Drama! Excitement! Derring-do!
We take air travel pretty much for-granted nowadays, but it’s not so long since the exploits of magnificent men in their flying machines could capture the public’s imagination. 1910 saw the first ever long distance air race in England, and a contest between Claude Grahame-White and Louis Paulhan to win a £10,000 prize put up by the Daily Mail, for the first to reach Manchester from London by plane. Grahame-White’s effort was ultimately doomed to failure – high winds near Lichfield saw his attempts to take off again frustrated, while his plane was damaged when it blew over – but his stop at Rugby along the way offered much excitement.
Crowds gathered on the fields
The anticipation had grown beforehand. Crowds gathered on the fields around Hillmorton to catch a glimpse of the machine, and to watch it touch down on a scheduled stop between Hillmorton and Rugby. The Rugby Advertiser report of the occasion captured the perceived importance of the occasion.
There were thousands who would have given much to witness the historic event, for it will undoubtedly go down to posterity as a momentous occasion in the records of the art of aviation in England1
Expectant eyes on the sky, when the plane came into sight, “cheer upon cheer was raised as the machine came near”2. People ran to the plane to catch a glimpse of the daring pioneer. Chilled with the cold, the first need for Grahame-White was warmth. The Advertiser captured the desperate need that overcame decorum. “In a cottage near a fire was observed, and as there was no response to a knock at the door, the little party entered”3 Further warmth was assisted by Lady Denbigh, who offered a fur cape, while another lady offered a muff.
Onwards, ever onwards
Black clouds added a sense of foreboding, and put in risk the continued journey, but our hero was not to be deterred. “The machine ran along the ground for 60 to 80 yards, then rose gracefully and was off.”4 Just a few hundred feet above the ground, however, which meant those in the town could cheer Grahame-White as he went past, whilst he waved back.
That the flight met an untimely end before Manchester was unfortunate, but our man was not to be defeated! There was still time for another attempt and, repairing his aircraft in London, Grahame White tried again. He didn’t stop at Rugby this time, but the crowds still waited to catch sight of their hero as he came past the town. “At one time the road was lined with vehicles, motor-cars, motor-cycles from Hillmorton village well on towards the Railway inn at Kilsby Station, and there were bicycles without number.”5
Rugby was agog with excitement, the people of the town asking one another if they’d heard anything about how the flight was going. Delay on delay came upon the unfortunate pilot but eventually word reached the town he was on his way! The crowd watched, and cheered him on his way, ultimately to no avail!
It seems odd that in such a story the winner, Frenchman Louis Paulhan, receives barely a footnote at the end. He may have won the race, but he didn’t win the hearts of Rugby as much as Claude Grahame-White.
1 Rugby Advertiser 30/4/1910 p.3
5 Rugby Advertiser 30/4/1910 p. 5