During the years immediately following World War One, the world very quickly became a smaller place. Developments were taking place almost on a daily basis in aviation. An international air mail service was becoming established and newsreels, introduced before the war, became a must-see bi-weekly feature of cinema-going. As a result of all of these, the events of 14 December 1920 and the name of a Heaton pilot were spoken about, not only across Britain, but around the world.
Robert Wilkinson was born on 27 June 1886 in Byker, the second son of Margaret Chambers, a single mother. Margaret went on to marry Lawrence Bager, a merchant seaman, and, by 1891, the family were living in Wallsend. Lawrence and Margaret had had a baby son together, while the older boys, Foster and Lawrence, were both recorded on the census under the surname ‘Wilkinson’ and as the stepsons of Lawrence, the head of household.
By 1901, the family were in Byker. Fourteen year old Robert was employed as a merchant’s clerk, as was his older brother, now listed as Fredrick. Both boys now had the surname ’Bager’ and were listed as sons of Lawrence, just like their younger siblings. Lawrence died in 1910 leaving Margaret at home, now 109 Tosson Terrace, Heaton, with her three grown up sons.
The older boys’ names had changed again by the time of the 1911 census to Robert William Moore-Wilkinson and Foster Moore-Wilkinson. Robert, now 25, was an engineer’s fitter at a firm of marine engineers. Apparently, prior to WW1, he made trips to Germany for Sopwith, a new company designing and building military aircraft and the ‘Bat Boat’, an early flying boat, which could operate on sea or land, one of which was bought by the German Navy Air Service.
It’s no surprise, to find that, on the outbreak of war, Robert quickly joined the Royal Navy or that he was recruited to serve in the Royal Naval Air Service, the pioneering forerunner of the RAF. It is from Robert’s war records that we learn a little of what he looked like: 5 ft 91/2 inches tall, blue eyes and a complexion described as fresh. The photograph below is from the Royal Aero Club records.
Robert was a member of No 7A Squadron (which, in 1917, became 14 Squadron) at first working as an aerial gun-layer. The squadron flew Handley Page Type 0 biplane bombers. In a report in the ‘Daily Mirror’ on 3 November 1917, headlined ‘Cavalry of the Clouds: honours for heroes who have been bombing foe docks’, Leading Mechanic R W Bager is listed as a recipient of a Distinguished Service Medal. We know too that he was wounded in engagements over Zeebrugge but was soon able to resume his duties. After the war, Robert joined the Handley Page Co, whose aircrafts he was so familiar with.
Handley Page, founded in 1909, was Britain’s first publicly traded aircraft manufacturing company. During the war it built heavy bombers at its factory in Cricklewood. Having been narrowly beaten in June 1919 to the kudos of making the world’s first transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy, on which there was a cargo of 196 letters and one letter packet with them, four months later Handley Page’s plane the ‘Atlantic’ won the consolation prize of carrying the first airmail from Canada to the USA.
The company had already launched a goods and passenger service between London and Paris and Brussels. The first Brussels service was advertised as three times weekly and the Paris service daily (except Sunday). A single ticket cost £15.15s and a ‘double journey’ £31.10 (No saving there then!) ‘Luncheon Baskets ‘ could be ordered in advance and passengers would be conveyed between the aerodrome and the respective cities by ‘landaulette cars’.
Just a month later on 11 November 1919, the first public overseas airmail service began, flying between London and Paris. This historic flight, captained by Lt Henry ‘Jerry’ Shaw, chief pilot of Aircraft Transport and Travel, flew the first commercial flight across the Channel, a de Havilland DH.9 biplane. The flight from Hendon to Paris-Le-Bourget took 2 hours and 30 minutes and cost £21 per passenger, the equivalent of more than £1,000 today. Pilots sat in unheated open cockpits before the age of reliable radio, often following landmarks such as railway lines to ensure they were on track.
The following year, Handley Page inaugurated its own air mail services to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. The Paris flight left daily at noon. The price was still £10 10s but there was now a discounted return fare available for £18 18s.
One of its pilots was Major Robert Bager of Tosson Terrace, Heaton.
In mid-December 1920, England was experiencing severe weather. The headlines in the ‘Halifax Evening Chronicle’ on Tuesday 14th were typical: ‘Bolshevik weather: cold winds direct from Russia.’ ‘Iceland Warmer Than England’. The article went on to say that the Hebrides was the warmest part of Britain, while ten inches of snow was lying in Plymouth. The overnight temperature was ‘1 degree above zero’ FAHRENHEIT (-17 degrees Centigrade) in Peterborough. There were stories of happy polar bears in London Zoo and hardy swimmers in the Serpentine.
And below under the heading ‘Aeroplane Thrills’ was the story of the previous day’s Handley Page Transport flight from Paris. The pilot described his three hour flight across the Channel in a blizzard ‘Mine was the only machine to arrive in London today’ pilot Lt R H Macintosh is reported to have told the ‘Daily Mail.’ ‘The conditions were terrible, particularly on the English coast and the machine was covered with ice… when nearing London, I completely lost my bearings and flew about aimlessly until I succeeded in getting in touch with the aerodrome by wireless, which put me right and guided me home.’
As people read this in Yorkshire, other local papers from Portsmouth to Dundee were beginning to carry news of the crash of that day’s outward flight at Golders Green, very close to the Cricklewood aerodrome. In early editions there were just a couple of lines but, by late afternoon, news came through of fatalities.
By the following day, Handley Page Transport had issued a statement saying that an accident occurred to one of its 0/400 aeroplanes (G-EAMA HP-25) shortly after it left their aerodrome at 12.30pm for Paris.
It named the four victims: ‘Mr Salinger of London, an employee of a bristle merchant, passenger; Mr Van der Elst, of Paris, passenger; Mr Bager, pilot; Mr Williams, mechanic.’ Four other passengers survived: Mr Pierre Curioni of Lima, Peru and Mr E Rosenthal, a London shipbroker, were slightly injured; Mr Alexander Bona, an agent for Cinzano of Turin and Mr Eric Studd of Harley St, London, who was on his way to India via Paris, were unhurt. Mr Studd was said to have left for India by train later that afternoon.
The company pointed out that it was the first accident that had occurred in connection with its air services, which, it said, had been running since September 1919, during which time they had carried 4,000 passengers over a total distance of over 320,000 miles. The details of the passengers gives us some idea of the sort of people making international flights a century ago.
Some of the survivors were soon interviewed: Alexandre Bona, the Cinzano rep, who described himself as an ‘Italian balloon pilot’ is reported as saying:
‘It is only through our coolness that my friend, Curioni, and I survived.’ He said they broke windows and were able to jump out. ‘They’re easy to break these mica windows’. He said that those who died were seated in the front section of the plane.
There were eye witness accounts too: ‘Nursemaids, postmen, milkmen and policemen [were among the first to] rush to the scene’ . ’Many of them said that the ‘machine’ appeared to be in difficulty immediately after take off, swerved but hit a tree and then an outhouse in the garden of no 6 Basing Hill ‘the eight-roomed residence of Miss E Robinson’. The fire service responded to a telephone call from Miss Robinson, who said she was in her front room when she heard the noise, but by the time they arrived, there was only ‘the skeleton of the plane’ left. As time went on, the accounts became ever more graphic. One witness said he saw one person jump clear and make an attempt to help others. Others said they could hear the harrowing shouts of those inside.
By the end of the day, it had emerged that the pilot was from Newcastle. The local press had printed his address and interviewed his mother, said to be ‘overcome by the news’ but who proudly told journalists of her son’s many achievements and his award for gallantry.
And within a few days, cinema-goers in Heaton and elsewhere were able to see the scene of the crash for themselves in a British Pathe newsreel which survives. You can clearly see the snow falling.
Interest in the accident was unsurprising. Flying was in its infancy and fascinated the public. Landmark achievements seemed to occur almost daily but setbacks too were big news – and there were plenty of them: The previous year, Winston Churchill, the UK’s first Secretary of State for Air, having resumed flying lessons which had been interrupted by the war, had suffered severe bruising after crashing his plane, severely injuring his instructor; in the USA, airmail pilots had gone on strike after being forced to fly even in zero visibility, a policy which resulted in 15 crashes in a fortnight with two fatalities; a year ago almost to the day, Sir John Alcock of Manchester, the first person to pilot a flight across the Atlantic, had died after crashing in fog near Rouen on route to an air show; and just a few months before, actor and stuntman, Ormer Locklear and his flying partner were killed while filming a night time spin for a feature film ‘The Skywayman’ before a large crowd in Los Angeles.
But the accident on 14 December was the first ever fatal, commercial air crash on British soil and is widely considered only the third in the world. The first, in July 1919, was the crash of the Wingfoot Air Express, an airship, into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building in Chicago, killing one crew member, two passengers and ten bank employees. The second, and the first involving a heavier than air plane, occurred near Verona in Italy, in August 1919. Tullo Morgagni, the founder of many still important cycle races, including the Giro d’Italia, was among the 14-17 (reports vary) victims.
The inquest heard that Major Bager was a very experienced pilot and that the machine had always functioned well. It had been examined before take-off by two ground engineers and, according to a Major Brockley, who said he had helped start the engine before the flight, it was ‘quite satisfactory’. The verdict was that the four victims died from the consequences of burns due to the crashing of an aeroplane to the ground after it had struck a tree and that there was not sufficient evidence as to how it crashed to the ground.
There appears to have been no allusion to the weather, the previous day’s dramatic flight, the design of the aircraft, communications with the ground or the commercial pressure to fly.
Major Bager’s funeral was held on 20 December. The cortege left his family home in Tosson Terrace, accompanied by the chief mourners, his mother, brothers and sister, fiancé Ethel Gibbett of Cricklewood and representatives of Handley-Page and the Amalgamated Engineering Union, as well as many old friends and ‘sympathetic spectators.’ Reverend R Trotter, Vicar of St Gabriel’s, conducted the funeral at Heaton Cemetery where Major Robert William Bager rests still.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.
Airline Timetable Images www.timetableimages.com from the collection of Björn Larsson
British Newspaper Archive