By Dr Michele Haapamaki

The accepted anecdote is that the Aero Club of Great Britain was imagined during a hot air balloon outing over the lush countryside of Kent in 1901. Its instigators were Frank Hedges Butler, officially a partner in his family wine merchant business but more of a gentleman adventurer, his daughter Vera Butler, and the young Hon. Charles Rolls – who would lend his name to the famous automotive company and become one of the first licensed pilots in Britain. The organisation they founded would serve as a sort of gentleman’s club for aviators and gained the patronage of the King in 1910 – thereafter referred to as the Royal Aero Club.

Besides establishing some of the first training fields for flyers, the Aero Club was the sole body tasked with granting pilot’s licenses prior to the First World War. All the men who would join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps or naval flight units first obtained this qualification at their own expense. In the postwar years, the Club was the political and social centre of British flying, hosting annual dinners for the winner of the King’s Cup Air Race. The heydey of the Aero Club is now identified with the apex of British aerial achievement in the interwar years. The early Club, however, invested little energy promoting new technical or scientific developments in the direction of heavier-than-air flight, instead of fulfilling its initial brief as a leisure and sport-oriented ballooning for gentleman amateurs. Hedges Butler seemed preoccupied with rural ballooning competitions and his hobby-horse idea of a volunteer Army Balloon Corps, which initially gained half-hearted endorsement by the War Office but was scuttled prior to the First World War.

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The Wright brothers aircraft at Farnborough being inspected by a small group of soldiers, c. 1910. (Source:  © IWM (RAE-O 615))

A little-known controversy over the Aero Club and a rival club which was never formed is a fascinating way to access larger questions about the development of heavier-than-air flight in early British aviation. Aviation historians will be familiar with the debate over whether ‘official’ Britain – be it government or quasi-official institutions – exhibited a characteristic, haphazard approach to the development of national aviation. Critics, both contemporary and historical, have argued that this lassitude allowed British ‘wings’ to fall behind other nations. Among other shortcomings, the British government may have been amateur in efforts to contact the Wright Brothers or probe their technology.[1] Hugh Driver, in his detailed history of early British military aviation, argued that the lengthy emphasis on ballooning by the Aero Club had ‘a material effect on the development of aviation generally’.[2]

Prior to the inception of the Hedges Butler Club, motor engineer and founder of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, Frederick Simms, was the first to distribute a prospectus for an aeronautical club based on the existing French model. Its primary goal was directed towards the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight and in support of inventors. (Though it should be noted that at the time the French Aero Club also had an early emphasis on ballooning and dirigibles.) Simms was also a successful businessman who acquired rights to the UK manufacture of the internal combustion engine. He founded several eponymous companies, developing the magneto spark plug. As outlined by Driver, ‘Simms had the prior claim to found an aero club as such’.[3] Not only was he the founder of the Automobile Club in 1897, but he was also interested in heavier-than-air flying machines as early as 1896 – cooperating with Hiram Maxim’s attempt to build a steam-driven aeroplane.

His proposed group – the ‘Aero Club of Great Britain and Ireland’ – was intended as a spur to the development of ‘aerial navigation’. With characteristic enthusiasm, he claimed:

I am convinced that it only wants a Club or Society on modern lines to bring together the many British enthusiasts [to solve] this great problem.[4]

The Aeronautical Society, in existence since 1866, would have seemed – at least in theory – to fit the bill. However, it too was established as a ballooning Society and was in a somewhat moribund state at the turn of the century. At the time of Simms prospectus there indeed was a perceivable gap in organised enthusiasm for flight. After several acrimonious exchanges, Simms’ idea lost out to rival Aero Club. Simms and Hedges Butler were probably already acquainted, the latter having been appointed an honorary treasurer of the Automobile Club in 1898. It is therefore doubly unfortunate that the acrimony over the Club remained unresolved.

Class identity was one of the most salient characteristics of the Aero Club. In short, the emphasis was understood to be on the ‘club’ aspect of the name. It consciously modelled itself on the gentleman’s clubs of Pall Mall and St. James and acquired grand premises to match. Stanley Spencer, the aeronaut who piloted the three founders on the balloon outing when they conceived of the Club, was barred from membership due to his status as a ‘professional’. Many engineers, such as Simms, did not adapt readily to the image of an Aero Club man. He was an uneasy attendee at the first meeting of the Club on 3 December 1901 and was not placed on either the Organising or Balloon committees. The hierarchy and direction of the club were firmly established, ensuring that Simms was effectively sidelined from the new organisation, with the result that his prodigious energy (and those of like-minded men) for aeroplane flight was not utilised. To add insult to injury, Simms was asked for a £10 contribution to a balloon fund which he, understandably, refused.

Minutes of early Aero Club meetings, indeed, provide little indication of interests beyond ballooning. A certain Mr A. Verdon Roe was elected to membership in 1906, only for the name to be soon withdrawn. The Club did institute a ‘Technical Committee’ later that year with Charles Rolls, Simms, and John Moore-Brabazon as members. The latter was to become one of the best-known among the early generation of British aviators, though he learned more from time spent in Paris among French pioneers.

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British Army Aircraft I during the first sustained flight. Cody began building the British Army Aircraft I in 1907 with the design similar to the kites and glider that he had successfully flown. Cody made the first sustained flight (lasting 27 seconds and for a distance of around 1390 feet) on the 16th October 1908. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 995))

It is, however, one thing to make observations about the Aero Club and its early focus and yet another to conclude that they had any substantial impact on the larger course of British aircraft pioneering. There are substantial points to be made for a counterview. David Edgerton is well-known for his consistently presented case that the British aeronautical industry was thriving and well-supported in the Edwardian years and prior to the First World War.[5] Some evidence for this is the fact that the first flight on British soil, by the flamboyant American showman Samuel Cody, was in an army aircraft produced by the Balloon Factory at Farnborough.

Others have suggested that British aviation needed to take its own course in its own time, and in fact benefited from a lack of meddling from ‘boosters’ of different varieties. For the most part, no amount of progress was ever enough for some aviation buffs who tended to be of strong and unmoderated feeling; it could be argued that the hand-wringing was merely that. Aviation journalists, such as C.G. Grey of The Aeroplane, traded on histrionics over the fate of the British nation due to some aerial oversight or another by both government and, on occasion, private industry.

There is also the view that there was little of concrete import that an Aero Club could have produced in the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight in the early 1900s. Indeed, when it did become a reality on European soil with the 1908 demonstrations of the Wright brothers at Le Mans, France, the Club soon pursued these capabilities. They established one of the first aerodromes at the Isle of Sheppey, near the mouth of the Thames, and partnered with the Short Brothers – who brought characteristic British inventiveness to the manufacture and testing of new aircraft.

One conclusion we may reach is that discussion about the omissions of the organisations such as the Aero Club, both then and now, suffice to highlight the level of anxiety within British aviation circles – whether the basis for these worries was real or imagined. Was it inevitable that any such Club conceived during the Edwardian years would be (at least initially) unimaginative, snobbish, and genteel? Perhaps so. The episode of the duelling Clubs does provide an illuminating insight into the early world of British aviation, which the self-taught engineers and inventors were just on the cusp of breaking into. Those of the Hedges Butler ilk would soon be superseded by a new aviation elite which was, while not entirely a meritocracy, certainly closer to it than the sporting aeronauts would have imagined.

Header Image: A close-up of Cody in the cockpit of Cody aircraft mark IB. The cloth seat as opposed to a plough seat along with the control that Cody is moving differentiate this from the other marks of aircraft that Cody built. According to the caption, this was the aircraft that Cody intended to fly from London to Manchester in. Due to a mechanic failing to close a tap between the sump and the freshly filled oil tank the engine ceased up after fifteen minutes of flight. Fortunately, Cody was able to land safely. Shortly afterwards this aircraft was scrapped and Cody started work on a new one. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 1075))

[1] See; Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984) and The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (London: Macmillan Press, 1989)

[2] Hugh Driver, The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1997), p. 32.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991).

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