from a RAAF march and flypast put on for the Third Victory Loan in the centre of Brisbane on 6 April 1945. On that occasion, according to the Courier-Mail,

The veteran Lancaster bomber 'G. for George,' will lead planes flying over the city during the march. They will include 6 Liberators, 15 Beaufighters, 9 Mosquitoes, 12 Beauforts, 6 Spitfires, and 3 Kittyhawks.

Either way, it's a nice bit of aerial theatre.

In my previous post I looked at who was behind the leaflet drop drop on striking workers at Coventry in December 1917. The official answer was that it was an obscure MP and military administrator, Major H. K. Newton; I suggested that it was actually an RAF officer and Ministry of Munitions propagandist, Captain Ernest Andrew Ewart, alias Boyd Cable. And there is some more evidence to support the existence of a wider campaign by the Ministry of Munitions.
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So, who was behind the drop of propaganda leaflets on the striking workers at Coventry in December 1917? Most of the press accounts in fact avoid identifying the aeroplanes involved or who was flying them. At least one, however, says they were 'military pilots' and this seems likely. While civilian flying didn't stop entirely during the war, it was restricted and there were simply far more military aircraft around at this stage of the war. Radford aerodrome nearby was used for testing; it was originally owned by Daimler but at some point came under military control as No. 1 Aircraft Acceptance Park. So this could be where the leaflet-droppers came from, one way or another. But whoever the pilots were, presumably they were acting on somebody's orders. Whose?
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Coventry Graphic, 4? December 1917

This photo purportedly shows a British military aeroplane dropping leaflets on the streets of Coventry in early December 1917. I suspect it's a fake, a composite, or else it's a bit odd that nobody seems to have noticed all that horsepower roaring just overhead.1 But the event it shows did happen. According to the Daily Mirror,

A considerable number of aeroplanes flew over Coventry yesterday [2 December 1917] at low altitudes, distributing a quantity of literature pointing out the necessity for an increase in aeroplane production.2

A local paper, the Midland Daily Telegraph, provided more detail:

Throughout Sunday a fleet of aeroplanes hovered the city distributing profuse showers of handbills pointing out the vital need for an increase in aeroplane production [...] The doings of the aviators were watched with great interest, and there were frequently exciting scrambles amongst the crowds for the messages which came floating into the streets and gardens of the city.3

So, what was going on?
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  1. The 'spectators' include some Australian soldiers, judging from the slouch hats. 

  2. Daily Mirror, 3 December 1917, 2

  3. Midland Daily Telegraph, 3 December 1917, 3

Hendon, July 1928

Above is a pair of stereo photos kindly sent to me by Tim Lees, who found them in his father's collection. There's a slight mystery as to the occasion. The label at the top reads 'Hendon - July '28', which suggests they were taken at the RAF Display at Hendon in 1928, but that year it was held in June. So there's an error somewhere: either the day (it was on the last day of June) or the year (the 1927 and 1929 Hendons were both held in July). Or perhaps it wasn't at Hendon at all, but at one of the regional displays where RAF squadrons sometimes reprised their Hendon performances? It might not have been labelled until some years after the event. There's no real way to tell.

The photos themselves show reasonably well-dressed spectators standing in amongst their motor cars, watching two vics of what look like Armstrong Whitworth Siskins, judging from the sesquiplanes (click to zoom in). There's not enough detail to say much more, but that certainly fits the period: Siskins were highly maneuverable (the RCAF even used them for an early aerobatic team) and they featured at Hendon between 1925 and 1931.
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Airem Scarem

In an earlier series of posts I discussed Australia's first airship, the White Australia, which flew in 1914. It turns out that there was an earlier Australian airship, of a sort: the Airem Scarem. Indeed, according to a 1907 newspaper advertisement it was the 'First Airship below the line' (equator, presumably). From the above photo, taken in 1908, Airem Scarem was a trim little vessel, though the envelope is a bit on the small side and the propulsion system, which seems to consist of no engine and two tiny propellors fore and aft, hardly seems adequate. Fortunately the Airem Scarem was assisted in its flights by being suspended from a cable -- which has been crudely whited-out from the above photo -- because it wasn't a real airship at all but rather an amusement park ride, at Wonderland City in Tamarama, a beachside suburb of Sydney.
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What could be more American than football, cheerleaders, and country music? According to Hank Williams Jr in 1989 [edit: more like 1996 -- thanks, Robert Farley], only football, cheerleaders, country music, and air strikes on US national monuments (which magically transform them into symbols associated with football):


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Coppin's balloon medal, 1858

In the rather enjoyable Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes spends most of his time discussing the history of ballooning in Britain, France, and the United States. However, he does briefly talk about the first balloon flights in Australia:

In 1858 the British balloon the Australian made some startling flights over Melbourne and Sydney. There was a late-summer ascent in March from Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, in which a basketful of local dignitaries sailed over the Botanical Gardens in bright moonlight, with a magical sight of the festival fireworks far below. But, attempting to land at Battam's Swamp, they found themselves in a working-class district, and the balloon basket was seized by a violent crowd. Amid vocal democratic objections to such 'superior' transport, the distinguished guests were forced to escape by jettisoning champagne bottles, picnic hampers, several bags of sand ballast, and finally throwing off a few hardy objectors still clinging to the sides of the basket.1

I'd never heard about this 19th century aerial riot, or near-riot, in my home town. However, Holmes doesn't cite any sources; and while something like this did happen, when compared with contemporary press reports his account appears to be deficient in several respects.
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  1. Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (London: William Collins, 2013), 94-5.