Today (June 8) in London History – Winged Rainbows & Keeping up with Kill Devil Hills

The first English powered flight took place on June 8, 1908. And a year later to the day the London Zoo acquired a “feathered rainbow.” This Today in London History podcast recounts those tales.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Let’s take wing. Get away from it all. I’m writing this on June 6th. You’ll be listening to it on June 8th. Everything’s churning. And it’s going to go on churning. I’m talking about the No Confidence vote and the feathers flying in Conservative Party circles. And, yes, I already want to fly away. And I should think a lot of you will as well. 

So here’s a spot of June 8th escapism for you. And our metaphor – flight – is right on the mark.

And not just flight, but firsts. London stories, both of them.

The first English flight took place on June 8th, 1908. Weird, how deeply satisfying it was to make the acquaintance of that factoid.  And learn a little bit of the backstory. All my life I’ve known about Orville and Wilbur. The Wright brothers and what they did on that December day in 1903 at the magnificently named Kill Devil Hills, just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Speaking of resplendent names – how do you go wrong with Orville and Wilbur – as names go those two are handlebar moustaches.

And the fact of the matter is, because they did it first – made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft – well, they’ve been pretty much the whole show. Had the limelight all to themselves, left everybody else in the dark.

So shining a torch into some of those dark regions – seeing who’s there, what’s there – well, that’s satisfying. 

Orv and Wilb have so hogged all the limelight that it almost comes as a bit of a shock to realise, well, yes, of course, there must have been a first English aviator. To say nothing of other nationalities.

And that’s by way of saying, allow me to introduce Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe. Sir Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe as he became in 1929.

He was the son of a Manchester doctor. Attended St. Paul’s School, London. 

Studied Marine Engineering at King’s College, London. So, yes, this is for the most part – especially from here on out – a London story. Though there were layovers in Canada and Africa. 

A. V. Roe was fascinated by the way birds fly – I expect he would have taken a keen interest in the subject of the second part of this podcast.

As soon as he heard about the Wright brothers and what they did in North Carolina A. V. Roe was off, trundling down the runway.  Devoted himself to powered flight.

He got there – got aloft – on this day, June 8th, in 1908. His Roe I Biplane (it was often later referred to as the Avro Biplane) was the first powered aircraft to be designed, built, and flown in England. It happened at Brooklands Racing Circuit in Weybridge, just on the outskirts of London, down in Surrey. All kinds of firsts flapping in the breeze with this tale.

Brooklands was the world’s first ground-up, purpose-built motor racing circuit. It was brand new at the time – it had just been built the year before. Finally, one desperately poignant note about A. V. Roe. Two of his four sons were killed on operational flying duties in World War II.

Okay, let’s move on. Just a year later – on June 8th, 1909 – London was all aflutter – yet again – about something new at the zoo. 

And look – “look” indeed – I’m recycling this tale because their enthusiasm and appreciation is infectious. The way they put it was, for me, love at first sight.

The Zoo was busy acquiring in those years different models of Birds of Paradise. And on this day they received their Red Bird of Paradise. The Zoo wasn’t shy about trumpeting the fact that the Red Bird of Paradise is, and I’m quoting, “First in order of Rarity.”

But I swooned at the ILN’s headline: wait for it…

The Zoo’s Living Winged Rainbows: The Beau Brummels Among Birds. Winged rainbows. Beau Brummels Among Birds.

It’s prose perfection, that. But anything less than prose perfection wouldn’t have done – not when you’re writing about Birds of Paradise.

And if the ILN’s account were a relay race, well, the body of the story doesn’t let the side down.

It’s buckle up time, folks. The story tells us first off that Birds of Paradise are most nearly allied to the crows. Had me grabbing for a steadying cup of tea, that opener.

But then the tale hits its stride. I’m quoting now: “The male bird is a veritable Beau Brummel in feathers. In beauty of colour he exceeds all other birds. Beside him, his mate is a street urchin to a king in his coronation robes.” Beau Brummel in feathers – street urchin – King in his coronation robes – it’s all just so London. Even unto the London pride with which the tale ends: To wit: a few years ago the living Bird of Paradise was exceedingly rare in this country: but now the Zoo has an exceptionally fine collection.”

Well, that’s got our minds off a certain political feathers-ruffled Bird of Bloatage for a few minutes at any rate. And for that, I, for one, am grateful.

And a Today in London recommendation? A. V. Roe’s aeroplane is in the Science Museum. Be fun to see it, wouldn’t you say.

You’ve been listening – on this fine June day – to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The small, time-honoured, family-owned, fiercely independent London walking tour company that is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative and that famously – and uniquely – fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that journalist put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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