Today (May 27) in London History – “world overjoyed by good news”

Two young airmen who tried to make the first trans-Atlantic flight received a rapturous reception at King’s Cross on May 27, 1919. Their plane had gone down. People thought they’d perished. They hadn’t. They were rescued. London was overjoyed. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

Today in London History.

Today is May 27th.

Today in London History is May 27th, 1919.

We’re at King’s Cross Station. Along with thousands of other people. We’re there to welcome – to cheer on – two young men. The Atlantic heroes.

Their names are Harry Hawker and Kenneth MacKenzie Grieve. 

Harry Hawker is of Cornish descent but Australian by birth. 

Kenneth MacKenzie Grieve is English. They’re airman. Hawker’s the pilot, MacKenzie Grieve is the navigator. 

A week ago they were believed lost, dead. Somewhere in the trackless Atlantic.

They’d set out to make the first Transatlantic flight. They flew a single-engine biplane, the Sopwith Atlantic. It was powered by the best engine Britain could make – a 360 horsepower Rolls-Royce V12. They’d made two striking modifications to the biplane. The undercarriage main wheels were jettisonable– that reduced drag and lightened the load. And they fitted a lifeboat into the fuselage in case something went wrong and they had to ditch in the sea. And something did go wrong of course.

But rather than watching this story go down the runway and take off in 2022 cadences, let’s now listen to the distant echo of 1919. 

Here’s Harry Hawker’s local newspaper, the Surrey Comet Mid-Weekly, reporting the start of the flight. And then adumbrating the tragic news that was surely in the offing.

“Mr Harry Hawker, the intrepid Sopwith pilot, and his brave comrade, Lieut -Commander Mackenzie Grieve, finding the weather conditions favourable, made ther start from Newfoundland on the afternoon of the 18th, with high hopes of a successful venture, which were backed by the universal sympathies of their countrymen, and not least by the residents of Kingston and Surbiton to whom Mr Hawker is so well known.”

The Surrey Comet piece ran on May 21st.

The flight – 1880 miles in total – had been expected to take about 24 hours.

The airmen and their magnificent machine did not arrive in Ireland on May 19th.

And so the Surrey Comet piece continued…”Harry Hawker dropped his undercarriage and vanished into the blue. Since then not a word has been heard or trace seen of the airmen or their machine.”

The next edition of the Surrey Comet was beside itself with joy.

It was a four headline job.


followed by

Hawker’s Aeroplane Mishap and Rescue in Mid-Ocean

followed by

Plucky flight of 1100 miles

Followed by

Whole world overjoyed by good news received on Sunday.

So what happened? Yes, mechanical failure 1100 miles out. The radiator kept overheating. They tried everything. Including stopping and restarting the engine. A one-engine aeroplane over the Atlantic – stopping the engine – and trusting that they could restart it. These were brave young men. 

In the end there was nothing for it. They turned south to look for shipping lines. Spotted a Danish steamer, the Mary, ditched the Sopwith in the sea two miles ahead of her. They were rescued by the ship after 90 minutes in the water and returned to England. Well, Scotland, actually.

The Mary didn’t have a radio so the world was in the dark about the rescue until the Mary passed the Butt of Lewis. It flashed the signal, Saved hands Sopwith aeroplane. News of the rescue was flashed to London and then out across the country. There was universal rejoicing. And London readied itself for a second Mafficking. Do you remember the word? I used it in the May 18th podcast, which was about the tremendous celebrations that erupted in London when news of the Relief of Mafeking came into the UK. The very name of the besieged South African town became a verb.

To maffick was to celebrate both extravagantly and publicly.

That was in 1900. 19 years later London had another onset of mafficking.

This one took place at King’s Cross, where thousands of Londoners had gathered to meet the train that brought Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve home to London.

There are three sequels to this story.

  1. In early June an American steamer found the derelict Sopwith floating tail upward in the Atlantic. The American vessel rescued the bi-plane, brought it back to England. It was displayed for a time on the roof of Selfridges.
  2. The great press baron Lord Northcliffe – yes, that’s right, your memory serves, he was in a recent podcast – anyway, the great press baron Northcliffe had offered a prize of £10,000 to the aviators who made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieves didn’t make it – but in recognition of their effort the Daily Mail awarded them £5,000. The £10,000 prize would go to J.W. Alcock and A.W. Brown. They achieved the first non-stop crossing just a month after just a month after Hawker and Grieve’s heroic failure. And of course the prize of undying fame would go to Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St Louis eight years later when the man and his magnificent flying machine made the first solo transatlantic flight. 
  3. Harry Hawker will be dead in two years’ time. On July 12, 1921 he’s test-flying a British Nieuport Nighthawk at Hendon. The plane entered a dive. And didn’t pull out of it.

I like this story a lot. For several reasons. First of all, it taught me things I didn’t know. I of course have heard of Charles Lindberg. Who hasn’t. But I was completely clueless about Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieves. I’m glad I’ve got them on my radar.

Second of all, the tale’s comforting because it fits so well with a recognised, important, quixotic national characteristic: the affection for and honouring of failure. Think of Scott failing to get to the South Pole and dying in the trackless wastes of Antartica. Or think of Franklin trying and failing to find the Northwest Passage. And, yes, dying. And of course Dunkirk. And the something in the British spirit that could turn that military disaster into a triumph. Well, what Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieves did is yet another patch that goes into that very special quilt.

Thirdly, the story prompted questions, got me thinking. Why was the response to the airmen’s coming back from the dead as it were – to their being safe – why was the response so tremendous? Why did London go a mafficking when it got the news? I don’t know for sure. But I have a hunch. The Great War – the industrialised slaughter of a generation of young men, a million of them – that was what filled everybody’s rearview mirror in 1919. The war had ended only six months before. This country, the world had had its fill of young lives cut down in their prime. To have these two young airmen come back from the dead as it were, well, in the context of what the country had just been through, that huge celebration at King’s Cross – relief, jubilation, ecstasy – what else would you expect? In 1919 Britain didn’t need any more dead young men.

Ok, who’s up for a Today in London recommendation? How about if we make it a Tomorrow in Farnborough recommendation? Farnborough’s close enough to London. And tomorrow’s close enough to July 18th, the first day of the Farnborough International Airshow. Farnborough’s only 30 miles away from London. A train will whisk you down there in less than an hour. Enough said.

You’ve been listening 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. London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The London Walking tour company that, uniquely, fronts it walks with accomplished, barristers, doctors, geologists, archaeologists, historians etc.

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that always 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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