Saturday, 3 October 2015

Graham Gilmour's Flight to Hove

Judy Middleton 2015

 copyright © J.Middleton
Graham Gilmour and his plane were photographed on 7 May 1911 by Wiles, 
the well-known Hove photographer. The plane looks frightfully fragile

Douglas Graham Gilmour was born on 5th March 1885 at Blackheath, Kent. Perhaps he did not like his first Christian name because as an adult he was always known as Graham Gilmour. He was educated at Clifton College and became an engineer.

It was an exciting time to be an engineer and he was interested in motorcars and motorcycles and at one time he possessed no fewer than 29 of the latter. He also took a keen interest in airplanes and in fact he was so enthralled that in 1909 he purchased a Blèriot plane in France before he even knew how to fly such a machine. In those days training was extraordinarily brief and he had only piloted seven flights before he was granted a French licence in 1910.

He soon returned to England because by the end of 1910 he was to be found based at Brooklands.

Gilmour continued flying in 1911 but it was under a cloud, as it were, because he was on bail for manslaughter. What happened was that he was driving his motorcar in Wylye, Wiltshire when, in the process of overtaking a cart, a 10-year old boy suddenly ran into the road. It was one of those unfortunate accidents and in May 1911 he was found not guilty.

On 6 May 1911 the celebrated Air Race from Brooklands to Brighton took place with Shoreham serving as the turning point; it was a distance of 45 miles. The Sussex Daily News excitedly proclaimed the race ‘would go down to posterity as the first aerial point-to-point’. Graham Gilmour took part along with other well-known aviators of the day most of whom managed to lose their way or get disqualified. Gilmour flew a Bristol Boxkite, which was photographed on Brunswick Lawns on 7 May. It must have been galling for Gilmour when Gustav Hammel won the race in a Blèriot, and co-incidentally he had also learnt to fly in France in the same year as Gilmour was having lessons there; Gilmour was placed third. Neither was Gilmour the first aviator to land on Brunswick Lawns because Hammel had already landed there in April 1911. Hammel had been so delighted at his safe landing that he complimented the Mayor of Hove on the smoothness of the Lawns. Naturally, these exploits caused a great deal of interest to local people who flocked to the Lawns for a chance to see these new-fangled flying machines at close quarters.

  Brighton Season Magazine 1910-1911
Graham Gilmore landing on Brunswick Lawns on 7 May 1911

After the race, Gilmour flew over the submarine depot at Portsmouth and playfully ‘bombed’ it with oranges. This exploit must have been much talked about amongst fellow aviators because in 1914 Eric Pashley pulled off a similar stunt when the First Battle Squadron of the British Fleet was moored off Hove. The Sussex Daily News (3 July 1914) reported it thus, ‘As a result of a wager, Mr Eric Pashley, the Shoreham Airport aviator, accompanied by Captain Tyrer, on a 50hp Henry Farman biplane, flew round the fleet last evening and dropped dummy bombs upon the battleships.’

Brighton Season Magazine 1910-1911
Graham Gilmore flying over the West Pier Brighton on 7 May 1911

On 13 May 1911 there was another race but it only involved two competitors – Graham Gilmour and Oscar Morison and it would have been difficult to get lost because it was only a short hop from Shoreham to Black Rock, Brighton. Morison won by a narrow margin but Gilmour won the publicity stakes afterwards by landing on the tennis courts at the famous Roedean Girls’ School although Morison followed shortly afterwards. The landing of the dashing aviators caused some excitement amongst the girls. 

copyright © J.Middleton

Gilmour exemplified the legend of those ‘daring young men in their flying machines’.
For example, in July 1911 he flew over London, circling the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and carried on to Westminster Bridge, following the Thames. The event caused commotion on the ground and it is claimed even staid Members of Parliament came out onto the terrace to see what was going on. But the authorities were not amused and Gilmour was grounded for a month because of his reckless flying.

Nine months after the photograph was taken of Gilmour and his plane on Brunswick Lawns, he was dead. On 17 February 1912 he took off from Brooklands in his Martin Handasyde plane in turbulent weather conditions. At a height of 400 feet over Richmond Park, the left wing suddenly folded or broke. Gilmour well knew the dangers of flying but his enthusiasm for flight blotted out the risk. He left a letter outlining his wishes for his funeral and the last thing he wanted was for it to be a doleful occasion and so there were no tolling bells and colourful flowers were especially requested. He wanted people to be merry and bright, which must have been difficult.

copyright © J.Middleton
1930s Aerial view of Hove Lawns.


Internet searches
Middleton, Judy Hove in Old Picture Postcards (1983)
Sussex Daily News
Webb, T.M.A. & Bird D.L. Shoreham Airport, Sussex (2nd edition 1999)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2015
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