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

Treasure 19: Thomas Bateman’s grangerised copy of the Lysons’ Magna Britannia

Treasure 19 Grangerised book (a)

This treasure dates from the days before books routinely came with illustrations, and when prints and engravings were (just as today) highly prized by collectors.  It was chosen by Sue Peach, Local Studies Librarian, who writes:  “We don’t like the idea of defacing books nowadays, but the antiquarian Thomas Bateman of Middleton by Youlgreave (1821-1861)  personalised all four Derbyshire volumes of Magna Britannia by Daniel and Samuel Lysons, by pasting in cuttings and engravings, a process known as “grangerising”. By doing so he has given us a wonderful resource, many of whose images are now on Picture the Past”.

Treasure 19 Grangerised book (b)

Bateman’s contemporary, Isabella Thornhill (1800-1878), had the same idea, and grangerised her version of the Lysons’ text in six separate volumes, as described in our catalogue.  You may remember reading of Isabella, who was one of the Gell family, in a previous post after we acquired her diary.

Looking for preservation volunteers…

Would you like to help us look after Derbyshire’s history in a very direct and hands-on way?  If you have lots of patience, enjoy working delicately and precisely and are available on Thursday afternoons, this could be the project for you.  You may have seen previous posts by Neil about the work he’s doing regarding the archive of the Harpur Crewe family of Calke Abbey; we are now starting a volunteer project to clean and package this very large collection.  We are hoping to recruit up to six volunteers to work together on Thursday afternoons to clean off the dust, remove rusty staples and paperclips, put photographs in archival sleeves, sew protective pouches for the seals of medieval documents and pretty much do anything else the collection needs.  The photographs below give an idea of the variety of items contained in this collection, which range from the 14th to the 20th century, but if you’d like to know more details about the contents of the archive, you can follow this link to our catalogue: D2375

Bundle of 20th century documents

Bundle of 20th century documents

Envelope with 19th century contents

Envelope with 19th century contents

Envelope with stamps

Envelope with stamps

Early medieval deeds

Early medieval deeds

If you would like to know more about this project, please have a look on, then select ‘Services’ and ‘Volunteering’.  At the bottom of the page you will see the profile for Derbyshire Record Office Preservation Volunteers; the page also has details on how to contact us to express an interest in joining the project.

Meanwhile do keep an eye out for an upcoming post by Neil about the latest exhibition in our Vitrine Wall showing the artistic side of the family: Art and the Harpur Crewes.

Treasure 18: the charter of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Ashbourne

This treasure is a Charter (D3397/1) granted by Queen Elizabeth I, which founded the Free Grammar School in Ashbourne, dating from 17 July 1585.

Following a petition by leading inhabitants of Ashbourne and neighbouring area to Queen Elizabeth I, this charter was issued to found a free grammar school on land granted by the Queen.  It ordained that the offices of schoolmaster and under-master be established, that there be a governing body of 3 governors and 12 assistants (with provision for the filling of vacancies), that the governing body make statutes and ordnances, and that it has the use of common seal.

Treasure 19 Queen Elizabeth (b)

There are 3 parchments, in Latin, with the Great Seal (partly damaged) attached. The charter has borders and initial letters decorated with painted figures and motifs, consisting of crowns, Tudor roses, royal coat-of-arms supported by a lion and dragon, a harp, a crowned eagle on a tree trunk holding a sceptre, and clouds with rays of the sun coming down. The initial ‘E’ is decorated with a particularly fine miniature painting of Queen Elizabeth on her throne, with the letter ‘E’ incorporating and being surrounded by allegorical figures, exotic birds, animals and fruits (including a robin, dragonfly and snake)
Treasure 19 Queen Elizabeth (a)

This stunning Elizabethan charter is a firm favourite with many of our staff. The exquisite detail and beautiful colours in the decorative borders and illuminated initials, make this document very special, as it brings a rare example of royal grandeur to our collections.

The charter has been nominated by Paul, who remarks: “I am always particularly impressed by how vivid the gold colouring has remained after so many centuries”.