Postcard showing Zeppelin LVI bombing Leige, 6 August 1914

I'm featured in the latest episode of the podcast Tales from Rat City, which is focused on unusual and sometimes bizarre aspects of the history of Ballarat, Victoria's third largest city (if you've heard of the Eureka Stockade, well, that's where that was). It's run by David Waldron (a historian at Federation University who co-authored the excellent Snarls from the Tea-tree, about Australian bigcat folklore), Tom Hodgson and Katrina Hill. As you can probably guess, 'Anzacs and airships: Australian UFO panics in the First World War' is about Australian mystery aircraft sightings in the Great War period. As well as the interview with me, it's based partly on my article 'Dreaming war' as well as the team's own original research. It's a really interesting scamper through early Australian airminded hopes and fears (ranging well beyond Ballarat and 1914-18). I particularly enjoyed the use of actors to read out the primary source quotations, including many mystery aircraft sighting reports. It's a great way to give back to these accounts of strange apparitions something of their original uncanniness.

Bonus: if you happen to be in the Ballarat area on 28 May 2023, why not go along to the Ballarat Observatory and see David's magic lantern show 'Mystery Airships: A Night of Strange Things Seen in the Skies!'? Details and tickets here.

Image source: Tales from Rat City.

Stories from the Space Between

A little while ago I was privileged to be part of a discussion on the Stories from the Space Between podcast with Rinni Haji Amran and Luke Seaber, and hosted by Michael McCluskey, on the idea of, yes, airmindedness. Michael and Luke edited Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain, to which Rinni and I (and, for that matter, Luke and Michael!) contributed chapters. Here's the blurb:

Take off for a discussion of “airmindedness” with contributors to Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain (Palgrave 2020). What did it mean to be “airminded” in interwar Britain? How did airmindedness encapsulate the possibilities and potential dangers of aviation? How was it an expression of military and industrial power as well as aerial theatre? Join Rinni Haji Amran, Brett Holman, and Luke Seaber for a discussion of aviation, Croydon aerodrome, and the work of W. H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, and T. H. White, among others. Rinni Haji Amran is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University Brunei Darussalam. Brett Holman is a Professional Associate of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra in Australia. Luke Seaber is Senior Teaching Fellow in Modern European Culture at University College London and the co-editor with Michael McCluskey of Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain (Palgrave 2020).

Stories from the Space Between is the podcast of the Space Between, a society for the interdisciplinary discussion of studies in the interwar and wartime periods covered by 1914–1945. It's only up to episode 5 but has already covered everything from psychogeography to Poland! You can listen to the airmindedness episode here.

Don't listen to podcasts

I'm a bit of a podcast sceptic, meaning not that I don't believe in their existence but rather that I don't really get the appeal (which probably puts me in a similar position to a blog sceptic about 15 years ago). Since they aren't actually going away any time soon, I guess it was bound to happen eventually that I would be asked to speak on one...

The podcast in question is Big If True, which is for kids and is about big things -- in my case, airships. It's hosted by Maggie and her mom, Abby Mullen (a naval historian and one of the people behind Tropy, an excellent tool for organising and annotating archival photos). And, of course, despite my scepticism I had a great time talking about airships with Maggie and Abby, who had some great questions. And yes, we did get to phantom airships! So please have a listen if you have a spare 20 minutes or so, and then maybe check out some of Maggie and Abby's other episodes too (such as aircraft carriers, with Carlton McClain, and World War II, with Kim Guise).

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!


The May 2015 issue of Fortean Times (a periodical I warmly recommend) has a fascinating article by Daniel Wilson about a type of radio interference known as oscillation, which afflicted radio broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, about which, I'm ashamed to say, I previously knew nothing at all.1 What's fascinating about oscillation is not the technical aspects, but rather the social ones, because it was a type of interference that listeners could create as well as experience as they were trying to tune in to a particular radio station, interfering not only with their own wireless set but any others nearby trying to listen to the same frequency. This led to oscillators becoming a social pest: they were told off by the press, by the government, and by other members of the public. They were even hunted down by radio detector vans (the start of a great British tradition). While many oscillations were accidental, a consequence of domesticating a technology which wasn't quite ready to be domesticated yet, it seems that others were intentional -- it was done to annoy other listeners, or at least that was the suspicion. (The trolls are always with us.)
...continue reading

  1. Reading it I was put in mind of an equally fascinating Fortean Times article about something else from my period I knew nothing about, A Victim's bizarre account of persecution by ventriloquist stalkers, Crook Frightfulness (1935). Turns out Wilson wrote that too. []


Heinkel 111s

For my third Turning Points talk for ABC New England radio, I chose a topic I ought to know something about: the Battle of Britain! In some ways it's an obvious choice, and not only for the obvious reason; there are few years in history as dramatic as 1940, and Hitler's conquest of Britain has long been a favoured topic for wargames and alternate histories. But in other ways it's not obvious, because I'm of the school of thought which argues that the Luftwaffe never really had much chance of defeating the RAF, and that even if it did then the Kriegsmarine had even less chance against the Royal Navy, and that whatever remnants of the Wehrmacht managed to get ashore after all that would not have got very far against the British Army. So how can I claim the Battle of Britain was a turning point? Well, have a listen...

Image source: Wikimedia.

Origin of the League of Nations

I did my second Turning Point for ABC New England radio today, and chose to talk about the founding the League of Nations in 1920. The League is usually considered to be a failure, because it didn't prevent the Second World War or even play any significant role after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But I argue that this is too harsh, because the League did have some real successes and because it normalised the idea that international cooperation is the best way to solve international problems. I also briefly discussed ways in which the League might have been more effective, including the idea of arming it with an international air force.

Image source: Wikimedia.


Sputnik I

After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.

I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!

Image source: NASA.



A common complaint1 about this blog is that it doesn't feature nearly enough pictures of airships. So here's one, a 27-metre long non-rigid which belonged to Henry Spencer, scion of a remarkably airminded family (sixteen aeronauts across four generations). Indeed, he built it with his brothers. The photograph was taken on 16 February 1909 and apparently shows the first ever powered flight from Hendon aerodrome, though neither Spencer nor his airship are mentioned in David Oliver's Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1994).

But much more interesting than the airship itself, it must be said, is what it was used for. The clue is the slogan emblazoned on the side of the envelope: 'VOTES FOR WOMEN'. Spencer had hired his airship out as a propaganda platform to Muriel Matters, an Australian-born suffragette who was very active in the Women's Freedom League (a non-violent breakaway from the better-known WPSU). Matters had won some publicity the previous year by chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons. Her airship flight was also designed to make Parliament take notice of the suffragist cause: the new session was opening that very day and it was her intention to fly over Westminster and drop Votes For Women leaflets on it. In the end Spencer and Matters didn't make it there, having been blown off course into a tree in Coulsden, well to the south. Three decades later, Matters herself gave a wonderful account of her flight to the BBC, which can be heard online here. (Ignore the photo there, which is of the Army airship Baby.)

The photograph above is from a scrapbook belonging to an American women's suffrage organisation, so the message did travel quite some distance, albeit to a receptive audience; I couldn't find any mention of Matters' flight in a quick search of the British press. It took nearly a decade for the WFL's demand to be partially fulfilled. And it's nice to see that the part Matters played in using airpower for progressive causes is still remembered in her native South Australia.

  1. From me. []


'The Hum' is a mysterious low-frequency sound just at the edge of hearing which seems to infect some places, but which only some people can detect. What causes it is unknown -- theories range from factories and air conditioners to gravitational waves -- and responsible authorities often deny that it exists at all. The most famous example from recent times is probably the Taos Hum from New Mexico, which seems to date to the 1990s, but the Bristol Hum in the UK was apparently around in the 1960s and featured in the national press in the 1970s. Before that, questions were asked in Parliament (one question, anyway) about a hum heard in East Kent; and there was the Manchester 'hummadruz' which was discussed in the local press in the 1870s but was heard in the 1820s; and Gilbert White heard something similar (though louder) at Selborne in the 18th century. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that something is going on, though whether the Hum is a real sound or just something human psychology tends to come up with time and again is debatable.

Here's an example I haven't been able to find a reference to: the London Hum during the Second World War. The following is from Philip Ziegler's London at War, from a chapter discussing the mid-war years so 1942 or 1943:

The absence of traffic, together with the rarity of raids, should have given Londoners some precious silence, but from all over the capital came complaints of a mystery noise which seemed to emanate from the same area but was curiously hard to track down. 'Not only is there almost incessant "hum",' complained Gwladys Cox, 'but a "shaking", for want of a better word; at night my very bed vibrates and I feel intermittent stiff "jerks".' One indignant victim pursued the matter with the police, the Home Office and the Ministry of Health, but got no satisfaction. Eventually he decided he had identified the culprit, a factory in west London, but was met with a bland assertion that, though they might be making a little too much noise, this was unavoidable in view of the essential war work on which they were engaged. So far as it could be established, the testing of aero-engines was responsible.1

Unfortunately, Ziegler doesn't provide citations (though Gwladys Cox was a civilian diarist living in West Hampstead; her diary is held at the Imperial War Museum). A quick search of wartime newspapers doesn't throw up any obvious references to a London hum, but Ziegler's account suggests it was a widely experienced phenomenon. Perhaps the unusual lack of traffic noises made other sounds more noticeable; perhaps the habit of listening for bombers made people more sensitive to sounds they'd usually block out. Either way, I wonder why it seems to have slipped through the cracks of memory.

  1. Philip Ziegler, London at War 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 2002), 244. []