It should have been a landmark event, a chance for the aeroplane to affirm its place in public affections after playing a notable part in ‘the war to end war’, but instead the 1919 Schneider Trophy air race descended into farce in the fog between Bournemouth and Swanage.
Already flying’s most famous piece of silverware, the trophy was the brainchild of early French aviator Jacques Schneider to stimulate the design of seaplanes, which he believed would provide long-range passenger services in future. Races would be staged by the previous year’s winning country supervised by the host’s Aero Club.
The first contest in 1913 was held in Monaco and won by the French flyer Maurice Provost, who beat his countryman Roland Garos, but the second race – also in Monaco – was won by Englishman Howard Pixton in his Sopwith Tabloid. The outbreak of war interrupted proceedings, but with peace restored competitive flying was resumed and Bournemouth was chosen as the host venue for the 1919 Schneider Trophy
The area had been a hotbed of interest in aviation ever since a flying display held at Talbot Village over Whitsun bank holiday in 1910 to showcase the monoplane design of local garage owner William McArdle and American pilot John Armstrong Drexel. A few weeks later Southbourne Aerodrome was the scene of an International Aviation Meeting to mark Bournemouth’s centenary and became the focus of national mourning as the Hon Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce, was killed – the first Briton to die in a powered aircraft accident.
Undeterred, the Bournemouth public’s appetite for aviation was fuelled by the arrival of French flyer Henri Farman’s Hydroplane at Bournemouth Pier in July 1912. He flew circuits around the bay and drew further attention when his plane flipped over in shallow water causing damage that was rectified ‘in only ten days’.
Farman’s countryman Henri Salmet also performed several flying displays over Bournemouth in 1912 and 1913 when he flew Father Christmas into Meyrick Park; while British aviator Gustav Hamel, who flew the first airmail, gave a number of displays and in April 1914 performed twenty-one loops over Meyrick Park.
During World War 1 the Bournemouth Aviation Company’s flying school was used to train pilots for the new Royal Flying Corps, first at Talbot Village and then at Ensbury Park, which became RAF Winton in 1918; while from 1916 submarine-spotting Short 184 seaplanes were based at Lake Shipyard, Hamworthy after it was requisitioned by the Admiralty.
The resulting concentration of expertise and public enthusiasm for seaplanes in the Poole and Bournemouth area were no doubt factors in deciding the Schneider Trophy would resume with a race from Bournemouth on 10 September 1919. The geography of Poole Bay with its natural amphitheatre of cliffs and beaches must also have helped in deciding the location, being accessible to large crowds.
In July that year Supermarine Aviation began the first scheduled flying boat service from Bournemouth Pier to Woolston and the Isle of Wight, while flights aboard a Supermarine Channel Mk1 around Poole Bay could be bought for three guineas a person – maximum two passengers per flight. Ensbury Park briefly became Bournemouth’s first airport and between June and August 1919 flights were offered to London aboard converted Handley/Page bombers.
In the build up to the Schneider Trophy race three countries prepared teams for trials – three British racers and a reserve, together with three more flyers from France were based at Cowes, while the Italians stayed at Harbour Heights, a recently completed villa on the shores of Poole Harbour that became the hotel of the same name, and ran their trials along the Lilliput shoreline.
Arranged by the Royal Aero Club, the race was to be run over ten timed laps of twenty nautical miles on a triangular course that ran from Bournemouth Pier to Durlston Head returning across Poole Bay to Hengistbury Head and back to the finish line at Boscombe Pier. On the race day a thick sea fog shrouded the course and severely hampered visibility, but as large crowds gathering it receded with the tide and race officials decided to press ahead.
Of the three British racers (a fourth had been eliminated in the trials) the Supermarine Sea Lion I of Basil Hobbs was forced to touch down in the fog in Swanage Bay to get its bearings en route to the start line. As it tried to take off it flipped and was only saved by being taken in tow. With the fuselage holed, it finally got airborne and made a single lap of the course before landing between Hengistbury Head and Boscombe Pier where it sank. Hobbs’s colleagues Harry Hawker in a Sopwith 107 and Vincent Nicholl in his Fairey IIIa set off but only managed a few laps before the fog forced them to give up.
The French pilots didn’t fare any better, neither managing to set off, leaving only Italy’s Guido Janello in his Savoia S.13 flying boat to complete the race, which he duly did in a time faster than his plane’s known top speed, only to discover he had been disqualified for failing to fully complete the Swanage turn in the fog, rounding a reserve boat instead of the official marker.
The pilot claimed he had been poorly sighted and accused officials of cheating him. Outraged that the race was declared a no contest, the Italians were only partially assuaged by being awarded the honour of staging the next race.
Never again would Bournemouth be at the centre of international air racing, but despite the competitive failure of the 1919 Schneider Trophy contest, it only stoked the already fired-up public imagination. British flyers went on to take the trophy on four further occasions and won it outright with a third consecutive win in 1931 when a Supermarine S.6b – a direct forebear of the iconic Spitfire – set a new world speed record as it won the race over Solent water.
Today, the Schneider Trophy resides in perpetuity in the Science Museum and Bournemouth’s part in its history is commemorated by a storyboard at Spyglass Point overlooking Alum Chine.
:: Sources: Published archives of Poole Flying Boats Celebration; hampshireairfield.co.uk; ‘Dorset Aviation Past and Present’, published by the Christchurch Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society
:: The Charles Rolls Heritage Trust is raising funds to build a heritage patio on the site of Southbourne Aerodrome, close to where the judges tower was in 1910, beside the road to Hengistbury Head. To donate or to find out more visit www.charlesrollsmemorialtrust.org.uk.
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.