Flying high in the sky

Among the many characters who appear in the Harpur Crewe records a personal favourite is emerging in the shape of Richard Fynderne Harpur Crewe (1880-1921). Richard (or Dickie, as he was known to family and friends) was the only son of Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, the 10th Baronet (1846-1924). There was certainly a contrast between the two in how they lived their lives. Sir Vauncey was what could reasonably be called “an old stick in the mud”, someone who settled down to a somewhat sedentary existence and resisted all intrusions of modern life into his life. He famously refused to countenance the introduction of such new-fangled inventions as electricity, cars and telephones at Calke Abbey.

No doubt, he would have banned aeroplanes had he had the chance. Dickie, however, embraced the new technologies whole-heartedly, and it was in an aeroplane that he most clearly exhibited his more adventurous inclinations. On 25 February 1912, at about 5.20 in the afternoon, at the Brooklands Aerodrome, Surrey, he climbed into a 2 seated 70 Gnome Bleriot monoplane behind the pilot T.O.M. Sopwith. After a few basic instructions from Sopwith on how to position himself (legs in, with his weight as close to the pilot as possible), the engine was started, and after a short wait to warm it up properly, the signal was given to go, and off they rushed. Dickie did not know quite when they left the ground, but leave the ground they did. The plane was soon “very much up” and proceeded to make several circuits of the Aerodrome, climbing steeply one moment and then dropping suddenly the next, banking and circling, carefully avoiding another machine also out flying, before finally swooping down at speed towards the earth, straightening up and then touching the ground “with a slight bump” several times, and eventually landing “after a series of little jolts.”

Richard Fynderne Harpur Crewe with pilot T.O.M. Sopwith

Richard Fynderne Harpur Crewe with pilot T.O.M. Sopwith

We know all this from a written description made of the flight by Dickie, who wrote down his experiences after the event in his distinctive handwriting on five pages of notepaper, and which he kept in a small envelope which emerged from a box of photographs in the Harpur Crewe collection. Dickie’s response to it all was unequivocally positive, talking of “a magnificent sensation – a glorious feeling”. He summed up what he felt about flying with Sopwith in the sentence “The experience is a joy.”. You might like to read what he says in a full transcript I have made here of the document (reference number D2375/M/177/1).
Notes on Sopwith flight at Brooklands

What is most remarkable about it, to my eyes, is that only half an hour before another aeroplane had crashed, “a fearful wreck indeed”, from underneath which a certain Watkins had been dragged clear, looking pale and in pain, having apparently broken his thigh. I’m not sure I would have been quite so ready to become of one of “those magnificent men in their flying machines”, which, judging by the photograph, seem to have been held together with not much more than string.

For Dickie it was a clearly exhilarating and enjoyable experience in himself, but he also recognised the potential use of aeroplanes in military engagements. He talks about being able to see objects in a wide field of view clearly at a height of 2000 feet and that a trained observer could take in a lot which would be very useful to a military commander. His perceptive comments will go on to be proved correct in two years time on the outbreak of World War

Louis Bleriot had famously been the first to cross the English Channel in a plane in July 1909, less than 3 years before Dickie’s flight. Bleriot was a pioneering experimenter in aviation, designing and developing the first engine-powered monoplane, and formed his own aeroplane-building business. Following his successful Channel flight, he built and developed more flying machines, including the one flown by T.O.M. Sopwith.

Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith was a driven young man, excelling initially in motor cycling racing before turning his attention to aeroplanes. In 1910 he won the not inconsiderable sum of £4000 in achieving the longest flying distance from England to the Continent and used the winnings to found the Sopwith Flying School at Brooklands. A few months after his flight with Dickie, he and others followed Bleriot’s example and set up the Sopwith Aviation Company, which went on supply the allied forces in the Great War (later known as the First World War) with thousands of aeroplanes, including the famous Sopwith Camel. After the war ended, his company fell foul of anti-profiteering taxes, but he soon set up, with Henry Hawker, another aeroplane manufacturing company originally called Hawker Aircraft, later known as Hawker Siddeley. Sopwith lived to the grand old age of 100, dying only in 1989, not really that long ago, or so it seems to me!

Neil Bettridge
Harpur Crewe Cataloguing Project Archivist

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