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Aviation At Windermere

Waterhen 2 June 1914



The following, from the North-West Evening Mail, sets the scene:

‘The replica Waterbird – regardless of whether it flew just once or a dozen times – would become an important part of local history.

‘I certainly think it is important to celebrate Windermere’s cultural heritage and cultural heritage isn’t just about its landscape and literary associations.

‘Its industrial heritage and boat building and seaplane building is just as a legitimate part of Windermere’s history.’ – Bob Cartwright.


The golden age of the lake was from the late 19th century until the early 20th century. It featured steam boats and hydro-aeroplanes: this image of Waterhen flying over steam cargoboat Raven, which operated at the lake 1871-1922, ‘evokes something of the drama of the time and the growing ascendance of the petrol engine over steam’. – The Great Age of Steam on Windermere by G H Pattinson. Waterbird was built in 1911; the same year as saloon launch Swallow, which is the sister ship of Osprey and Shamrock – the builder of all three boats was Shepherd’s of Bowness-on-Windermere. When a Sunderland flying boat (1990) and a Catalina flying boat (1994) visited the lake, Shamrock acted as tender. This photo, taken on 25 August 1913, includes Waterhen and saloon launch Lily (subsequently re-named Branksome).

Swift, the biggest vessel  to have been launched on the lakewas in service 1900-1981 being the last coal-powered vessel commissioned by the Furness Railway Company. She was described as ‘without doubt the finest ship ever to sail on Windermere’. – Village by the Water: A History of Bowness-on-Windermere by J L Campbell. Steam yacht Swan operated 1869-1938, described by Pattinson as a ‘particularly fine and fast steamer’.

All historical photographs at Windermere on this website were taken by Frank Herbert, unless otherwise stated.


During 18-20 October 1909, Wakefield attended at the Blackpool Aviation Week. It was Great Britain’s first official meeting, being recognised by the Aero Club. There he saw flying machines for the first time, including that of Alliott Verdon Roe about which he wrote on 19 October. Reaching a height of 225 feet created enormous enthusiasm and 40 miles per hour was considered to be ‘exceedingly fast’. He described witnessing accidents to Hubert Latham’s Antoinette aeroplane when it came down too suddenly and to Henri Rougier’s Voisin which was caught by a gust. At a time when an aeroplane capable of rising from and alighting upon water was described in Flight magazine as ‘scarcely even dreamt of’, he concluded that in the event of structural or engine failure it would be safer to land on water. However, his pioneering theory was ridiculed by the leading experts who were present.

Wakefield commissioned A. V. Roe and Company to build Waterbird, an Avro Curtiss-type. He switched from a Bleriot-type upon the world’s first practical hydro-aeroplane flight by Glenn Curtiss on 26 January 1911 at San Diego Bay in California. Construction took place at Brownsfield Mills, Manchester, testing at Brooklands and delivery to Windermere on 7 July 1911 where conversion took place to a hydro-aeroplane. However, delay was caused by the defective condition of the engine, such that it could not have been used safely and was taken to the Gnome Engine Company’s works in Paris for repair.

The plan is the oldest surviving plan of any Avro aeroplane.

The rudder is the oldest surviving part carrying the legend ‘A. V. Roe & Co’.

The first task at Windermere for Wakefield was to have a hangar designed and built. The site which he chose was land he owned at Hill of Oaks, on the south-east shore of the lake. However, this proved too out of the way for business and he wanted to come to Bowness, where he took out a lease of land at Cockshott in 1912.

On 25 November 1911, Waterbird successfuly took off from Windermere and alighted. The pilot was Herbert Stanley Adams, whom Wakefield had first met at Brooklands. Wakefield had not been present, so Adams sent a telegram to him: ‘Several short flights no damage’.

Waterbird ‘had the distinction of being the first successful British hydro-aeroplane.’ – Flight magazine, 7 December 1912. More precisely, it was the first outside of France and the US.

The world’s first successful flight to use a stepped float, it was only achieved after considerable experimentation by Wakefield over two years and when a second step was added at the stern. The design of floats had become a science of its own. The floats were built by Borwick & Sons, boatbuilders of Bowness.

Photographs of Waterbird in flight occupied the entire front page of magazines: the Aeroplane (25 January 1912), Flight (27 January 1912) and the Aero (February 1912). Also, there was a feature in the French magazine Le Plein Air (16 February 1912).

However, disaster struck on 29 March 1912, when Waterbird was written off in a hangar collapse at Cockshott. By then, Waterbird had accomplished about 60 flights on 38 different days, the furthest for 20 miles, and attained 800 feet. Photos of surviving parts, now held at the RAF Museum Reserve Collection, are here.

On 11 December 1911, Wakefield filed UK Patents No. 27,770 and No. 27,771 relating to the means for float attachment including rubber bungees for shock absorption when taking off and alighting, and a stepped float, which were respectively granted on 12 September 1912 and 18 March 1913. The first patent for a stepped hydroplane, for a boat, had been granted in 1907 to Albert Edward Knight. Today, all seaplane floats have steps. Also, on 13 November 1913, Wakefield was granted UK Patent No. 18,051 for the float of a seaplane to support its own weight or the greater part of such weight during flight.


On 18 November 1911, at Cavendish Dock, Barrow-in-Furness, an Avro D had taken off. Fitted with a pair of stepped floats, it left the water for 50 or 60 yards. The pilot was Commander (later Air Vice-Marshal Sir, KCB CBE) Oliver Schwann (later Swann). However, he had only taught himself basic pilot skills and was unprepared for the sudden climb to a height of 15 or 20 feet. The aeroplane fell back into the water, damaging the floats and smashing up a lower wing.

Schwann was among the founder members of the Hermione Flying Club at Barrow, which included Lieutenant Eugene Gerrard (one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty, later Air Commodore) and Captain (later Rear-Admiral Sir) Murray Sueter. Flying was carried out privately, not as a Royal Navy officer.

On 2 April 1912, the Avro D achieved the first successful flight from seawater in Britain, when the pilot was Sydney Sippe.


Gnosspelius, like Wakefield, was inspired by attending the Blackpool Aviation Meeting. Following a letter of introduction from the Lancashire Aero Club, of which Wakefield was a Vice President, they both visited Henri Fabre at Paris in October 1910 where he was exhibiting his hydravion which had made the world’s first flight from water on 28 March 1910 near Marseilles.

Gnosspelius No. 2

Earlier in the day than Waterbird’s first flight on 25 November 1911Gnosspelius No. 2 had been going for a minute when there was an untoward gust of wind causing Gnosspelius to lose control. He had been instructed by Howard Pixton (later Captain) at Brooklands, but limited to flying straight and level. He overcorrected, causing a rapid bank to the right and then to the left, following which a wing-tip was damaged and the propeller splintered upon striking the water, resulting in the aeroplane turning over onto its back.

Gnosspelius No. 2 successfully flew on 14 February 1912, when the pilot was Gnosspelius. In April 1912, Ronald Kemp flew Gnosspelius No. 2 – he had test-flown Waterbird at Brooklands.

Gnosspelius No.1 and Gnosspelius No. 2 were both hydro-monoplanes, whereas Waterbird and Waterhen were hydro-biplanes.


Wakefield’s success brought congratulatory letters, telegrams and acknowledgments. They included from Schwann, the mother of Gnosspelius and also Reverend Sidney Swann. Swann, of Crosby Ravensworth near Shap, designed and built a landplane, having also been to the Blackpool Aviation Meeting.


The Lakes Flying Company was established by Wakefield on 20 December 1911. The patron was Lord Lonsdale, who owned the lake bed, with Adams as Manager. The declared intentions were to build aeroplanes, experiment, teach pupils and give exhibitions. The first British hydro-aeroplane school was created. A logo was designed and adverts placed.


Lieutenant Arthur Longmore (one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, off Kent, and later Air Chief Marshal Sir) test-flew Waterbird for the Admiralty on 20 January 1912. He compiled a Report, now held at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, concluding that ‘the float and undercarriage are excellent’.

The Admiralty took an early keen interest in the hydro-aeroplane school at Windermere. Rear-Admiral (later Admiral Sir) Ernest Troubridge, Chief of Staff, compiled a paper on The Development of Naval Aeroplanes on 23 January 1912. For the obtaining of personnel, he proposed ‘Bristol school or Wakefield hydro-aeroplane school to train those pilots that cannot be received at Eastchurch at present’.

Wakefield entered into a contract on 14 March 1912 with the Admiralty for floats and undercarriages, or royalties, and to convert Admiralty Deperdussin M.1 (a monoplane) into a hydro-aeroplane; following initial communication with Captain (later Rear Admiral Sir) Godfrey Paine of HMS Actaeon at Sheerness. The contract was expressed to be subject to the Official Secrets Act.

The Deperdussin was accepted for the Admiralty at Windermere on 24 July 1912 by Lieutenant (later Acting Commander) Reginald Gregory (one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty and a member of the Technical Sub-Committee of the Standing Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence on Aerial Navigation (‘C.I.D.”), and he flew it the following day. Commander Charles Samson (one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty, the first pilot to take off from a British warship on 10 January 1912 and the first from a moving ship on 2 May 1912, a member of both the C.I.D. and its Technical Sub-Committee, and later Air Commodore) had flown in the Avro D at Brooklands on 12 May 1911 and flew in the Deperdussin at Windermere.


Edward Wakefield

‘I should say that you are certainly the first [in the world] passenger in a hydro-monoplane.’ – A letter of 17 July 1912 from the Editor of The Aeroplane magazine to Wakefield, after he had flown at Windermere in the Admiralty Deperdussin which he converted into a hydro-aeroplane within 3 weeks. ‘The Lakes Flying Company had a share in producing, we believe, the first hydro-monoplane to lift passengers.’ – Flight magazine, 7 December 1912.

Gertrude Bacon

In July 1912, Gertrude Bacon flew in Waterhen becoming the first woman in the world to make a passenger flight in a hydro-aeroplane, and in the Deperdussin becoming the first woman in the world to make a passenger flight in a hydro-monoplane. – In 1909 at Rheims, she had become the first Englishwoman to fly as a passenger in an aeroplane.

Gertrude Bacon wrote in her book Memories of Land and Sky: ‘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’.


Protests took place against flying at Windermere.

A Committee was established; the principal spokesperson for the objectors being Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Opinion was divided: for example, the Westmorland Gazette of 20 January 1912 carried not only a letter from Beatrix Potter that any increased numbers of trippers being attracted to Bowness due to hydro-aeroplanes would not be sustained, but also a report of a meeting convened by the Windermere Trade Association which supported hydro-aeroplanes as an advantage to the district. There was a national campaign, deputations were made to the House of Commons, and many letters were written by both sides including to Windermere Urban District Council, Westmorland Council, Westmorland Gazette, Times, Globe, Liverpool Daily Courier, Daily News, Yorkshire Post, Country Life, Spectator, Aero magazine and Flight magazine. The Royal Aero Club appointed a Sub-committee and invited Wakefield to state his views to it. However, Wakefield was initially unable to cite his Admiralty contract since he had signed the Official Secrets Act.

Everything hung in the balance on 16 April 1912 upon a question being raised in the House of Commons. The answer came from Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who declared that flying would continue at Windermere.

On 16 August 1912, the Kendal Mercury & Times reported that ‘On the water the aeroplane is a companion among the lake craft, for former fears are fled as the terrors of a dream vanish with waking hours’.


In putting forward the hydro-aeroplane for a role of scouting, Wakefield envisaged the relaying back of information to be achieved by a wireless installation. On 19 July 1912, an Admiralty representative came to Windermere so as to observe a new method of transmitting wireless messages from Waterhen. In March 1913, the Lakes Flying Company was issued with a licence by the General Post Office for experiments in wireless telegraphy.


The first civilian Seaplane School was established, with the initial lesson on 9 September 1912 given to Second Lieutenant John Trotter. On 12 November 1912, Trotter was awarded Aviator’s Certificate No. 360, the first British Certificate with the tests having been achieved on a hydro-aeroplane.

Lessons included flying by moonlight, ‘a feature unique to this special school’. – Flight magazine, 5 February 1915.

Aviators’ Certificates

Wakefield was a member of the Royal Aero Club (‘RAeC’), besides being a Vice President of the Lancashire Aero Club. He was proactive as to Aviators’ Certificates, writing the RAeC and  accompanying the RAeC delegates to a Conference at Paris on 28 February 1913, when the rules were drawn up by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale for Hydro-aeroplane Certificates. The first two such UK Certificates were awarded to Windermere pupils James Bland on 30 August 1913 and Oswald Lancaster on 15 April 1914.


For details of Hull and Third Party cover for named pilots, please click here. Third Party cover then had a limit of £1,000, to be contrasted with the minimum legal amount today for the replica Waterbird at £1,534,000.


Second Lieutenant John Trotter

The Westmorland Gazette of 12 July 1913 contained the following:

‘Lieutenant Trotter had Mr Gnosspelius’s monoplane out on Monday. He made two flights upon it, and in concluding a third he descended in Parsonage Bay. By some mischance the machine instead of alighting horizontally, or nearly so, on the surface of the lake dipped into the water with its front end and turned right over from back to front. The propeller was broken, and the aviator was thrown into the water, this being about 200 yards from the shore; but he seised hold of the upturned hydro-aeroplane and was soon taken off by a motor-boat which was approaching. He received a cut on the chin but was otherwise unhurt, and later in the evening the hydroplane was righted and towed to the shed at Bowness for repairs. Lieutenant Trotter, seeing what was going to happen, jumped from a height of 12 or 15 feet into the water in order to avoid risk of injury from becoming entangled in the machine. He swam about for some time until the motor launch came along.’

Flight Commander John Cripps

Trotter was not the only pilot associated with Windermere to jump from an aeroplane to save himself, as described in The Story of a North Sea Air Station by C F Snowden Gamble.

Flight Commander Cripps, who commanded the Royal Naval Air Station at Windermere from May 1916 until January 1917, jumped on 8 September 1915. Cripps was previously the Senior Flying Officer at RNAS Great Yarmouth, and was endeavouring to locate approaching airships north of the town when the engine of his B.E.2c stopped. The Daily Report was:

‘Owing to complete darkness and mist on the ground, the pilot could see nothing but blackness underneath him, and as he was afraid of his bombs going off if he hit a house or a wall, he landed in the following manner. When his altimeter showed 100 feet he stepped out on to the planes, still holding his control lever. He held the machine down for about 6 seconds and then jumped off the machine, and he fell on his shoulder on some soft mud and was unhurt. The machine landed by itself and sustained very little damage.

‘One of Cripps’ brother officers remarked at the time that ‘He was absolutely scared stiff – not by his landing, for he wasn’t scratched – but by the cows that came up and smelt him and his machine!’


Save for Avro 504s to Douglas, Isle of Man and on charters flown in 1919 by Pixton, there was only one occasion when a Windermere-based aeroplane flew out of the Lake District. That is, having arrived by traction engine, Waterhen [Note the wheels in this photo] was exhibited on land and flew on 12 June 1913 from Hornsea Mere, Yorkshire (which later became a Royal Naval Air Station).

Wakefield re-joined the army, and, on 11 November 1914, the Cockshott hangar lease, an option on the hangars at Hill of Oaks, together with Waterhen, Seabird and the Lakes Monoplane plus ancillary equipment were sold for £2,550 to the Northern Aircraft Company Ltd.

Upon Adams taking up a commission with the Royal Naval Air Service, his successor was Rowland Ding. Ding became a director, general manager and chief pilot of the Northern Aircraft Company, whose booklet About the Seaplane School included that he was ‘the first aviator to carry a member of any Royal Family as a passenger’: Princess Anne of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, from Hendon to Calais on 21 May 1914. The Company ceased trading in August 1916.

Waterhen was the longest-serving of all the Windermere seaplanes, from 30 April 1912 until 16 August 1916.

The Seaplane School was requisitioned and became a Royal Naval Air Station during 1916-17. Large numbers of Flight Sub-Lieutenants were sent to Windermere, who held the rank of probationer and were appointed to HMS President II (Crystal Palace, London), where they had previously undergone an intensive 5-week course in drill, navigation, theory of flight, aero-engines and signalling. Failure at Windermere could result in withdrawal of their rank. Not all pupils finished their course of flying instruction at Windermere, and completed the tests for their Certificates elsewhere.

On 19 July 1916, the Station was honoured by an inspection by the First Sea Lord (later Admiral of the Fleet) Sir Henry Jackson.

However, Wakefield was not paid for use of his land by the Admiralty, but, after instituting court proceedings, he received £90 plus 6 porcelain baths and a kitchen range!


Aeroplanes were delivered to Windermere station, and onwards either by water or road. Waterbird arrived from Brooklands on 7 July 1911. In June 1912, a Borwick’s pile-driving barge was used for the Deperdussin aeroplane. In April 1916, an F.B.A. flying boat and Nieuport seaplanes were hauled by rail, and then respectively by tender and steam lorry to Hill of Oaks. Also, in January 1917, a Short 827 was sent from Windermere by rail to the School of Aerial Gunnery at Loch Doon, near Ayr.

Delivery of petrol and oil was by horse and cart.

Equipment at the Seaplane School comprised a 40 h.p. car, a fast motor boat and a 40 knot hydroplane used to give students practice in running fast over water, judging speeds and also as a safety attendant.

Personal transport for pilots was by motorbike.


Chief Test Pilot

Ding for the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company Ltd.

Ralph Lashmar for White Aircraft, and John Lankester Parker for Short Brothers in which capacity he flew the first Windermere-assembled Sunderland flying boat in 1942.

Whilst Adams was not an employee of Avro, his achievements at Windermere and elsewhere were such as to warrant inclusion as a Chief Test Pilot by Peter V Clegg in his book Avro Test-Pilots since 1907.

Also, Gnosspelius took charge of Short’s experimental department and flew on many test flights.

Marshal of the RAF

The highest rank achieved by a Windermere-trained pilot was Marshal of the RAF

Flight Sub-Lieutenant William Dickson, who began his training at Windermere on 11 November 1916, rose to Marshal of the RAF Sir, GCB, KCB, CB, KBE, CBE, OBE, DSO, AFC.


On 21 July 1919, Pixton flew an Avro 504K to Windermere, with a second one week later, operated by The Avro Transport Company. Based at Cockshott until 8 October, services included joyriding, instruction, delivering newspapers to the Isle of Man and also carrying passengers to and from the island. ‘30,000 Daily News were delivered daily, by using a special compartment instead of the usual passenger accommodation’. – Flight magazine, 14 August 1919.


Sunderland Flying Boats

Between September 1942 and May 1944, 35 Short Sunderland flying boats were built at White Cross Bay, plus 25 were refurbished.

Catalina Flying Boats

During 1944 and 1945, 3 Catalina flying boats landed on the lake.

Water Glider

A modified Slingsby Falcon glider was flown from the lake on 3 February 1943 by Captain Cooper Pattinson and on 7 February by Flight Lieutenant Wavell Wakefield.

Women’s Auxiliary Air Force Officers

Pixton had won the Schneider Trophy for a seaplane contest in 1914 at Monte Carlo. The Trophy was presented by Jacques Schneider, who shared the same great-grandfather as Henry Schneider, a Barrow-in-Furness industrialist who from 1869 until 1887 lived at Belsfield (a Hotel since 1892), Bowness-on-Windermere. The Hotel was requisitioned for training WAAF officers, whose varied duties included: Accounts, Air Raid Warning, Catering, Code and Cypher, Equipment, Filter [processing radar information], Intelligence, Ops ‘B’ [scrambling pilots into action], Photographic Interpretation, Radar, RAF Administration, Signals, and Torpedo Assessment.


1917 Rolls-Royce Hawk Mk. 1. From Royal Naval Air Service airship Submarine Scout Twin S.S.T.3. In Canfly, which was built in 1922 to receive the engine. A starting magneto and primer from a Rolls-Royce Eagle engine were fitted.

Napier Lion VIIB. In each of Estelle I and Estelle II in 1928. Of the type which powered the 1927 Schneider Trophy-winning Supermarine S.5 seaplane.

Rolls-Royce R. Twin engines in Miss England II in 1930. Of the type which powered the 1929 Schneider Trophy-winning Supermarine S.6.


Between 1911 and 1919

WaterbirdGnosspelius No. 2, WaterhenDeperdussinAvro Duigan/ SeabirdGnosspelius-TrotterLakes MonoplaneBlackburn Improved Type 1Fleming Williams P.B.1Nieuport VI.Hs, F.B.A.sShort 827s and Avro 504s.

From 1920

Saunders-Roe A.19 Cloud (1933), Short Sunderland flying boats (1942-1945 and 1990), Slingsby Falcon 1 glider (1943), Catalina flying boats (1944-1945 and 1994), Short Shetland prototype (1945), Tiger Moth (1979) and Cessna 180 (1983).

Wings Over Windermere

Edward Wakefield described flight from water as ‘Something that beckoned …’

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