Captain Edward William Wakefield MA (1862 – 1941)

Captain Edward Wakefield was one of Britain’s most important aviation pioneers. It was his aeroplane, Waterbird, which on 25 November 1911 made the first successful flight from water in the UK at Windermere.

Born into a prosperous Lakeland family, Edward Wakefield trained as a banker and barrister (1893). But from an early age his restless disposition, combined with a strong sense of religious duty and Victorian patriotism, drove him to wider pastures. He was active in charity work, mainly with children in need, in London in the 1890s and again in the early 1900s. On the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, he joined the Carlisle-based Border Regiment and saw two years active service in South Africa.

Attending a flying meeting at Blackpool in 1909, he was told that casualties were inevitable when flying from land. He decided that flying from water would be much safer. Helped by considerable wealth and self-confidence, he set out to prove it. He built hangars at Windermere. He bought and tested one of the earliest Avro aeroplanes, which he named ‘Waterbird’, for experimentation and adaption and patented his float and method of attachment. National publicity followed. On 1 January 1912, he formed the Lakes Flying Company. A strong protest campaign led by Beatrix Potter and Canon Rawnsley was foiled with Winston Churchill‘s help. Soon his Hill of Oaks base became a centre for Admiralty testing and, by WW1, for the large-scale training of naval pilots whose graduates fought, and all too often died, on the Western and Mediterranean Fronts.

In 1914, despite advancing age (he was then 52) Wakefield re-joined the army, spent three years training troops, commanded a Labour Battalion on the Western Front, served in Italy and ended the War as Chief Church Army Commissioner for France and Belgium. His health badly damaged, he spent the rest of his life in Kendal, active as Mayor, Chair of Magistrates, local landowner and supporter of good causes. He died in 1941. His wife Mary pre-deceased him in 1921. He had one child, Marion, who many years later fondly reminisced of helping sew fabric for Waterbird’s wings and foiling pre-WW1 German spies. His grandson, James Gordon (1913-1998), was also a distinguished figure in aviation history – pioneering air-sea rescue dinghies and revolutionary wood epoxy construction techniques for Mosquito aircraft and Horsa gliders in WW2.

John Gordon
Great Grandson

QUOTES

‘At about 8 p.m. under young Mr. Raynham’s skilful piloting a splendid flight took Brooklands by storm. Rising slowly and turning at first in wide sweeps she soon gathered speed and height and sailed for some miles (4 at least) over houses and trees, and then landed in front of her hangar as gently as a thistledown. Thus she passed her contract test with flying colours.’ – Letter to his wife, 1 July 1911.

 ‘I come of many generations of Westmorland men, and I yield to no one in love for the scenery, and loyalty to the interests of my country. But many, who along with me learnt during the war in South Africa, the value of scouting, believe that scouting by hydro-aeroplane will shortly become a necessity for the safety of this island – the island which contains the scenes and faces we love. England is far too behind other powers in aircraft and in flying men for both Army and Navy; and although I can now offer a successful British hydro-aeroplane, to adapt it for use on the sea, for carrying an observer, a wireless installation, &c., many further experiments will be necessary.’ – Letter to The Times, 11 January 1912.

‘Mr Wakefield himself takes up the cudgels on his own behalf in a letter which he has sent to us, and which was published in The Times on the 11th inst. In it he answers Canon Rawnsley’s points seriatim, and which we think makes out a good case for himself.’ – Editorial Comment, Flight magazine, 20 January 1912.

‘The loud even hum of the seven cylinders commences and we are off, at first quite slowly, then with rapidly increasing speed we skim the surface of the lake. The sweet air begins to sing in the wires. All at once we are rising, there is no jerk, one only knows one is flying by the smoothness and ease of the motion; it seems very rapid, the shining blue and white ripples being past so fast. 35, 40 m.p.h. gradually we get higher, the ripples become smaller, indistinct and then fade from sight, the view opens out as it does when one ascends a steep hill, only so much more easily, so much more wonderfully. There is a perfect blaze of spring colouring underneath and around. As we rise higher and higher the fields look like bright and green squares of a chess board, but not so regular. The woods are a medley of every glorious shade of green one can imagine. The lake becomes a pool of liquid silver, the beasts grazing in the sunshine pause a moment to look around and then go on feeding, but the swans and other birds seem restless and a little puzzled. The fells look nearer and clearer, but strangely flat. The motion can only be compared to sailing over a gentle swell; it is exhilarating, glorious, a sport and a pastime for kings. We take a little circle and then turn and come down just as gently as we rose. I hear the sound of water under the float, but am not conscious of any jerk or check to tell me we have left the soft arms of the kindly air and come to rest supported on the laughing waters.’ – Article in Flight magazine, 11 May 1912.

‘Every boy worth his salt builds castles in the air. Only sometimes his wings (opportunities) have not enough area to carry the load. And sometimes his engine (force of character) is a bit short of power. So grey hairs come, and the castles fade. But I was lucky. My castle was to fly, and it materialised after five and thirty years. It is however not yet four years since I decided to concentrate on waterplanes which at that date were ridiculed as impossible just as a year or two before then the idea of any machine really flying was laughed out of court.’ – Article by Wakefield in The Aeroplane magazine, 10 April 1913.

 

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes

World War One

Waterbird

On 25 November 1911, from Windermere, Waterbird achieved the world's first successful flight to use a stepped float. Waterbird was an Avro Curtiss-type hydro-aeroplane. The pilot was Herbert Stanley Adams (later Lieutenant Colonel).

Waterbird was commissioned by Captain Edward Wakefield from A. V. Roe & Company. Wakefield patented the stepped float and means of attachment, for which he entered into a contract on 14 March 1912 with the Admiralty, and also to convert a Deperdussin naval serial M.1 to a hydro-aeroplane.

'We believe that with the exception of the hydro-aeroplanes of the Unites States Navy no other machine of like nature has been so successful.' - Kendal Mercury & Times, 22 December 1911.

Deperdussin at Windermere

The dismantled Deperdussin arrived by rail at Windermere on 13 June 1912, and, having been successfully converted from a landplane, was flown during July by Adams, Lieutenant Reginald Gregory and Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) Charles Samson. On 10 January 1912 off Sheerness, Samson had achieved the first aeroplane launch from a British warship - HMS Africa, and on 2 May 1912 off Weymouth, the first take-off from a moving ship - HMS Hibernia.

Quotes

In a letter to the Times, on 11 January 1912, Wakefield wrote 'I yield to no one in love for the scenery, and loyalty to the interests of my country. But many, who along with me learnt during the war in South Africa, the value of scouting, believe that scouting by hydro-aeroplane will shortly become a necessity for the safety of this island. England is far too behind other powers in aircraft and in flying men for both Army and Navy.'

'Edward Wakefield was convinced that the future for Naval hydro-aeroplanes lay in scouting for the fleet and relaying back information – extending the Naval battle space over the horizon. He knew that Naval aircraft could be the eyes and ears of the fleet.' – Commander Sue Eagles, Fly Navy Heritage Trust, in the Fleet Air Arm diary 2012.

'Not only did Edward Wakefield correctly predict the need for floatplanes in the Great War but also the role for the Sunderland flying boats that were to be built on the lake 30 years later.' – Wings on Windermere by Allan King.

The Importance of Private Enterprise

On 28 February 1912, the Report of the Technical Sub-Committee of the Standing Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence was approved, which recommended that the Naval Wing of the Flying Corps should be established and that it attached importance to the maintenance of private enterprise in the field of aeronautics. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the Standing Sub-Committee, when asked in the House of Commons about the Royal Navy and hydro-aeroplanes, referred to the experiments at Windermere and that 'the results so far attained have been promising'.

On 16 April 1912, Churchill confirmed in the Commons that private hydro-aeroplane tests would continue on Windermere. Click here for image.

The term 'seaplane' was coined by Churchill when he answered a question in the Commons on 17 July 1913.

Seaplanes in War

Churchill wrote in a Minute of 10 February 1914 that 'The objectives of land aeroplanes can never be so definite or important as the objectives of seaplanes, which, when they carry torpedoes, may prove capable of playing a decisive part in operations against capital ships. The facilities of reconnaissance at sea, where hostile vessels can be sighted at enormous distances while the seaplane remains out of possible range, offer a far wider prospect even in the domain of information to seaplanes than to land aeroplanes',

Whilst Wakefield advocated defensive scouting, derived from his experience in the Boer War, Churchill, however, came to the view that attack was the prime tactic for defence: 'The great defence against aerial menace is to attack the enemy's aircraft as near as possible to their point of departure'. Three years and one month after Waterbird's first flight, carrier-borne seaplanes were launched against Germany. 'The Cuxhaven raid marks the first employment of the seaplanes of the Royal Naval Air Service in an attack on the enemy's harbours from the sea, and, apart from the results achieved, is an occasion of historical moment. Not only so, but for the first time in history a naval attack has been delivered simultaneously above, on, and from below the surface of the water.' – Flight magazine, 1 January 1915.

Training for Naval Marine Aeroplanes at Windermere

A private Seaplane School was formed at Hill of Oaks on the south east shore of Windermere. For an example of the fate of Windermere students, click here.

Following the outbreak of war, Adams joined the RNAS becoming a Lieutenant Colonel with the DSC and MBE, and Wakefield joined the Cheshire Regiment becoming commander of a Labour Battalion on the Western Front. On 11 November 1914, the Cockshott Point hangar lease, together with Waterhen, Seabird and Lakes Monoplane were sold by the Lakes Flying Company to the Northern Aircraft Company Ltd.

'Large numbers of probationary Sub-Lieutenants R.N. were sent to Windermere for basic instruction, in addition to those who had already qualified on land machines.' - Britain's Seaplane Pioneers by M H Goodall, Air Pictorial January 1988.

The School was taken over on behalf of the Government, and in May 1916 training operations at Cockshott Point and Hill of Oaks became RNAS Unit Hill of Oaks. In June 1916, the headquarters of the RNAS at Windermere moved from Cockshott Point to Hill of Oaks, and, with the departure of civilian instructors, the name was changed to RNAS Windermere.

A Royal Naval Air Station was established at Hill of Oaks 1916-1917. At various times, the fleet included 4 Nieuport VI seaplanes, 9 F.B.A. flying boats, and 3 Short 827 seaplanes.

The first pupil to obtain a Hydro-aeroplane Certificate at RNAS Hill of Oaks was Paul Gadbois, on 14 June 1916. He departed Windermere on 26 June 1916, but two weeks later was seriously injured in a seaplane accident. The last pupil to obtain a Certificate at Windermere was Edward Haller, on 16 August 1916. He joined the RFC, but was killed on 3 June 1917, when shot down flying a Sopwith 1½ Strutter.

RNAS personnel involved themselves in the local community, even putting on a concert. However, parents of daughters complained that the prefix to RNAS Hill of Oaks stood for Rather Naughty After Sunset!

A Tribute to Windermere

'Perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay Hill of Oaks, Windermere is that but for its existence, just a few years later Britain could quite easily have starved to death as a result of the U-boat blockade. Thankfully the deterrent aspect of seaplanes and other aerial craft forced enemy submarines to stay under the surface and therefore make them less effective.' – The Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust.

On 20 May 1917, two ex-Windermere pupils, Flight Sub-Lieutenants Charles Morrish and Henry Boswell, were officially credited with the first aerial sinking of a U-boat whilst flying a Curtiss H-12 flying boat.  Both of them were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

On 3 June 1918, ex-Windermere pupil Captain Harold Gonyon was amongst the first recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross

Borwick & Sons, boat builders of Bowness-on-Windermere, who constructed the floats and aeroplanes of Oscar Gnosspelius (later Major), Waterbird's floats, floats for the RNAS and pinnaces for the Admiralty, were sub-contracted in 1918 to manufacture Felixstowe flying boat hulls.

On 10 May 1918, Captain Cooper Pattinson from Windermere was first pilot of an S.E. Saunders Ltd-built Felixstowe flying boat which shot down a Zeppelin at Heligoland Bight, for which he was among the first recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross. On 16 May 1918, whilst carrying out an anti-submarine patrol, he achieved the record for the longest duration flight during World War 1 at that time of 9 hours 45 minutes. It is claimed that Pattinson invented the spotlight altimeter in 1918, wrongly attributed to Guy Gibson in 1943 in the Dam Busters film.

Wavell Wakefield

On 1 November 1918, Flight Lieutenant Wavell Wakefield (Edward Wakefield's nephew, later Lord Wakefield of Kendal) landed a Sopwith Pup on the after deck of HMS Vindictive at Scapa Flow.

Arthur Wakefield

Doctor Arthur Wakefield (Edward Wakefield's brother) unveiled a memorial on 8 June 1924 at the summit of Great Gable to the twenty members of The Fell & Rock Climbing Club who fell in World War One.

 

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes

Admiralty Deperdussin

Cuxhaven Raid