Today (September 9) in London History – the world’s first aerial postal delivery

The world’s first aerial postal delivery was made on September 9, 1911. A monoplane that resembled nothing so much as a monstrous dragonfly was flown by ace young aviator Gustave Hamel from Hendon in north London to Windsor. 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.

How’s this for a plan? You’re in London and you post a letter to Windsor. It’s special delivery, it’ll get there later in the day. You give strict instructions that as soon as it’s delivered in Windsor it’s to be posted back to you in London – it’s imperative that it catch the late afternoon mail train. 

Makes all kind of sense, doesn’t it. And that’s what happened on Saturday, September 9th, 1911.

We’re talking thousands of letters and cards. London went mad. It was everybody’s desire to have the letters and cards they despatched postmarked September 9th.

Has the penny dropped?

Yes, you got it. It was the first official Aero-post Service in the world. 

And the proof of the pudding was in your hand if you were sending one of those missives. Or in your hand if you received one.

The cards and the envelopes were specially made. They bore a design of Windsor Castle. They were sold ready-stamped – postcards stamped for inland postage at six and a half pence each; envelopes stamped for inland postage at one shilling, one pence each. And the postmark read: “First United Kingdom Aerial Post” and had that all important date on it, September 9, 1911.

So much for the merchandise, what  about the carrier?

The pioneering plane – it was the first of several that day – was a Bleriot racing monoplane. It was piloted by a young aviator named Gustav Hamel, the son of a very well-connected German-speaking Danish doctor who’d settled in London. Settled in Grosvenor Square in fact. The king himself Edward VII was one of Dr Hamel’s patients and regularly came calling at the family residence in Grosvenor Square. Nice to know that Frau Hamel, Gustave’s mother, would not permit His Majesty to bring his terrier Caesar upstairs to the family drawing room. Anyway, the young aviator – he was barely 22 years old – and here’s another guiding point for you, he was educated at Westminster School – took off from Hendon at 4.58 pm. He was carrying a 25 lb bag of letters, postcards and a few newspaper.

His aeroplane resembled nothing so much as a monstrous dragonfly. Just over 12 minutes later it touched down in Windsor. In Windsor Great Park. In full view of Windsor Castle. It had travelled at the amazing speed of 105 miles an hour. There was a large, enthusiastic crowd at Hendon to see it off. And there were many many more at Windsor to see it come in. Less than an hour later it was on its way back to Hendon. It had been the smaller, lighter, faster plane. A monoplane. It was followed by two slower, heavier bi-planes that each carried a 100 lb bag of mail. The post office had been deluged with letters and cards. Everybody wanted to send a letter on the first-ever aerial post. The total came to 580 lbs of post – that was clamouring to be in one of those bags bound for Windsor. That was far more than the scheduled three aeroplanes were equal to. So not all of the mail postmarked September – it came to a total of 90,000 missives – got airborne on that first day. In that first bag – Gustav Hamel’s 25 lb bag – they’d intentionally kept the weight down as much as possible so the flight time would astonish the world – anyway, in that first bag a letter from the king and other VIP letters.

They were handed over on the spot. There was a post office man, on his bicycle, at the ready. He took the remaining letters. Sped off to the post office. Many of those letters were sorted and despatched and on the six o’clock train to London. They’d be delivered, on the same day, by 8 o’clock. Wonder if any of those letters have survived. And how much they’d be worth to a collector today. 

Anyway, it was a big deal. It had taken five months of preparation. 

The night before printers had worked all night to try to meet the demand for what effectively were the first aerogrammes. Another feature of considerable difficulty was that of stamping the thousands of postcards and envelopes.

And of course they couldn’t go into any old post box or post office. There were ten or so famous London shops where the aerogrammes could be bought. And where the letters were despatched from, bound for Hendon and those three aviators in their magnificent flying machines.

All good fun. London was beside itself with excitement. And you can see so clearly how this development fit that famous London mold. The place and its people – London and Londoners – can’t get enough of novelty. And the spectacular. 

Now we’ve also seen again and again – that it’s the people that give London stories their flair and colour.

The way, today, we talk about, oh I don’t know, Meghan Markle and Christian Ronaldo and Taylor Smith – well, 110 years ago the name on everybody’s lips would have been that handsome young aviator, Gustave Hamel. He was one of the first aviators to perform that amazing feat – looping the loop. He was so good that he even made it onto Winston Churchill’s radar. He took Churchill up in his plane. Churchill said of him, “if there ever was a man born to fly, three parts a bird and the rest genius, it was Hamel.”

But alas, not quite enough of a bird, not quite enough genius. Less than three years later – Gustave Hamel was 24 years old – he set off from Villacoublay aerodrome near Paris to deliver a new monoplane direct to Hendon, where he was to take part in the third aerial derby that afternoon. He set off for Hendon just after mid-day but his plane crashed and he was drowned mid-channel.

A memorial service was held at Grosvenor Chapel, just round the corner from his parents. Grosvenor Chapel where we go on our Old Mayfair walk.

French aviators paid tribute to him as ‘le Garros anglais.” After Roland Garros, the French aviator for whom the famous French tennis stadium is named.

But I’ll think we’ll end with the tribute Duff Cooper paid him, a very fine poem called In Memoriam.

It goes like this:

And a Today in London recommendation. The Postal Museum of course. Here’s what they say: 

Discover inspiring exhibitions and explore London’s 100-year old postal tunnels. Bringing five centuries of communications history to life.

Sounds good, doesn’t it. And it’s every bit as good as it sounds. I’ve been there. It’s a great museum. 

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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