Gertrude Bacon (1874 – 1949)

Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society

Gertude Bacon was an aeronaut, writer and lecturer – like her father.

Amongst her many achievements were the first woman to fly in an airship, at Shrewsbury during 1904 in Stanley Spencer’s Airship Number 3; the first Englishwoman to fly as a passenger in an aeroplane, at Rheims on 29 August 1909 in Roger Sommer’s Farman; the first woman to fly as a passenger in a hydro-aeroplane, at Windermere on 15 July 1912 in the Lakes Flying Company’s ‘Waterhen’ – see photo opposite, and the first woman to fly as a passenger in a hydro-monoplane, at Windermere on 16 July 1912 in the Admiralty’s Deperdussin.

Flying at Rheims

‘And then began to appear notices of the great Aviation Meeting – the first ever. There were no two words about it – I must go; and since there was no one to go with, I must go alone. … The lower wing was five feet from the ground, and there was no step to help one up. How I got up I do not know, and what I sat on I do not comprehend. I was only conscious that Sommer, when he scrambled in after me, was very close in front, wedging me tightly between himself and the extremely hot radiator of the engine behind. … The motion was wonderfully smooth – smoother yet – and then – ! Suddenly there had come into it a new, indescribable quality – a lift – a lightness – a life! Very many there are now who know that feeling: that glorious, gliding sense that the sea-bird has known this million years, and which man so long and so vainly has envied it, and which, even now, familiarity can never rob of its charm.’ After landing, which she did not feel or realise, the noise of the engine caused her to be deaf for two or three minutes.

Writing Edward Wakefield before coming to Windermere

‘Having tried most means of aerial locomotion it seems my clear duty to sample a hydro-aeroplane – and I am prepared to come at any time, and pay any fee you mention for the great privilege – if only it might be accorded me.’

Flying in Waterhen around Windermere

Waterhen, the immediate successor to Waterbird, had made its first flight twelve weeks beforehand. ‘In forty-two minutes we circled the entire lake, flying conscientiously over every nook and bay. Around us, sleeping in blue summer haze, lay the mountains – Wetherlam, Langdale Pikes, Crinkle Crags, Helvellyn, every name a poem. … I was sad when the circuit was complete, and Hill of Oaks once more beneath.’ She took photos during the flight.

Flying in the Deperdussin at Windermere: see photo

Wakefield entered into a contract with the Admiralty to convert Royal Navy Deperdussin M.1 into a hydro-aeroplane, and Gertrude Bacon went to see the trial trips. ‘Would you like,’ said Mr. Wakefield to me, ‘would you like to be the first woman to fly in a hydro-monoplane?’ Would I not! So they hoisted me in (it was a difficult matter right out on the water). It was thrilling, but I cannot pretend it was comfortable. Seventy miles an hour, immediately behind the great engine, without wind-screen or goggles, was a fearsome experience. The eyes seemed blown from my head and the breath from my nostrils. It is a literal fact that I discovered myself, unconsciously, holding on to my nose, so convinced was my instinct that it also would be blown away from me!’

Flying over Windermere

‘To fly over water is certainly to taste to the full the joy of flight, and when the water is Windermere and the scenery the pick of English Lakeland, which is to many a traveller the pick of the whole world, in its soft intimate loveliness, the result is something not lightly forgotten.’

Visiting Windermere, and A. V. Roe & Co. at Brownsfield Mills, Manchester, where Waterbird was built as a landplane

‘I visited the aerodromes and aeroplane works that by then were springing up in all directions. One of the earliest of the latter I found in a mill outside Manchester, where half the building was devoted to the manufacture of men’s braces, and the other to ‘Avroplanes’. Of the former the most romantic example was undoubtedly Windermere.’

Writing Edward Wakefield afterwards

‘You were good indeed to me, and gave me one (or should I say two) of the very rarest treats of my life. I daresay you saw that the ‘Mirror’ had reference and a picture [taken by her]. I should be proud indeed – for I also am an enthusiast – and keen beyond measure on the progress of the work to which you have made such magnificent contribution. Again a thousand thanks for your goodness to me.’

Flying to Paris

This flight was typical for Gertrude Bacon in that it was new and fulfilled a desire for which she had to undergo considerable discomfort, yet her love for flying shone through, being described in her usual wonderfully eloquent style.

‘The uninterrupted views were unsurpassed, especially when, in his fruitless endeavour to rise above the ‘bumps’, our pilot drove his craft higher than usual and we entered and climbed above the scurrying clouds, and I saw again that matchless scene of old ballooning days – cloudland and aloft. Kent was green and gold in the harvest, the Channel was a deep blue meadow in which a flock of white cloudlets wandered as sheep, and tiny white-horses stood for the daisies, while two endless silver ribbons that cut the world in twain represented the coasts of England and France.’

On 26 August 1919, along with the wife of the pilot Sholto Douglas (later Marshal of the RAF and Chairman of British European Airways) who sat with him in the open cockpit, Gertrude Bacon became the first woman to fly on an airline service between London and France. The journey from Cricklewood, via Hounslow to clear customs, to Le Bourguet, Paris was extremely rough, taking 4 hours due to a strong headwind. The converted Handley Page bomber with an unenclosed space in the fuselage, was ‘well-nigh prehistoric, most bitter cold (despite the fur-lined coat provided), the noise of the engines being almost overwhelming and speech quite impossible’. At Paris, it was a walk of some distance to catch a tram and, had it not been for an American lady with a tea-basket in the motor in which she was taking an afternoon’s ride, there would not have been any refreshment for many hours.

On 28 July 1939, Douglas was in an aeroplane which crashed at Kirkby Moor to the south-west of Windermere. Fellow passenger Air Marshal Sir Christopher Courtney sustained a fractured kneecap and was hospitalised. Courtney was about to succeed Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding as Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command; instead the appointment went to Douglas.

Reverend John Mackenzie Bacon

Gertude Bacon’s father’s career included carrying out experiments on 10 November 1902 with the Admiralty for detection of submarines by balloon, from Douglas, Isle of Man, via Abbey Head on the Solway coast, to near Dumfries. He photographed the seabed from a height of 600 feet, which Gertude described as ‘absolutely unique in the annals of photography’. This balloon voyage had only been made once before, eighty-five years earlier, and was the culminating point of his aeronautical career. – In 2013,  the Federation Aeronautique Internationale inducted him into its Ballooning Commission Hall of Fame.

John Bacon experienced contrasting reactions upon landing:

On 20 August 1888, he ‘left this world’ for the first time and landed at Hatfield. The  farm owner was amongst several men who ran up and was out of breath to the point of collapse. “Look here; you’ve a horse and cart somewhere, and I must have it. What will you want?” The reply came “I’m broken-winded now for life, and you’ll have to pay for that; then there’s my hayrick getting wet, that’ll be another five shillings”; and so on!

The above 1902 landing was in a bog at the Glen of Glenesslyn. Men approached who kept their hands in their pockets and gave no help. Bacon enquired if there was a cart to be had. Well, they could na’ be sure. “But of course there is a cart, wouldn’t money hire it?” This time, the reply was “Well, maybe the horse is tired – “!

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes

World War One


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.


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