Fred meets a Flying Circus

My Dad, Fred, spent nearly all of his life in South Derbyshire. In the sunny summers and snowy winters after the First World War, his home was at Number 39, Hartshorne Lane, Woodville. “Holmgarth” was the last house in the village as you went down the road towards the neighbouring village of Hartshorne. Here it is today:

After Fred’s house, further down the hill, there were a couple of large houses near a small lake on the left. They were just a few yards beyond the massive blue brick railway bridge which carried the passenger railway line from Woodville Station towards Swadlincote. A half mile or so further on was the old Saxon village of Hartshorne. Hartshorne Lane itself was made of gravel, and there was so little traffic that it was perfectly possible to play football or cricket all day long without any interruption whatsoever. Boys regularly knocked their cricket stumps into the surface of the road.

Indeed, the whole area was still so countrified, that one day in the late 1920s, a seven year old Fred saw a stray cow walking around in the front garden of the house, and rushed to tell his mother. She was busy with her housework, and just told him that he was being silly and telling lies. Eventually, though, she looked out of the kitchen window and she too noticed the cow which had by now made its way around the house to the kitchen garden. She was very startled and cried out in genuine fear. Young Fred, though, thought that this was a good example of somebody getting their just desserts. Here is young Fred with his bike but just look at the empty field behind him. It used to belong to a farming family called Startin. Nowadays, their field is completely covered in houses:

One sunny summer’s day in the 1930s, perhaps in 1935, an aircraft came in to land in Startin’s field at the back of Fred’s house in Hartshorne Lane. It was an Airspeed AS4 Ferry, a medium sized biplane, and was registered as G-ACBT. It had even featured in a special painting in an aviation magazine:

The aircraft belonged to the famous Flying Circus of Sir Alan Cobham, although it had previously been owned by the popular author, Neville Shute. He had used it as a ferry aircraft in southern Scotland and Northern Ireland. Here’s one of the photographs which were taken of this extraordinary event. The three people are, I think, Fred, the pilot and the mechanic :

Sir Alan Cobham was one of the foremost proponents of the virtues of flying, and with his support for the National Aviation Day, he gave enormous publicity to British aircraft and to the still relatively young RAF. Here he is:

An excited young Fred talked to the pilot while the mechanic went off to find some fuel for the aircraft from a local garage. When he returned, they refuelled the plane and then took Fred for a short flight around the local area.

This adventure, amazing by the Health and Safety standards of the present day, was to inspire Fred, years later, to join the RAF.

Ironically, the year when Fred joined the RAF, 1941, saw G-ACBT being finally dismantled at the scrapyard, in the absence of any potential buyers for this sturdy old aircraft.


Filed under Aviation, History, Personal

19 responses to “Fred meets a Flying Circus

  1. Lovely story, how idyllic life must have been for a young boy a hundred years ago!

    • Yes, it must. The family had a bit of a financial wobble in the early 1930s, but Fred’s mother got her husband to make some alterations to the front room and turn it into the world’s first ever convenience store. At the bottom.of a large hill, it soon started to show a profit.

  2. Great family history, John. I, too, played cricket in the street – in London, SW20

    • Thank you, Derrick. I think a lot of people nowadays would be amazed at how calm and quiet England used to be before the war. Even old films from the 1950s show the London traffic of the day as considerably less than what you might expect today in a little market town such as Newark or Southwell.

  3. A great story, well two stories.

  4. Yes, they are two separate stories, hopefully linked by a couple of themes. I.would presume that rural Australia must have been very similar back in the 1930s. I certainly don’t think Sir Donald Bradman’s childhood cricket games were interrupted too often by passing traffic!

  5. It’s as if the plane lasted long enough to see Fred fly on his own.

    • What a lovely idea!
      I’m a!ways both amazed and saddened by how many old aircraft which would nowadays be welcomed by any aviation museum, were quickly turned into piles of scrap. The result is that today some very familiar RAF aeroplanes are completely extinct…. the Short Stirling, the Hampden and the Whitley, to name but three.

  6. Fascinating story: an unexpected event can change our future.

    • Absolutely! We can all look back on our lives and identify specific events which set us on a particular path. A lot of people see a divine plan in all this, but I’m not quite so sure about that, to be perfectly honest.

  7. How fabulous that your father not only saw that plane but got to talk to the pilot and fly in it as well! He must have been the envy of all his friends. A fabulous story John!

    • Thank you ! The cynic in me says that they were well and truly lost and wanted a local to come up into the air and point out a few landmarks for them. Whatever the truth, I think that that short flight had a great impact on Fred’s future plans, although it would take a war to give him the opportunity to carry them out. I have often wondered who the men in the crew were. Was one of them Sir Alan himself?

      • It may well have been John, I guess we’ll never know! The war gave many a young man the opportunity that they would perhaps not have had otherwise. A poisoned chalice I guess.

  8. Chris Waller

    That is a remarkable story. I recall my dad mentioning Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus, which he saw in Derby around that same time. Your dad would have been unique in the area for having flown – a rare activity in the those days. It would have been a life-changing experience. As you say, in these days the health and safety brigade would throw a fit. I am intrigued by the ‘plane. I had never heard of the Airspeed company but that aircraft is another example of the imaginative designs that the British aero industry used to conjure up.

  9. Incredible experience your father had. Wish things were as simple as they were back then. Like talking to a pilot and getting a ride impromptu 🙂

  10. Glyn Jackson

    What a wonderful story.

    I remember your dad very well and have fond memories of talking to him at Woodville Working Mens Club and recall at that time he lived across the road, just down from the Library. I was joining the RAF and he spoke to me often of his times in the RAF; then when I eventually joined up he would eagerly interogate me about what things were like ‘now’ and compare things in his day.

    I’m a volunteer at the Magic Attic and often scour the old newspapers – there is a wonderful picture of Fred in RAF uniform in one. I would hope that you have a copy but if not then you’ll have to come down the Attic when it reopens.

    • My Dad thought that the RAF was the greatest organisation on the planet, although he was always capable of criticising them when he thought there was need. S
      Sadly, we know very little about what he did in the war because I think that at some time he was told that it was secret and not to talk about it. If anything, he told my daughter far more than he told me, and it seems even now, 17 years after his death in 2003, that tiny details of his service seem to keep seeping out into the daylight. All of them continue to be corroborated by other things we know, so my fears that he was just “shooting a line” have so far proved groundless.

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