Australia

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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. 

John T Collins, Aerial Pageant

A drawing by an Australian, John T. Collins, perhaps as a student exercise. Unlike in Britain, there was no dominant 'aerial pageant' here but rather many local ones, so it seems like a generic advertisement. It's dated to 1932 or 1933, but assuming the context is Australian then those would be Hawker Demons and it would be more like 1935 or 1936, when they entered RAAF service and represented the latest thing in aerial warfare down under.

Image source: State Library of Victoria.

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White Australia and the Empty North (1909)

The previous post in this series was supposed to be the last. But in the course of taking two months to write it, I managed to forget about another, earlier association between a White Australia and an Australian airship. This one wasn't a real airship; it was a fictional one which appeared in Randolph Bedford's 1909 play, White Australia; or the Empty North -- effectively an Australian version of Guy du Maurier's An Englishman's Home. Does this shed any light on Alban Roberts' 1914 airship, White Australia?
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People are nice. At the AHA today, I bumped into Bart Ziino, who gave me a present: the sheet music for a 1939 ballad called 'Lords Of The Air'. I'd not heard of it before, though I've probably heard it before as it was played in several episodes of Dad's Army. You can listen to that version above; it's a somewhat different arrangement as it's for an orchestra, not the piano. Here are the lyrics:

The British Empire proudly stands
As in the days of old,
Our fathers fought o'er land and sea,
Their history is told
In our new battle-field, the sky,
Prepared to do or dare
Let this be our new battle-cry
'Britannia rules the air.'

England our island home,
Land of the free,
England unconquered yet
O'er land and sea,
Lord of the heav'ns above
Answer our prayer,
God keep Britannia’s sons
Lords of the air.

Source: Michael North and Davy Burnaby, 'Lords Of The Air' (Sydney: D. Davis & Co., 1939).

'Lords Of The Air' was described as one of the 'newest compositions' in early November 1939, so perhaps it was inspired by the Wilhelmshaven raid on the second day of the war, which achieved a propaganda victory if nothing else. 'Lords Of The Air' certainly captures that sense of wishful thinking and empty boasting; it perhaps aspires to be a 'Rule, Britannia!' for the air age. By the end of 1939 it does seem to have become the most successful of several collaborations by Michael North (music) and Davy Burnaby (words), often being sung alongside better-remembered songs as 'There'll Always Be An England' (as recorded by Joe Loss and His Concert Orchestra, featuring Monte Rey) and 'We'll Meet Again'. My copy was printed for the Australasian market, and here too it was a popular choice for patriotic concerts and community singing, particularly during the period of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz (in fact, I suspect you could use its popularity as an index of concern about the progress of the air war in Europe).

So 'Lords Of The Air' turns out to be a nice little marker of patriotic airmindedness from the start of the Second World War. Thanks, Bart!

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The Australian airship of New Zealander Alban Roberts seems to have had only three outings, all in 1914. The first of these was a tethered test at the Sydney Agricultural Showground on 23 June, in which the envelope was filled with hydrogen, united with the nacelle, and 'dragged into an open space, to undergo its first trial flignt'.1 The test was successful, in that the airship rose 80 feet into the air while carrying a passenger (Mrs Roberts), as far as the tethers would allow. This was reassuring, since a recent storm had allowed air to enter the envelope, displacing some of the hydrogen and lessening its lifting power. The airship was also able to move forward under its own power, again with someone on board (Mr Roberts, this time). However, this was not a particularly impressive feat: despite the near-complete absence of wind, and despite having detached everything detachable in order to counteract the loss of hydrogen, it was able to move no faster than 'walking pace'.2 The airship also suffered some damage, when part of the nacelle collapsed under Colin Hall, Roberts' chief mechanic. As he was some 30 feet up at the time, he had to clutch at the tethers until the airship could be pulled back down. At least this spectacle 'provided a fund of excitement for the privileged onlookers'.3
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  1. Maitland Daily Mercury, 24 June 1914, 5

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

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Barrier Miner, 6 July 1914, 3

Australia has never had much to do with airships. In recent decades you might be able to catch a glimpse of an advertising blimp or a camera drone. You have to go back many decades to find anything else, and what you do find didn't amount to much. There would have been airship bases in Melbourne and Perth by the late 1930s, if the R101 disaster hadn't brought down the Imperial Airship Scheme with it. Early recruitment for the Royal Australian Air Force included jobs for airship riggers, whose skills were never needed. In 1909, mystery airships were seen around Australia, but they were phantoms. And as far back as 1851, William Bland, a Sydney doctor, designed and patented an 'Atmotic Ship', supposedly capable of flying to London in a week and a half, but it was never built.

So here's another to add to the list, though it's a bit more successful than the others, since not only did it exist, as you can see in the photo above, but in 1914 it actually flew. It's the first, and I think the only, airship designed and built in Australia. Its creator was electrical engineer Alban Roberts (on the left in the photo), who was New Zealand-born and raised, but in the years before the First World War moved back and forth between there and Australia, Britain, and the United States.1 From 1909 he was in Britain working on wireless control of boats, subs, aeroplanes and airships. By 1912 -- after an interlude in America, during which he crashed an airship into the Atlantic while attempting to fly from New York to Philadelphia -- he had perfected a remotely-piloted dirigible well enough to demonstrate [in music halls], much as Raymond Phillips had already done before him. He publicly demonstrated this drone back home in Wellington in 1913, where it 'dropped a tiny bomb of confetti' on a marked spot.2

A few months later, he was across the Tasman in Sydney building his full-size airship, 'the first Australian constructed one [...] constructed as far as possible of Australian material and by Australian hands. The only part which was imported was the balloon section, which it was found could not be made in Australasia.'3

The 'Nacelle,' or framework which carries the engines and propellor is 48ft. by 2ft. 6in. Mr. Roberts does not regard his vessel as much more than a model. Its engine is 15-h.p., and its speed in calm weather is 16 miles an hour. 'I would have to treble my engine power,' says Mr. Roberts, 'to get another five miles an hour out of my little ship.'4

Indeed, the airship itself was not the point: it '"has the pull as a spectacle," said Mr. Roberts, "but the wireless is the big thing."'5

Still, Roberts seems to have had plans for his airship:

Later, the airship will take up its occupation as a pleasure craft. Passengers will then be able to sail gently over Sydney and about the harbour. The ship may also be used at night as an advertising hoarding.6

It took more than 70 years for airships to be used for advertising in Australian skies, and I don't think paying customers have ever been able to take dirigible joyflights here. But Roberts' airship did fly, as I will discuss in another post.

Image source: Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 6 July 1914, 3.


  1. See generally H. R. Everett, Unmanned Systems of World War II (MIT Press: 2015), 266-8

  2. Dominion (Wellington), 25 November 1913, 10

  3. Ibid., 7 July 1914, 8

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

The following article appeared on p. 4 of the 15 June 1914 issue of the Broken Hill (NSW), newspaper, the Barrier Miner:

AIRSHIPS AGAINST THE MAD MULLAH

Aden, Saturday.

Naval Lieutenants Boothby and Richard B. Davies are at Berbera, investigating the feasibility of utilising airships for the purpose of an expedition to subdue the Mad Mullah in the desert.

This is interesting for three reasons. The first reason is that it's a very early instance of the idea of air control, using airpower to subdue colonial unrest. The classic example of air control was in the Iraq mandate in the 1920s, which was inspired by the RAF's success in 1920 in helping to end the revolt in Somaliland of Abdullah Hassan (the 'Mad Mullah'), a revolt which had been causing the British grief since the last days of Victoria's reign. But this shows that air control was being contemplated in 1914, a full six years earlier. If the Great War hadn't intervened, Somaliland would probably have been the first operational use of British airpower -- and carried out by RNAS airships, too, not RFC aeroplanes.1

The second reason why it's interesting is that less than two months later, F. L. M. Boothby, now an RNAS squadron commander, was attached to the Vickers airship shed at Barrow-in-Furness, where the large rigid airship HMA 9 was under construction. At Barrow, Boothby was instrumental in fanning an airship panic at the start of the war, informing Whitehall of his theory that the Germans 'have a temporary base in the hills' nearby. It seems likely that in coming up with the idea of a forward aerodrome in Cumberland that he drew on his recent experience in planning forward aerodromes in Somaliland.

The third reason why it's interesting is because of the way that I found it, through Trove, the National Library of Australia's portal to many different kinds of information, including digitised newspapers. Actually, that's not all that interesting; I use Trove all the time. I've used it to uncover Australian mystery aircraft sightings, of course, but also the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla, the March to Freedom, blockbuster bombs, the Willunga Rifle Volunteers, even milk bars -- the list goes on. It's such a brilliant discovery tool that it's natural to turn to it when research a topic, sometimes even if that topic has nothing to do with Australia. The ease of use matters; while there are some good newspaper archive interfaces out there, the best have clearly been influenced by Trove itself; and they all could do a lot worse than to adopt Trove's front- and backends wholesale. It is quite simply one of the world's best digital history resources.

Which brings me to the real reason why this is interesting, not because of the article itself, but because I found it in the last Trove search I did before finding out that Trove's funding is being cut, in what is euphemistically described as an 'efficiency dividend' (if it was really a dividend, it would come after an increase in efficiency, not before a decrease in services). Jobs will be lost, 22 across the NLA. It's not going to be shut down; in the first instance it will stop aggregating some content. But that fantastic interface is useless without the content. And this is the thin end of the wedge; other major national cultural institutions (except for the Australian War Memorial, of course; and there's still lots of money for a new Anzac museum in France) are also receiving budget cuts. As many others have pointed out, there's a fundamental disconnect between the federal government's rhetoric praising innovation and technology, and the lack of support for an amazing Australian success story. It's not smart.

What can you do? Start with Tim Sherratt, then read the Conversation, like the Facebook page, follow the hashtag, sign the petition, or even write the senator.


  1. Further discussion in Flight, 19 June 1914, 641; Roy Irons, Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland: Betrayal and Redemption 1899-1921 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2013), 170

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Australia and the Great War

I have a new publication out -- at least, it's out electronically, I haven't seen a physical copy yet! It's a chapter in a collection published by Melbourne University Press and edited by Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology. My chapter is entitled 'The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand'. It's based on my presentation at the British Empire and the Great War conference held at Singapore in February 2014, and as the title suggests is effectively an expansion of my article on the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 to encompass its New Zealand counterpart. In a way, expansion is not quite the right word, since I had to compress my discussion of the Australian side compared with the article version, and to be consistent I had to pitch the New Zealand part at the same level. But then again, compared with Australia there wasn't anything like the archival material in New Zealand, while the press was both more sceptical and more candid about what it thought was going on. And the fear of bombardment, as opposed to espionage, seems to have been uppermost there. So there were interesting differences as well as similarities to tease out, and it ended up being more than just a rehash of the Australian article with some Kiwi stuff thrown in.
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In December I'll be giving a talk at the Aviation Cultures Mk. II: Technology, Culture, Heritage conference at the University of Sydney, entitled 'Comparing Hendon: aerial theatre in context'. Here's the abstract:

The RAF Pageants held between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London were an annual series of air shows, in which military aircraft put on impressive displays of aerobatics and formation flying, climaxing with an elaborate set piece in which a battle scenario with an imaginary enemy was acted out, for the entertainment and edification of the spectators. These pageants were hugely popular among all social classes, being witnessed each year by hundreds of thousands of people directly and many millions more indirectly through newsreels. Hendon was undoubtedly the most important British venue for staging aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to project images of future warfare, national power and technological prowess. However, the RAF Pageants were not unique. In this paper I will compare them with: equivalent forms of theatre employed by the British Army and the Royal Navy; similar forms of aerial theatre staged internationally, for example in Italy, the Soviet Union and Australia; and different kinds of aerial theatre used by the RAF itself, particularly Empire Air Day. This comparative approach will enable me to demonstrate the importance of Hendon and its influence, and to understand the relationship between the specific form of aerial theatre and the messages it conveyed about war, nation and technology.

This is the start of pulling together a few themes into something publishable. As part of the revision process for my 1913 phantom airships article, I decided to cut the section on the idea of the aerial theatre and to instead expand that into an article of its own. But instead of focusing narrowly on the Edwardian aerial theatre I'll think I'll take it into the interwar period and talk about the Hendon pageants instead, which were the subject of a series of posts I did ages ago. So it's time to take another look at Hendon, and presenting at Aviation Cultures Mk. II will be a part of that process.

I see that I neglected to post about Aviation Cultures Mk. I, which was held back in February, also at the University of Sydney. I think that was because I wasn't presenting anything original, just an overview of my research interests. It was an excellent one day interdisciplinary seminar involving mostly Australian researchers from the humanities and social sciences, as well representatives from the heritage sector. A highlight for me was Michael Molkentin's paper on pre-1914 military aviation in the Dominions, where he revealed the (unsurprisingly) naive entries submitted by the public for the Australian government's competition to design an effective military machine. Peter Hobbins (one of the organisers) spoke about his work on the pioneering Cotton Aerodynamic Anti-G Suit, the remains of which we got to see (it was developed at Sydney). So with Aviation Cultures Mk. I being such a success, the programme for Mk. II has expanded to cover two days. There are a lot of papers to look forward to, but here I will just mention those given by Leigh Edmonds, author of the (I think) only study of Australian airmindedness, who will speak on 'Australian aviation and society: the feedback loop', and two by commenters on this blog, Phil Vabre (with Roger Meyer) on 'How to make the uninteresting interesting: the Airways Museum as a case study', and James Kightly (AKA JDK) on 'Tested testers: re-learning to fly the Boxkite'. Should be fun!

Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.


  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54.