Post-blogging the 1909 scareships


That's it for the phantom airship scare of 1909. It's been interesting for me, as I haven't looked closely at this material since I did my 4th year thesis some time ago (the 1913 scare made it into the PhD, but not 1909). It didn't last very long, only a couple of weeks. At first, the stories were presented as a curiosity, localised to East Anglia. It seems to have been the Conservative press which took most interest at this stage, though it seems to have been divided as to whether a British aeronaut was responsible or an airship flying off a German warship. It was only when two separate sightings of the airship took place in South Wales -- by dock workers at Cardiff and the Punch and Judy showman on Caerphilly Mountain -- that Liberal papers such as the Manchester Guardian started reporting it.1 It seemed that something was going on.

But almost as soon as the phantom airships became 'serious' news, scepticism set in. Percival Spencer announced that his family's firm had recently sold several small airships for the purpose of advertising. Even though he gave no actual evidence of any connection between these and the scareships, it seems to have been good enough for all the newspapers examined here (bar the Norfolk News): there are far fewer stories about the 'fly-by-nights' thereafter, and those that do appear are sceptical or humorous. And, to be fair, real evidence of a hoax did turn up, in the form of a crashed airship and a claim that Jarrott and Letts, purveyors of fine motorcars from the Continent, had been towing it around the Eastern Counties at night as some sort of advertising stunt (which I still don't understand, but never mind).

That doesn't explain the Cardiff sightings, of course, nor the Irish ones nor the North Sea ones nor the (possible) Belgian ones. I don't believe that there were actual airships involved in these cases, except perhaps the last two. No archival evidence has ever emerged of anyone flying airships over Britain at this time, whether homegrown or foreign, other than those which were well-known at the time -- Willows, Spencer, the Army. Maybe meteors, maybe fire balloons, maybe luminous owls. It doesn't much matter to me. What's more important is why various explanations were offered and why they were accepted (or rejected).
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  1. Though perhaps, seeing as the staid old Times barely took any notice of the whole affair, the real divide was between the quality press and the tabloids: my best sources are definitely of the latter type (Globe, Standard) and it would appear they took much of their reportage from other tabloids (Daily Mail, Daily Express, which I unfortunately haven't looked at for this period). []


Punch today has a number of phantom airship items (p. 379). They're quite amusing (to me, at least) and, in ironic vein, sum up the scare quite well. There's pride ...

We are getting on at last. In phantom airships Great Britain is now facile princeps.

... fear ...

Meanwhile, some surprise has been expressed that, although a German balloon which was taking part in the Hurlingham race attempted, in its descent, to demolish an Englishman's Home near Bow, not a single newspaper mobilised its war correspondents.

... and profit!


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    It will pay you to buy a Dome!

    Mr. T. ROOSEVELT writes:-- "There are no airships here; but thanks a thousand times! The very thing I wanted! Close the bomb-proof door, and lions can do nothing with you. I fell off the cow-catcher last week, and wasn't hurt any. I shall never go out again without one of your Domes. Bully!"
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The new Fortnightly Review (actually a monthly, of course) is out today. Each issue opens with a review of 'Imperial and foreign affairs', which is usually written by J. L. Garvin, editor of the Observer and a figure of great influence in Conservative politics. Assuming that it is he who penned this Review's review, Garvin uses the scareship episode as an excuse to attack the Liberal government. It's part of a long excursion which takes in the recent death of novelist George Meredith (who, although a Liberal, supported conscription); the collapse of Britain's diplomatic position (somewhat at odds with the Foreign Secretary's opinion, it would seem); the deleterious effect of a lack of British military power on its seapower; Lord Robert's recent statement that the Army is 'sham'; and so on. Returning to Meredith, Garvin quotes (1006) his recent poem 'The Call' for its evocation of how weak Britain is without a real Army to defend it:

Under what spell are we debased
By fears for our inviolate isle,
Whose record is of dangers faced
And flung to heel with even smile?

Garvin goes on to show just how debased the British are, when instead of facing the 'real and immense dangers' facing the nation, with a 'silent and settled resolution worthy of a great people',

we bemuse ourselves with irrelevant hysterics about German waiters and phantom airships and secret squadrons hovering about our coasts.

Meredith would have known what to do, to steel the national nerve: introduce compulsory service!

Who can doubt that he was right, and that all the democracies of all the Britains must follow him if they mean to hold the Empire together by their united strength and severally to preserve their national liberties under a common flag.

As an indication of just how much defence issues have come to dominate the national press recently, the first five issues of the Fortnightly this year had at most one article on the topic (excluding Garvin's column). This month there are four: 'Our duty to our neighbour: the defence of France' by Cecil Battine; 'The Admiralty Board and the Army Council' by George T. Lambert; 'Do dreadnoughts only count?' by Navalis; and 'War and shipping' by Benjamin Taylor. Nothing about airships, though, it must be said.


No scareships today. But the Standard carries a short article (p. 3) which shows how the airship menace could lie at the nexus of propaganda, advertising and entertainment. This summer's weekly Brock's Benefits, a free fireworks display produced by Brock's Fireworks at the Crystal Palace, will present 'a scene of an invasion drama of a novel kind'.

The scenery is a thousand feet in length, and represents a peaceful English village. Territorials are seen drilling with a newly invented gun which, it is claimed, will put an end to any likelihood of invasion by airships. A spy is captured, but he escapes and signals to the enemy. Airships are then seen hovering around, and eventually foreign troops are landed, and a desperate fight ensues, involving the partial destruction of the village. The British troops emerge triumphant.

Invasion, spies, airships, explosions, destruction and a British victory. What more could you ask for?

There's also a long report (p. 5) on the record-breaking flight by the new Zeppelin II (LZ5):

The greatest feat in the history of aerial navigation has been accomplished by Count Zeppelin to-day in his new aerial warship, Zeppelin II., by a flight from Manzell, on the Lake of Constance, to Bitterfeld, a distance of about 300 miles as the crow flies.

It stayed aloft for an incredible 24 hours (which is important to remember when people like me tell you that the the first night flights were not carried out until the following year), though it didn't quite make it to Berlin as was rumoured. Interestingly, given the description of the phantom airships in Britain, the Zeppelin is described as carrying searchlights:

From various telegrams received in Berlin from different towns along the route describing the excitement caused by the appearance of the airship with its searchlights, it became evident that the rumour was not without foundation.

Impressive as this flight is, a distance of 300 miles would not nearly be enough to fly from Germany to Britain (even setting aside the fact that Zeppelin II's first flight was only a few days ago). But the Count is getting there.


This week's issue of Flight carries a short piece about 'Phantom airships and scare headlines' (p. 318). It's scornful of the credulity of 'a certain section of the Press', since 'it was evident from the very first that either a practical joke was being played or that a bold advertising scheme was on foot'.

The lengths to which speculation of the wildest kind were allowed to go was neither beneficial to the new industry [i.e. aviation] nor calculated to enhance the dignity of the British public in the eyes of foreign nations.

Usefully, Flight reveals the name of the company which operated the Dunstable airship, now generally assumed to have been the cause of the airship scare. For some reason the other newspapers I've looked at are silent on this point (perhaps they object to giving free publicity). According to Mr C. D. Clayton:

The airship which has been causing considerable comment by its mysterious passages turns out to be Sizaire Mors airship of Messrs. Jarrott and Letts, Ltd., and which was found wrecked on Chalk Hill Down, Dunstable, in the early morning of May 25th, being discovered by L. White, who has been rewarded with the sum of £5.

Jarrott and Letts were a fairly well-known and long-lived motor firm which sold Crossleys and Lorraine-Dietrichs. Later they sold Bugattis too. The reference to 'Sizaire Mors' suggests some connection to the French Sizaire-Naudin car manufacturer, but what exactly that might be, I don't know. Flight doesn't explain who C. D. Clayton is, but in 1910 he is to be found organising a Spencer airship flight over London to promote a new acetylene generator (!) So he's probably the creative genius behind this whole affair.

The airship and the owl. Interesting speech by the Mayor / Norfolk News, 29 May 1905, 7

After its sterling effort last week, the Norfolk News only has one reference to scareships today. It comes from a speech by the Mayor of Norwich, Walter Rye, to the Norwich Miniature Rifle Club on Tuesday night (p. 7). (What is it with miniature rifles?) At the tail end of a long speech on the virtues of miniature rifle shooting, the evolution of firepower, and playing with toy soldiers, the Mayor turned to current events:

Referring to the airship topic, his Worship said it was ridiculous for the Germans to suppose the English nation to be in any way scared. Englishmen were simply interested in the matter. What it would all result in he could not say. Perhaps this mysterious airship would ultimately turn out to be a big piece of advertisement. (Laughter.) To say that we were afraid of the Germans was simply rubbish. A year ago there was far more discussion in the newspapers over the mysterious owl than had occurred through the mysterious airship. (Loud laughter.) The only point was whether they did not come within the same category. (More laughter.) However, the mystery remained to be solved.

The 'mysterious owl' must be a reference to the luminous owls which were seen in Norfolk in 1907 and 1908, causing no little controversy (and even making the pages of the New York Times). I'm surprised that nobody has drawn any connection before now, actually.

His Worship's assertion that the British were unafraid of Germany sounds a bit like mere bluster, when Andrew Bonar Law, a senior Conservative politician, is quoted on p. 12 as saying (in a speech at Anerley, attacking the government's Unemployed Bill)

Give Germany the command of the English Channel, and she would strike us down, and strike us down utterly, before we could defend ourselves.

Solution: a 'stronger naval programme'. Mind you, according to the leader on the page opposite, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, has created a 'cloudless foreign horizon' by waving 'the wand of the enchanter'. So who knows what to think.


There was nothing about phantom airships in yesterday's papers. Nor is there anything in today's, for that matter. But there is a curious story in the Globe concerning the 'Wokingham airship' (p. 11):

A mysterious and closely-locked shed near the large public school at Wokingham has for some time past given rise to rumours of an airship under construction, and now investigation has confirmed the report.

This sounds like exactly the sort of home-grown airship some have argued were the cause of the scareship sightings! But don't get too excited, because it's not actually an airship, but an aeroplane -- of sorts:

The airship, however, proves to be a flying machine, controlled by rudder. It has no gas bag, and is driven by an 80-h.p. petrol engine, weight 5½ cwt, while its propeller is capable of 1,200 revolutions a minute. The shape is that of an elongated cigar, with the ends telescoping upon the centre. When extended the length of the machine is 140ft. long, 20ft. wide, and 31ft. high. Electric light is generated from the petrol motor, and among its features are self-balancers and hammocks.

On second thoughts, it does sound a bit like a scareship, with its cigar shape and electric lights. Then again, it hasn't actually flown yet:

The trials will shortly commence, and the inventor is understood to be in touch with the military authorities.

And while I'm not an aeronautical engineer, but I'd wager a very large sum of money on it never flying. This must be the Wokingham Whale, a very ambitious but completely misguided attempt to build an aircraft capable of long-distance travel (it was even to have toilets!) The fuselage was built, but that's as far as it got. But it does show the sort of thing people had in mind when they spoke of secretive inventors, and also reminds us just how unrestrained aeronautical designs (especially amateur ones) could be in the early years of flight.


AN EARLY SILLY SEASON / Punch, 26 May 1909

The mighty Punch weighs in on the phantom airships today. Above is a rather wonderful full-page cartoon by Bernard Partridge, playing on the notion that the stories are part of the annual 'silly season' (usually in summer, still a month away):

The sea-serpent: "Well, if this sort of thing keeps on, it'll mean a dull August for me."

Interestingly, Partridge's own politics are very conservative, but his critique of the role of the press here -- the newspaper hoarding the sea serpent is peering at through his pince-nez is for the Daily Scare -- would sit quite comfortably with any radical.

Punch also has another, more heavy-handed, piece on the scareships under the title 'The everywhere ship' (p. 369), but it's really just a much more drawn out version of the equation of cigar-shaped objects from Germany with German cigars, as the Globe had done with greater concision yesterday. (It's quite possible that Punch hit the streets a day or two earlier than its publication date suggests, so the Globe might have been inspired by Punch.) Much funnier, to my mind, is 'The secret of the Army aeroplane' (p. 366) by A. A. M., who is none other than A. A. Milne. It's nothing to do with the scareships, but rather a deadly-accurate parody of the spy novels of William le Queux, whose Spies of the Kaiser is currently to be found in all good bookstores (and most of the bad ones too). In fact, it reads so like le Queux that it suggests that Poe's Law could be reformulated for the Edwardian 'enemies in our midst' genre: it's only because it's in Punch that I know it's a parody!

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The phantom airship scare appears to be dying. Today, only the Globe has any articles relating to it. The first is from the front page humour column:

Some more "dark, cigar-shaped objects" have been seen. They were in the mouths of some German gentlemen, and emitted a dull red light and a strong odour. It is not known what they were.

And the second may not be about phantom airships at all. It is a report on 'The balloon scare in Belgium' (p. 9):

The "Belge Militaire" speaks in strong terms of the great danger involved in Belgium in the frequent visits that are being paid to Belgium by German airships in all directions; these balloons are in every case manned by German officers who have taken photographs of the most important military and strategic points in Belgium.

The Belge Militaire (obviously a Belgian military journal) says that any German balloon (or airship; the term seems to be used interchangeably here) which comes to ground in Belgium should be treated roughly, any photographic equipment and film being confiscated. It would be no more than Germany does to Belgian balloons which land in its territory.

Frustratingly, there is nothing here about what evidence there is for such visitations. It's not clear if Belgium has been experiencing something like the British scareships or whether the Belgian army routinely detects Zeppelins flying over its borders. Either seems plausible.

Otherwise, the press seems to be reverting to its more usual defence preoccupation: dreadnoughts. German admirals are fulminating about unnecessary British naval construction and the British Navy League wants four more dreadnoughts this year. Business as usual.

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The reaction against the airship stories which started on Friday continues. For the first time in over a week, there's nothing about any phantom airships themselves. Instead, both the Manchester Guardian and The Times have summaries from their Berlin correspondents of German press reaction to the outbreak of British nerves. (This is in fact the first time that The Times has mentioned phantom airships.)

For example, The Times relays (p. 8) the astonishment of the North-German Gazette (i.e. the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung)

at the stories of phantom airships, submarine tunnels, and secret arsenals which have been given currency in England.

The Manchester Guardian similarly reports (p. 7) that

The "Kölnische Zeitung" publishes under the heading of "English Spionitis" a satirical article ridiculing the stories of nocturnal visits of German airships to England, sounds of boring heard beneath the North Sea, and cannon carried by German freight and passenger steamers.

This would seem to confirm that the Southampton Gazette's mention of a rumour concerning a secret undersea tunnel was not in jest (unless they get the Southampton papers in Cologne). The 'cannon' on board German merchant ships refers to an exchange in Parliament on 19 May, which doesn't seem to have received much attention in my sources.

The pretext for the commentary is a visit by Berlin municipal officials to London, part of a series of exchanges designed to increase understanding and goodwill between the two nations. The visit itself has gone well, and according to the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung this process of 'enlightenment' is welcomed in Germany. It declares itself (in the Manchester Guardian's translation) surprised at

the outbreak of a new kind of agitation in Great Britain, which, beginning with the dissemination of the most incredible visions of invasion has developed in the last few months to a spy mania [...] Such chimeras appeared not only in insignificant newspapers; they were to be seen even in responsible organs of the press, and even found their way into Parliament.

The Frankfurter Zeitung thinks that John Bull should be retired, since the recent scares show that the 'British phlegm' has given way to 'nervousness'. More seriously, such 'perpetual disquietude of indiscriminating masses' leads to support for 'great military and naval armaments', which is probably the 'real basis for these remarkable myths'.

Both newspapers suggest that their opposite numbers are effectively running the German government's line: The Times writes of the 'German semi-official Press'. The implication seems to be that highlighting 'hysteria and loss of British balance' serves to paint any and all British naval precautions as ridiculous folly, just as happened with the recent Dreadnought panic in March. The Times thinks the German semi-official press should drop this line, for any such measures which sooth British nerves would also 'prevent the minor manifestations which are said to disturb German conceptions of British psychology'.

A final note: The Times' aeronautical correspondent has a brief note on the 'Excellent propagandist work' being done by the Aerial League (p. 8). He has an idea for them:

The British public are not yet really convinced about airships, for the vast majority have never seen one. It is possible that if a well-made dirigible were equipped by the Aerial League, and sent on a voyage through the country, subscriptions might pour in so rapidly that we could build a volunteer fleet of aerial vessels.

A conspiracy theorist might suggest that the Aerial League is already on the case!



Today is Saturday, when a number of the weeklies in my sample are published. Two of them are clearly sceptical, and don't devote much space to the mystery airships; one, from the heart of scareship country, is much more open-minded and has half a page of reports and analysis. This is the Norfolk News, which carries accounts (p. 13) from three witnesses who independently saw the airship on Wednesday night. The first is a 'well-known gentleman' (unfortunately unnamed) from Wroxham, who had interrupted his motorcycle journey at 11.30pm to look at his headlight, which had gone out. He was dazzled by a 'flashlight' shone on him from above. This lasted about half a minute; he could not see the source of the light nor did he hear anything. Nonetheless 'That it was an airship he has no doubt whatever'. The second witness is Mrs. Turner, of 1 Traverse-street, Catton. Coming home from the theatre at about 11.30pm, 'a flash of light came on me all of a sudden and made the street look like day'. She heard a 'noise like the whizzing of wheels'. It was then that she looked up, seeing 'a big star of light in front and a big searchlight behind'. She did not see the body of the airship, but in her opinion it was flying so low that it would have clipped the top of a nearby school, had it been directly overhead. Two young people nearby also saw it (one said 'What's that?'). The third witness is a 21 year from Tharston named Chatten, assistant to J. A. Lammas, a local grocer and draper. He was cycling home when he was dazzled by a light from above: 'The trees and hedges were lit up brilliantly'. Unlike the other two witnesses, he did see something besides the light, a shape outlined against the night sky:

[...] I saw a long cigar-shaped object, a little thicker at the blunt end than a cigar, come three or four hundred feet above me. It was soaring upwards, the tapering end going foremost, and was moving rapidly in the direction of Norwich. On the under side was what I should call an iron bar, supporting a sort of framework, a yellow light shining at each end. I could not see any men upon the framework, not could I hear any buzzing sound such as a motor would cause [...]

The Norfolk News places great stress on the independence of these witnesses:

The Catton observer, who gives her name and address, would not be in the least degree likely to know the Wroxham observer, who bears a well-known name, and who has probably never been in Traverse Street or Waterlook Road in his life.

So, since they move in very different circles -- the gentleman motorcyclist is clearly well-to-do, Mrs. Turner is probably working class -- there's no likelihood of collusion. Which is important, because there is a striking similarity between their accounts: in particular, a dazzling flash from above, which is what drew their attention to the 'airship' in the first place. Although as a leading article on the same page points out, given that it's so bright it's surprising that more people didn't see it.
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