Sphere, 1 March 1913, 223

'In the future, every historian will be relevant for 15 minutes', as somebody once said. Here's my 15 minutes, an interview with journalist Connor Echols for Responsible Statecraft on the parallels between the 1913 phantom airship panic and the 2023 spy balloon panic. As I've been busy with other things and have had to watch take after hot take flash by (most interestingly from my point of view was Jeff Sparrow in the Guardian invoking another interest of mine, balloon riots), I appreciated the opportunity to think about what I do think (if that makes sense!)

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Sphere, 12 December 1936, 496

After the drama of 1934, 'the bomber will always get through' appears less frequently in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in 1935 (though still at about twice the level than in 1932 or 1933). But it is still mostly being used in a very political way. This is not surprising, with the general election contested in November to a significant extent on issues of collective security and national defence. In fact, it was most often used by the Labour Party to argue against the National Government's rearmament policy -- which must have irritated Stanley Baldwin, now prime minister again, no end.
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Pearson's, April 1901, 475

It is sometimes1 claimed that ballooning was an event at the 1900 Paris Olympics. I don't think it can have been. But it's genuinely a bit murky, because this was only the second modern Olympics and the planning process evidently was not as formalised as it later became. The Olympics were held that year as a minor part of the Exposition Universelle running from April to November 1900, and a number of Exposition events were only retrospectively judged to have been Olympic events too (which is how cricket gets to be an Olympic sport).
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  1. Most notably, at a trivia event at the otherwise brilliant Aviation Cultures Mk IV conference, and no, I'm definitely not bitter for being judged wrong, why would you even think that. []


Since I'll be undertaking a research trip to the UK this November or so, I need to think about exactly what I'm going to do there. Giving a paper at the AHA is part of that process. That will hopefully help me formulate my approach or at least identify potential approaches to comparing airship, spy and invasion scares in the First World War. But I also need to nail down where I am going to go in a very physical and literal sense. This is because I want to get out of London for at least a week, to look at scares in a provincial area, and raid the local archives for civil defence files or personal diaries and so on (which of course I can supplement in the London archives). This is partly because it'd be nice to avoid the London-centric perspective for change, but also because I suspect that such fears could be as or even more intense in outlying areas -- particularly on the eastern coast facing Germany. I had been thinking somewhere like Hull, which was raided by Zeppelins on multiple occasions, or East Anglia which is the closest part to Germany and so an obvious (at least in the folk sense) place for a German invasion or raid. Both areas also had notable phantom airship sightings in 1913. So maybe there. Or maybe somewhere else.

I wondered if it there was perhaps a systematic way of gauging fears along the invasion coast, something better than throwing darts at a map. And it occurred to me that I might be able to use the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) for this. We're all used to n-grams by now, which are great for tracking the varying usage of words over time. Tim Sherratt's QueryPic does this for Australian newspapers based on the Trove Newspapers corpus; though there's nothing similar for BNA that I know of, you can manually extract the data yourself without it getting too tedious. What I am thinking of might be termed an n-map: an n-gram across space instead of across time. It's a very obvious thing to do, but I don't think I've seen it done for the databases I'm used to using. It's really just GIS (without an actual map). Or distant (newspaper and map) reading.

There's no publicly-available BNA API to make it possible to do this in an automatic way, but again it is actually not too difficult to use the BNA interface manually. This is because BNA has a very fine level of geographic discrimination: all newspapers in the database are allocated a place (e.g. Hull), a county (e.g. East Riding of Yorkshire) and a region (e.g. Yorkshire and the Humber). These appear as filters when you do a search, and listed beside each filter is the number of issues the search has thrown up for it. So you can just copy down the numbers into a spreadsheet to construct your own low-tech n-map (or n-gram, for that matter).

So now the question is, what keywords do I use? This is not completely straightforward, though neither does it have to be airtight. This is just back-of-the-envelope stuff, after all. After some experimentation, I ended up going with 'zeppelin'; 'invasion'; and 'spy'. (BNA automatically searches on plurals as well.) Here are the number of articles in the BNA for each keyword for each region, for the period 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918.

Borders, Scotland10592103
East Midlands, England269912972657
East, England530395354
Grampian, Scotland271018403429
London, England204148
Lothian, Scotland661432968
North East, England156911641690
North West, England510434086854
South East, England629569656
South West, England477739604917
Strathclyde, Scotland224207349
Tayside, Scotland236116083849
West Midlands, England852247856552
Yorkshire and the Humber, England598830755575

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View Scareships, 1913 in a larger map

Here's where the 1913 phantom airship sightings took place. Actually, there are a few from late 1912 (including the Sheerness incident), the blue ones. Red indicates sightings in January 1913, green February, cyan March, and yellow April.

A quick visual inspection shows that the density of sightings was greatest in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in a belt running from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. However, this perception is skewed somewhat by the cluster of reports from about a dozen places in and around Selby on 21 and 22 February. Clearly something happened there that night, and whatever it was can in no way be discounted, but Yorkshire would stand out far less otherwise (though there would still be the sightings from around Hull and Grimsby, including that from the City of Leeds, about the last of the whole scare to generate widespread interest in the press). By contrast, the clusters around Manchester and Liverpool, though smaller, are also more sustained, with reports spread out over four or five weeks. Other significant groupings include the south-east of England and, relatively late in the scare, the east coast of Scotland. And, of course, the coastline either side of the Bristol Channel, which featured prominently in the scare from almost the first to almost the last. Cardiff was the place most frequented by mystery airships, with four visits recorded at long intervals; that the Chief Constable of Glamorganshire was one of the first to see it and was willing to publicly appeal for witnesses to come forward may help explain why hundreds or even thousands of people saw them there. Only Hull presents a similar example of a mass sighting, though there were others where smaller crowds gathered to watch the scareship. It's also worth noting that there were occasional reports of mysterious airships from Ireland and from the Orkneys.
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Manchester Courier, 6 March 1913, 7

Press coverage of mystery airships hasn't quite fallen off a cliff, but it is perhaps scrabbling down a rocky slope. Only a handful of newspapers mention them today, and not even yesterday's startling report from the trawler Othello rates a mention. While there is still considerable (mostly negative) discussion of the new aerial navigation regulations, unlike yesterday very little of it places them in the context of airship sightings. One of the very few to do so is the Irish Times (p. 6):

London is laughing heartily at Mr. McKenna's naive regulations for stopping the incursions of foreign airships. If it be true, as seems to be the case, that they have been sailing at their ease over our harbours and arsenals, they are hardly to be deterred by the threat of six months' imprisonment, or to be induced to 'come down out of that' by the discharge of a few harmless rockets.

In similar vein, in an article on today's resumption of Parliament the Manchester Courier suggests that (p. 8)

Recent revelations concerning the visits of foreign airships and the Home Secretary's regulations, showing as they do that Great Britain has nothing but mere words to combat the aerial menace, might well supply material for some pertinent questions to Ministers. The country is entitled to an authoritative statement without further delay.

Elsewhere in today's issue the Courier continues its 'Ships that pass in the night' campaign with a new article from its 'special representative in Germany' (p. 7; above). Much of it is a reexamination of the Sheerness incident, reconstructing the known movements of Zeppelin 'M.L. 1' (i.e. L1 AKA LZ14) in the period in question and recapitulating the argument that it deviated from its published course and flew over Britain instead of Germany. Except that this time the Courier's correspondent does acknowledge that according to the official account the German airship's flight was the day before Sheerness. Perhaps for this reason they are open to the theory that Hansa was the culprit: 'That either the "M.L. 1" or the "Hansa" was the vessel heard over Sheerness appears certain'. But equally, they are still selective in addressing the German denials of responsibility which implicitly and explicitly included L1 and Hansa.
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Daily Express, 5 March 1913, 1

The big news today is that the government has issued, in the words of the Daily Express, 'a long list of regulations under the new Aerial Navigation Act to prevent foreign aircraft from flying over Great Britain or Ireland' (p. 1) The extraordinary thing is that despite their length (9 orders, 4 schedules, a notice, and 4 regulations, excluding maps) they are quoted either in full or in large part by every major newspaper, often as the leading news item. Even though some provisions do apply to British aviators, the vast majority of readers have never been near an airship or aeroplane and can have no direct interest in the application of the new law. And the government makes new regulations all the time without them being given such fulsome coverage in the press. The real reason why this is newsworthy is right there in the Express's headlines:


According to the Express, 'the Orders were settled some weeks ago by the Committee of Imperial Defence'. It summarises the main points as follows:

A foreign aviator who intends to fly to the United Kingdom must first obtain a permit from the nearest British Consul, must give eighteen hours' notice of his arrival to the Home Office, and report himself on arrival to the nearest authorised officer.

A large number of places are scheduled as prohibited areas, within three miles of which a foreign airman may not land.

Any foreign airman breaking the regulations is liable to six months' imprisonment, or a fine of £200, or both.

Any foreign airman found guilty of espionage shall be liable to seven years' penal servitude.

In what is perhaps a sign of how unused the Express is in digesting such mundane regulatory matters, it actually gets much of this wrong. For example, only airship pilots need to obtain a permit before entering Britain, and even then need to wait for 48 hours before actually doing so; aeroplane pilots don't need permission but merely need to give 18 hours' notice before landing, and then notify the authorities that they have landed and seek permission to continue flying inland. Moreover, foreign aviators are not merely prohibited from landing within 3 miles of the scheduled areas, but from flying over them altogether; and this applies not only to foreigners but to Britons as well. The parts about the penalties, including the specific mention of the Official Secrets Act, are accurate enough; and among the items prohibited to be carried by any aircraft coming from abroad are 'photographic apparatus, homing or carrier pigeons, explosives, firearms, or mails' (or 'dutiable goods', for that matter, so it's not just about espionage).
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Standard, 25 February 1913, 9

The phantom airship scare has clearly entered a new phase since the sightings last Friday in Yorkshire and Warwickshire. Several major London dailies -- all politically conservative -- devote substantial amounts of column space to the mystery; half the main news page, in the case of the Standard. Only it's not regarded as a mystery any more. For example, the Standard's military correspondent says (p. 9; above):

There is not the smallest doubt but that this country at the present moment is the object of a systematic aerial reconnaissance carried out at night. Carried out by whom? it will be asked. There is only one answer to that question -- by Germany, because Germany alone possesses aircraft capable of doing what is being done by the airships that have been seen over England.

After explaining the numbers and capabilities of the Zeppelins, the correspondent goes on to argue that

By these nightly trips to our shores the Germans have made a certainty of being able to sail to any point in England within a given time. They have marked the ranges, as it were, and the vessels of a fleet of Zeppelins sent upon an errand of destruction would arrive at their various destinations with the certainty and punctuality of an express train.

The situation, then, is this: Within eight hours, at most, after the making of a signal in Berlin anything between 40 and 100 tons of high explosive could be dropped simultaneously at twenty different selected points in England. Within that short space of time, the whole of our arsenals and dockyards could be laid in ruins, and if our warships escaped, which is unlikely, the offensive power of the Fleet would be hopelessly crippled. And as matters stand we have absolutely no means of resisting such an attack, even if we had warning of it; therefore the attack would inevitable succeed.

The Standard's leading article (entitled 'The airship peril') backs its military correspondent, and adds that it is 'imperative that we should make the most energetic exertions to raise our air fleet above its present meagre proportions' (p. 8). Still it suggests that 'it is not exactly polite for foreign Governments to authorise these espionage flights over our soil' and warns that 'It would be a very "awkward incident" indeed if a Zeppelin hailing from Friedrichshafen or Johannisthal were brought to earth by a shell from an English gun'.
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Standard, 24 February 1913, 9

Last week was a relatively quiet one for the phantom airships, but today they receive the most press coverage yet. The main reason for this is a cluster of sightings reported from Yorkshire on Friday, along with another sighting from Warwickshire about 100 miles inland. In fact, there are so many reports that no one newspaper covers them all. According to the London Standard (p. 9; above):

It was seen by many observers on Friday night [21 February 1913] in both districts, apparently at about the same time. The fact of its flight may be regarded as well-established. The description of the craft agrees with that of the earlier visitor whose night flights puzzled the authorities.

The sighting featured most prominently is that of C. H. March, a solicitor and a law lecturer for the Leeds Education Committee, and his wife (though her husband does all the talking, apparently). They were returning to their Selby home after attending a lecture about a mile away. He is quoted in the London Daily Mail (p. 7) as saying:

We left at nine precisely and were in Doncaster-road, Selby, at 9.15. We had just passed the houses in Doncaster-road and had our first clear glimpse of the country to the west when I saw two lights in the sky. It was just about half dark, and though it was impossible to judge accurately I should say the lights were about two miles from us to the west.

"One of the lights was big and bright like the head light of a motor-car. I do not think it was a searchlight, because its ray, which we could plainly see, remained horizontal all the time and did not slant upwards or downwards as though it were movable. The other light was small, and it struck me as possible that it might be a tail light. What makes me think that they were head light and tail light respectively is the fact that at times the big head light would eclipse the smaller tail light, and I think the object to which they were attached was not moving to any great extent but was hovering. The lights were too low in the sky and too big and bright to be stars."

The Standard adds (p. 9) that it was first seen in the direction of Hambleton, due west:

He drew his wife's attention to it, and they were astonished to see the light begin to move up and down, and apparently now and then go out. Watching for three-quarters of an hour he observed what he was then certain was a dirigible reconnoitre in different directions for some miles, and then turn at an acute angle, and pass out of view, going towards Leeds.

March 'believes that it was a foreign aircraft attempting to find out the exact position of a Government magazine in the district'. The Mail doesn't attribute this belief to him, though it does note that the area is home to 'Barlby Arsenal, where there is stored a great quantity of army ammunition' (p. 7). The distinction is worth making because despite the apparent availability of a direct statement by one of the witnesses the various accounts disagree in some particulars. Some are easy enough to explain -- the Liverpool Echo, for example, says that he first saw the 'large dirigible balloon' when 'looking out from his house on Brayton-road' (p. 7); presumably the Marches didn't stand around on Doncaster Road watching the airship in the cold but continued on their way home and resumed watching it from there. Others are more troubling. Despite March's clear and reasoned statement, as quoted in the Mail, that the airship did not have a searchlight, the Standard says that 'He states that an airship with a powerful searchlight hovered over the town' (p. 9). It could be that there are other accounts available; the Mail's quotation is evidently truncated and perhaps in the full statement March says he saw a searchlight switch later. (The other press references to the Marches' sighting, in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express, are too brief to help.) Or it could be that the Standard is, possibly inadvertently, making March's airship conform to other accounts.
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Illustrated London News, 22 February 1913, 239


This week's issue of the Illustrated London News devotes three whole pages -- mostly taken up with illustrations, of course -- to an examination of what a headline calls 'A MENACE THEORY': 'IS IT "THE SEA TO US, THE AIR TO THE FOE"?' (p. 239). Some of the material, including the maps above and below, is taken from an article in the latest issue (dated 3 February) of the Review of Reviews which has attracted considerable attention, not least because it is so visually striking. As the ILN explains:

The Government's new Act, designed to prevent the unauthorised flying of air-ships over the United Kingdom, lends special interest to the illustrations on this page, especially to the two maps [which illustrate] admirably a belief that is common to a good many people in this country, who see grave menace in the air and are not a little eager, therefore, that Great Britain's air-craft shall not only be increased in numbers and strength, but be increased without delay; on the principle that if a people is to have pace it must be prepared for war.

The ILN explains that 'The reported flights made over England by unknown air-ships have led the Government to construct a Bill dealing with the matter' (p. 240). Noting Colonel Seely's claim that the new legislation was directed against airships belonging to private pilots, not foreign powers, the ILN comments (p. 241):

This, of course, is putting the case somewhat mildly; for there can be no doubt that the law will be so designed that it will be perilous also for unauthorised air-craft to pass over fortifications, harbours, and naval bases.

And, of course, aircraft are now important weapons of war (p. 240):

It cannot be gainsaid that to the struggle for the control of land and water has now been added a struggle for the control of the air; hence not only much energy devoted to the construction of aeroplanes and dirigible balloons, but the provision of such as Act as that framed by the British Government [...]

The Act (as it now is) permits 'proper officers [...] to fire at, or into, any such aircraft, and use any and every other means' to stop it from flying over prohibited areas (p. 240). The 'signal of warning to quit' will probably be 'a column of smoke' by day, or 'flares, rockets, or some such device' by night (p. 241).
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