Today (November 12) in London History – “our sandwiches were frozen solid”

The first London to Australia flight took off on November 12th, 1919. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

We’re in Hounslow, in west London. It’s a few minutes before 8 am on November 12th, 1919. Four men are having a cup of coffee and looking at the morning newspapers.

One of them says, “what is it with these poms? We’re about to do something that’s never been done before, something of world-historical importance, and there’s not so much as a syllable about it in these damned newspapers.”

Ok, let’s see what Ross McPherson Smith was talking about. Let’s see what was in the newspapers on November 12th, 1919.

What was all over those morning papers was the Armistice Day commemorations the day before. Pretty moving stuff, it was. 

The Times titled its main story, THE GREAT SILENCE.

The three sub-titles – you can see each of them, together with the title of the piece – as the opening bars of a piece of music. The three sub-titles are: Nation’s Homage to its Dead. Scenes at the Cenotaph. And A Perpetual Lesson.

And then the carpet of the story is fully rolled out. It begins: At 11 o’clock yesterday morning the nation, in response to the King’s invitation, paid homage to the Glorious Dead by keeping a two minutes’ silence for prayer and remembrance. Deep, true emotion cannot be contained in mere words: and no combination of phrases could describe the feelings of the multitudes who stood silent and prayerful in London’s streets yesterday. Many were experiencing again a grief of the war; many thought of friends they would never see again. Everywhere there was mourning, sorrow, and thanksgiving. For some minutes before the maroons ushered in the period of prayer a strange self-consciousness had fallen upon the people. A new gentleness seemed abroad…

The story goes on. We learn about the weather. And the look of London.

And most important of all, the sound of London.

November 11th, 1919 was bright cold with a keen wind. The streets seemed busier than usual. From the Queen Victoria Memorial one wondered if London ever looked so fair. Through the last copper-coloured autumn foliage of the Green Park, the white buildings of Piccadilly gleamed in the sun. 

The cars took black-garbed relatives to the many services. And continuously the church bells tolled sorrowfully and persistently. It was more than a call to prayer – more than a tribute. In the great awful silence that fell upon London’s streets yesterday there was a glimpse into the soul of the Nation.

And at the story’s climax, those great lines from Thomas Campbell’s poem, Battle of the Baltic.

Everywhere there was life, busy and carrying on with the work of the day. then from the left of Buckingham Palace, from the Guard Room, the Palace detachment of the King’s Guard came out. In a moment or two the maroons sounded. The Guard could be seen presenting arms – and the guard at the regimental headquarters at Buckingham Gate – the soldiers stood to attention, and from a great babel of noise and confusion arose the greater silence –

      There was silence deep as death,

      And the boldest held his breath

      For a time.

The men uncovered. As i stood there, with bared head, “sorrow’s keenest wind” cut across many memories. How many Guardsmen had swung round that corner in pride and vigour on their King’s Guard? How many are now filling lonely graves in France and Flanders?”

Beautifully written isn’t it? High Cs like that, it’s very rare for today’s journalism to be able to hit those notes.

Turning to the Telegraph, we can be there in the Abbey on November 11th, 1919, there in the Abbey listening to Dr Ryle, the Dean of Westminster’s sermon. Knowing what we know – knowing about what Winston Churchill would call the gathering storm of the 1930s, Dean Ryle’s moving, handsome, deeply felt remarks are so bittersweet. He said,

“Let it not be said that the country’s gratitude for the unspeakable bravery of our men evaporated when the smoke cleared from the battlefield. Remember the common soldier and the ordinary seaman, and what is in your power to do for them. Out of the seed of all this blood let us pray there may grow up a better Britain, a purer State, and cleaner society. As long as the war raged, as long as death was demanding its daily holocaust, you and I said, day by day, ‘This shall be never again, for this is a hateful, wicked thing, horrid in God’s sight and man’s; this is a reproach to Christianity.’ Then let us with all sincerity determine to promote the cause which, through, a League of Nations,may render the appeal to arms infinitely more improbable, more difficult.”

Well, fine sentiments.

Anyway, what else was going on on November 11th that kept Captain Ross Smith and his companions out of the newspapers.

There were of course short reports from all over the world of how Armistice Day. In Canada, for example, even the trains stopped for two minutes. In America, the Prince of Wales’ train halted near Baltimore on its way to Washington. Halted for two minutes while the Prince and his staff stood at attention.

Other stories, Cardinal Mercier was in London. His visit was covered. 

As was the visit to Guildhall by the French president. 

There was the announcement that the LCC had acquired 250 acres at Bellingham for housing purposes. 

There was a report from Russia on Bolshevism up close. And report on the prospects for women in Canada.

And there was a death sentence handed out in the Nottingham Crown Court.

There were the advertisements, so redolent of that day and age.  The Times was, out of 26 pages, six pages of advertisements. Amongst many others it ran an advertisement for Harrod’s Ladies Coats and one for Michelin wheels and one that was headlined, The Surpassing Virtues of Grasshopper ointment as a Chilblain Cure.

There were theatre and concert reviews. And of course business and real estate news.

Oh and a story about the new London to Paris air mail service. It had debuted on Monday, November 10th. But had failed. Abnormally bad visibility had caused the pilot to return soon after he had ascended. Try and try again. They had better luck on Armistice Day. Eight bags of express letters collected by motor car from the post offices in various parts of London which had been chosen for the service arrived at Hounslow aerodrome about noon and at 12.35 am the bi-plane was airborne and on its way to Paris. Despite the 40 mph wind in the channel it touched down in Paris two hours and five minutes later. And that was what was in the newspapers that morning. All the news that was fit to print. Which bemused Captain Ross Smith and his colleagues as they sipped their coffee that morning. At Hounslow.

At Hounslow Aerodrome to be exact. 

One can readily imagine Captain Ross Smith saying “we’re about to fly halfway round the world – do something nobody’s ever done before – and it doesn’t get a look-in in these Pom newspapers but that piddling little airmail flight to Paris makes the cut.”

Ok, you’ve caught a glimpse. I’ve twice used the word “pom”. That’s a pretty good clue. And the airmail story is pretty much the perfect transition to our November 12th, 1919 Today in London History story.

Captain Ross McPherson Smith and his brother Lieutenant Keith Smith and Sergeants J.M. Bennet and W.H. Shiers will be taking off, in a twin-engine Vickers-Vimy biplane, powered by Rolls Royce engines. They’ll take off from Hounslow Aerodrome at 9.10 am on November 12th, 1919 and fly to Australia. 

Some of the particulars are grim in the extreme.

Bad weather had delayed their departure for two weeks. The Hounslow aerodrome was covered in snow when they left. Over Boulogne they encountered a thick bank of clouds which forced them to climb to 8000 feet. In Captain Smith’s words, ‘The cold was bitter, 25 degrees of frost, and for three hours our breath froze on our face-masks. Our sandwiches were frozen solid.’

That said, they did it. Did it magnificently.

They maintained an average of over 400 miles a day. Their goal was to make it to Australia in less than 30 days. They made it in 28 days. And their efforts are amply rewarded. They won a £10,000 prize – which they split equally – that had been put up for the first flight that achieved what in living memory would have been deemed impossible. Their extraordinary flight was over continents and seas, plains and mountains, and through almost every variety of weather and temperature the earth’s restless atmosphere can provide.

And as for those skilled and intrepid airmen – yes, they were all Australians. Captain Ross Smith, who had a distinguished war record in the RAF, was the pilot. His brother Keith, the navigator. The two sergeants – Sergeant Bennet and Sergeant Shiers – were the mechanics.

Speaking of that new airmail service to Paris, just a month after their December 10th landing at Darwin in their homeland – having covered 11,340 miles in a 135 hours of flying – Captain Ross Smith went on record as saying that an aerial mail service between England and Australia was within reach. He said it would take about 14 days to deliver a letter in Sydney from the time of posting in London. Some of the route would be covered by aeroplane and some by seaplane. He said the worst part of the journey would be the first stage from London to Alexandria during the winter months, owing to the tempestuous weather. He said in those months it would probably be necessary to convey the mails to Alexandria by the ordinary method.

Finally, the Smith brothers were knighted for their efforts. Well, it’s not quite finally. So far it’s been all to the good. But this one ends badly.

Come 1921the Smith brothers were planning an around-the-world flight.

They hey decided on a Vickers Viking IV amphibian for the flight, principally because it would lessen their dependence on suitable airfields.

On April 13th, 1922 Captain Ross made his first trial flight of the amphibian. The plan was for the two Smith brothers and one of the two mechanics – Lieutenant Bennett as he was now, having been promoted – to make that test flight. Brother Keith was late arriving at the aerodrome so it was just Captain Ross and Lieutenant Bennett who took off. Smith had not flown for some months, and the amphibian, which had peculiar handling characteristics, was a completely new type to him. At 1200 feet the plane went into a spin, from which it briefly recovered before crashing to the ground in a straight nose dive. Smith and Bennett were both killed. Keith Smith, who had arrived too late to join the flight as planned, witnessed the disaster.

And on that sad, sobering note, a Today in London recommendation:

It’d be the Legal London Walk we do, which goes on Monday afternoon and Wednesday morning. That walk because it ends very near the very beautiful RAF church, St Clement Danes. And just along from it, on the Aldwych, Australia House. It’s a fine building, a Grade II listed building, which has the extra bit of distinction of being the interior for Gringotts in the Harry Potter films. Yes, that’s right the wizards’ bank run by goblins. 

So, in close proximity there, a great Australian connection and an equally marvellous RAF connection. 

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 local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously 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: London Walks Guides 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. See ya tomorrow.

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