Thursday, 27 March 2008

1911: An Aeroplane On Parker's Piece

I remember as a small child being told by my great-grandmother the story of an aeroplane landing on Parker's Piece - back in the days when air travel was a new and exciting concept.

"Thousands went to see it," said my great-gran.

A few weeks ago, whilst searching the local newspaper archives for something else entirely, I happened upon the Cambridge Daily News account of the aircraft's landing on Parker's Piece. Great-Gran had never been specific about the year, but the archive reveals that it was 1911, and the story appeared on 11 October, the day after the landing.

"One seemed to be looking on at the birth of some strange new thing of wondrous possibilities - the dawn of a new era in the history of mankind," wrote the Cambridge Daily News representative at the scene.

The full Cambridge Daily News account of the sudden (and unexpected) appearance of the aircraft on Parker's Piece is below...
Aeroplane on the Piece - First Descent In Cambridge - Airman’s Mistake - Town Taken For Huntingdon - Interesting Interview.

For the first time in the annals of Cambridge a flying machine descended on Parker’s Piece on Tuesday night, and a not unimportant addition was made to local history. There have been in years gone by several balloon ascents from the Piece and other parts of the town, but never before has a man dropped from the clouds in or around Cambridge.

The descent came with almost startling suddenness, and was quite unexpected. About 5.30 pm PC Naylor, who was on duty near Sheep’s Green, heard a droning sound in the air, which rapidly increased in volume, and on looking up beheld a large monoplane of the Bleriot type flying towards the town from the direction of Trumpington. It was travelling at a rapid pace, but very low, and the constable fancied from the sound of the engine that it was misfiring, and feared that disaster might overtake the intrepid aviator.

The machine came over Lensfield Road, passing at what looked to be a perilously short distance above the house-tops, and well below the top of the spire of the Roman Catholic Church. It was feared that the airman would not be able to clear the house-tops in Regent Street, but he just did it, and, passing over that thoroughfare near Hyde Park corner, effected a beautiful descent upon Parker’s Piece, landing in the north-east corner of the Piece, not far from the large electric lamp standard in the centre. The machine came down quite gently, like a huge bird, and came to rest after running about 20 yards or so. A large crowd gathered as if by magic, and the monoplane was quickly surrounded.

A young man, with keen, clear-cut features, wearing one of the now familiar airman’s helmets, with ear-flaps, and a short, khaki-coloured, woolly overcoat, cycling knickers and shoes, stepped out of the well of the machine just behind the wings, and climbed down to terra firma. Here he was quickly recognised as Mr W. B. R. Moorhouse, formerly of Trinity Hall, and now of the firm of Radley and Moorhouse, Portholme Meadows, Huntingdon, where Mr. Radley and himself have established an aeroplane factory.


The crowd around the machine rapidly increased, and the services of a number of policemen under Supt. Hargreaves proved invaluable in keeping the gaping throng back. After he had seen the machine safe under the charge of the guardians of the peace, the airman sought a little much-needed warmth and refreshment within the hospitable portals of the University Arms. Here he was interviewed by a representative of the “Cambridge Daily News” and gave a very interesting account of the adventure. While he was doing this Mr Almeric Paget, M.P., entered the room, and Mr Moorhouse was presently introduced to him. The pair shook hands and chatted together for some little time, after which Mr Moorhouse completed his narrative to our representative.


In reply to questions, Mr Moorhouse said: “I left Brooklands at six minutes to four, and I arrived at Cambridge at 25 minutes to six. It was very foggy round London, and I had a head wind, blowing about 35 miles an hour against me, all the way. I suppose I covered about 80 miles in an hour and 40 minutes. I reached Harrow in 15 minutes from Brooklands, and came down a little and made three circles of the town, and then went on to Bushey, where I made two or three circles of the town. Then I cut across to the G.N.R., and followed the line as far as Hatfield and Biggleswade, where I lost my way entirely. Eventually, I struck what I suppose was the G.E.R., and followed it to Cambridge, which I thought was Huntingdon, until I got quite close. I came over Trumpington at about 2,600ft. high. It was so dark by this time that I could hardly see my way. When I got over the town I saw that I was at Cambridge, and, recognising the Piece, came down. I don’t think I could have gone a mile further. I could not have got across the town, for my petrol supply had run out. The engine began to fail soon after I passed Trumpington, and I gradually came down, until when I passed the Roman Catholic Church I was below the level of the spire. I was not sorry to see the Piece, I can tell you. I thought I was at Huntingdon until I saw the mills that are always smoking (the cement works at Cherry Hinton) , and then I knew that I had made a mistake, and was coming to Cambridge. When I got down I found that the petrol tank was absolutely dry, and she would not have carried me another mile.”

“How long have you been flying, Mr Moorhouse?” asked our representative.

“Well, I have been flying regularly for about a fortnight. Of course I had practice trips before that.”

“How long have you been flying with this machine?” was the next query.

“About a week,” replied Mr Moorhouse.

“When did you got to Brooklands?” asked the “Cambridge Daily News” man.

“Last Friday,” replied Mr Moorhouse. “I went from Huntingdon to Spratton, Northamptonshire, my home, for lunch, and then flew to Brooklands. Two days previously I flew from Huntingdon to Spratton for lunch and back.”

“How far was that?” was the next question.

“It’s about forty miles from Huntingdon to Spratton,” said Mr Moorhouse, “and I did it in about half an hour.”

“Are you building any machines at Huntingdon?”

“Yes, we have turned out six or seven already. We are now building a passenger machine, a two-seater, which will be out in about a fortnight.”

“How long ago is it since you left Trinity Hall?”

“About 18 months.”

Mr Moorhouse, whilst an undergraduate, was well-known as an intrepid motor car driver, so our representative asked him if he liked flying a well as motor driving.

“I would sooner drive an aeroplane than a motor car,” he replied. “Once you get up it is much easier. You simply sit still and look out for gusts.”

“What then?” asked our representative.

“Well, you have to right her,” was the reply. “You often drop 100 feet after a gust. That is a very nasty sensation. It often leaves you standing up. You see the aeroplane drops faster than you do, and the seat seems to drop from under you. You drop until you come into a current of air again, it may be after dropping 200 feet, and then the seat seems to come up and hit you. Of course you are dropping forward all the time - not absolutely straight. If you fly high you are fairly safe. I fly across country at from 2,000 to 3,000 feet high. I like to have plenty of room under me so that I can clear anything in case I get a drop.”

“How is it the machine drops like that?” asked the interviewer.

“Well,” replied the airman, “you get a gust of air that bears you up and then it dies away and leaves you in a pocket of air - leaves you in calm air - and then you drop till you come to another current. Now, I must be getting out to look after my machine.”

So saying, Mr Moorhouse took his departure and went out to give directions for the safe housing of the machine for the night.


The aeroplane, which was described by Mr Moorhouse as being of the Bleriot type, remained poised lightly on its pneumatic-tyred wheels with its tail pointing towards Regent Street. With its graceful white wings extended, and its long frail-looking, slender tapering body of light, thin woodwork braced together by a network of steel wires, it looked for all the world like a huge dragon-fly. At the extremity of the body was the rudder, and a short distance in front of this were the small elevating planes. Immediately behind the wings was the well, protected by canvas, in which was the aviator’s seat and his control levers. At the head of the machine was the engine, a seven-cylindered “Gnome” of 50 horse-power, which when going revolves and so helps to keep all the cylinders cool. Behind the engine were the petrol and oil tanks, and in front was the double-bladed propeller, or, to give it its proper name, tractor. It remained the centre of attention to thousands of people until a late hour.


It is stated, with what truth our representative was unable to ascertain, that the machine is the identical Bleriot on which M. Bleriot made his famous passage of the Channel, but this does not quite tally with Mr Moorhouse’s description of it as a “Bleriot-pattern” machine. It was not very light when the machine descended, and it was difficult to take in details in the gathering gloom, but to the casual glance the machine looked as if it had not had much use.


Shortly after the descent the Mayor (Ald. George Stace), who had distinctly heard the roar of the engine as the machine passed over his house in Lensfield Road, visited the Piece and inspected the machine and had a short chat with the airman. Later in the evening the aeroplane was wheeled across to the south-west corner of the Piece, near the University Arms, where it remained during the night, covered over with a tarpaulin and guarded by policemen.


In order to avoid being hampered by a crowd, Mr Moorhouse made an early start from Cambridge this morning, leaving the Piece about ten minutes past six. Even at that early hour, however, there was a surprisingly large attendance of curious sightseers, and had it not been for the presence of a force of upwards of 20 policemen, who kept the ground clear, it would have been almost impossible for the airman to have made a start. There must have been several hundred persons present when the machine went up, and a good many workmen must have “lost a quarter” through stopping to see the unusual sight. Crowds are proverbially stupid, obstinate and thoughtless of danger. Few seemed to consider the possibility of a serious accident if they hampered the airman in starting. Everybody wanted to crowd round, and it was with the utmost reluctance that they made way before the police who, very properly, completely cleared the Piece before the start, having previously obtained the Mayor’s authority for so doing. They had considerable difficulty in persuading the people that it was for their own safety as well as that of the airman that they were required to “keep off the grass”. Supt. Hargreaves was in charge of the police, with him being Insp. Baker, Sergts Lilley and Fuller and about 20 constables.


While Mr Moorhouse was preparing for the start a number of photographers were busy taking snapshots of the scene. Mr Moorhouse was assisted by three mechanics, two of whom he had telegraphed for, and who came over from Huntingdon overnight in a motor car. These wheeled the machine round so that it pointing in a north-easterly direction across the Piece. Mr Moorhouse took his seat, and two men hung on to the rear of the machine while the third started the engine. One or two pulls round of the propellor and the engine started to bark, slowly at first, but rapidly increasing, until the explosions seemed to merge into a continuous roar, and the engine and propellor were spinning round at terrific speed. The whole machine trembled violently, and tugged and strained to get free. The blast of air flung backwards by the whirling blades was like a miniature tornado. Leaves, straws, pieces of paper, were sent flying far to the rear, and the men hanging on behind had all their work cut out to hold her.


At last Mr Moorhouse gave the word “Let go,” and the machine darted forward across the turf at a great pace, heading slightly to the left of the electric light standard in the centre of the Piece. After running about 120 yards the machine was seen to be rising. The wheels were lifting off the grass, and the whole structure was inclining gently upwards. A few yards and she was wholly clear of the ground, and soaring gracefully upwards. It was a beautiful and a wonderful sight to see how the slender fabric seemed to be converted from a thing of earth, struggling as it were to free itself from the invisible bonds that held it down, into a thing of grace and beauty, fairy-like, almost ethereal, freed from grosser things, that seemed to glide through the air as if it were in its native element and to exalt in its freedom from the trammels of earth. There was something awesome in the sight. One seemed to be looking on at the birth of some strange new thing of wondrous possibilities - the dawn of a new era in the history of mankind.


By the time the central electric light standard was reached the aeroplane was several yards above the lamp-top, and slightly to the left of it. She rose rapidly, and by the time the trees surrounding the Piece were reached she was a great height above them.

“I want 200 yards starting room, and 200 feet of air-space under me when I reach the trees and houses,” Mr Moorhouse had told our representative overnight when asked when he proposed to start in the morning, “and therefore I don’t want the time to be known as a crowd would collect and hamper me, and I might not have enough room under me when I reach the houses, and a sudden gust might mean disaster.” Thus the precautions of the police were explained.

The morning was slightly misty and the great mechanical bird was soon lost to view; but long after it was out of sight the buzzing of the engine could be plainly heard.

After attaining a sufficient height, the aviator made a sweep round, and headed for Huntingdon, and the sound of the engine rapidly died away. The aero was making swiftly for home.

Mr Moorhouse during the evening visited the New Theatre, and stayed the night at the rooms of a college chum. 

This photograph was taken later in 1911, and shows Mr Moorhouse about to land his Bleriot monoplane on Jesus Green.

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