Today marks the centenary of Louis Blériot’s 22 mile flight across the English Channel between Calais and Dover. An important moment in aviation, it was the first flight across a large body of water in a heavier-than-air craft.
Blériot’s flight was inspired by a competition organised by the Daily Mail, with a prize of £1000 – about £90,000 in today’s money. A rare example of the Mail welcoming a foreigner on to British soil without wailing that the country is doomed. No doubt Lord Northcliffe was grinding his teeth as he wrote the Frenchman’s name out on the cheque.
This is what Mail reporter Harry Harper had to say when he watched the aviateur take off for Dover:
“Again I felt that overpowering rush of excitement which I find almost everyone has experienced who has seen a man fly. It is an exhilaration, a thrill, an ecstasy. Just as children jump and clap their hands to see a kite mount, so, when the machine leaves the ground and with a soaring movement really flies upon its speeding wings, one feels impelled to shout, to rush after it, to do anything which will relieve the overcharged emotion.”
As with most aviation competitions (the Mail staged a series), a lot of attempts were made at flight by other would-be aviators, in an array of contraptions. You probably remember those early silent films where intrepid souls with huge moustaches attempt to take to the air sitting in something that appears to have been fashioned out of kites and coathangers, and which very quickly crashes, collapses or shakes to pieces.
It is one of those forgotten fledgling aviators that I think of today. Coming from Berkshire as I do, I want to pay tribute to A. M. Farbrother and his improbable invention, the Wokingham Whale. What a name for an aircraft!
Farbrother was a joiner in Wokingham, Berkshire who designed and built the Whale in 1909 or 10 to compete in one of the Mail’s competitions. He sold his house to finance his project, and accepted donations from the people of Wokingham, who seem to have been rather proud that they were helping to carve a niche for Wokingham in the field of aviation.
Though Farbrother’s great monster resembled an airship, in fact it was designed to have wings, and the 66 foot gondola was capable of extending to more than twice that length. It was designed with an 80 horsepower engine which would power a rotoscope or propeller capable of 1200 revolutions per minute. Inside there were to be seats, electric lights and lavatories (“for navigation over seas and other waters”) as well as ‘self-balancing’ hammocks, suggesting that Farbrother was envisioning an age of long distance passenger aviation that was still many years away.
The Whale did in fact make it the dozen miles from Wokingham to Windsor, but only on the back of a Pickfords removal cart. As with many of the eccentric and unworkable aircraft of the Edwardian era, it did excite curiosity from the national press, but only for a time.
The Wokingham Whale was doomed to stay on terra firma until it was broken up, along with Farbrother’s dreams.