Paul Screeton was a journalist with The Mail Hartlepool, the paper which, as the Northern Daily Mail in the period concerned, published a variety of reports which have been assessed for this article. Originally published in MUFOB new series 11, summer 1978
An elusive airship was attracting attention in early 1909; and after a period of arrant scepticism, belief was gaining ground that the rumours had substance.
In addition to a news item listing places in the south-east where the phantom dirigible had been sighted, there was a leading article on May 14th entitled:
“AN ARIEL DARK HORSE
“A theory has been advanced to me in explanation of the mysterious airship which has been seen flying in the neighbourhood of Peterborough. It is that the War Office has succeeded in constructing a really efficient airship and is experimenting with it in the dark to keep its existence and capacity secret.”
The next day a Berlin correspondent of the Daily Express reported that German expert opinion held that it was ascending from a German warship in the North Sea, upon which it landed again after each flight. Another report in that issue notes that during movement of troops in Gyppeswky Park, Ipswich, “the other night”, it was seen frequently. It was said to be oblong, making a noise like a motor car, moving at great speed and carrying a searchlight. So far only one farmer had seen it in daylight, but its nocturnal activity was considerable.
On May 17th the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire had investgated a PC’s report and decided it was “a balloon carrying lighted Chinese lanterns”, ie, a hoax.
‘An Irish Vision’ was the headline for the report of an airship seen over Belfast moving towards the Irish Sea – and interestingly a brilliant light was observed in the sky shortly afterwards. Such phenomena never exist in isolation, and an editorial column on May 19th linked two seemingly disparate mysterious activities:
“A FEARSOME PROSPECT
“While some of us have been wasting our time and emotions over phantom airships and elusive airplanes, a method of invasion more sure and deadly is, perhaps, going on under our feet. A letter arrived today stating thus: While crossing from Hamburg on Saturday night, my interest and suspicions were aroused by hearing sounds of what I judged to be subterranean excavation while passing over one of the shallows to the north-west of the Dutch coast. The sounds were quite like running drills and were very audible, as the sea was quiet and calm. This information I volunteer in order the Government may sake inquiries into the matter.”
That same day the paper reported a night sighting of a broad cigar-shape, making a whistling sound and lit by two lights, over Cardiff.
This incident’s developments were reported the next day in the famous Caerphilly Mountain incident, involving Mr Lethbridge and the fur-coated ‘foreigners’. The Northern Daily Mail’s account of the incident concludes, “He was frightened, and so seemingly were the foreigners, for they jabbered loudly, jumped into the scareship (sic) and sailed off.”
A journalist was taken to the encounter site and marks were found on the ground. Slips of newspapers found on the spot show that almost all contained references to airships of the German Army. There was also a red label with instructions written in French, and a military term on it is called a “sinister touch” by the correspondent, noting that it would have been more impressive had it been in German.Yet looking book retrospectively over almost seventy years a number of aspects are month comment here:
- Another Lethbridge, T C Lethbridge, was to involve himself in authorship of books on unorthodox subjects for an academic: ancient religion, dowsing, ESP, and even the ancient astronaut hypothesis.
- In 1909 Mr Lethbridge of Wales was a Punch and Judy showman just as today Britain’s most controversial monster-hunter Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, is a stage magician and puppeteer.
- More significantly, just as at the Scoriton, Devon, landing involving Arthur Bryant and ‘Yamski’, baffling material appeared (and at other CEIII sites). And note the stronger French, rather than German connection.
- The ‘foreigners’ were working on their machine and mechanical repairs have been a feature of many UFO incidents, perhaps to suggest a nuts and bolts function.
- Another part of the account repeats the liklihood of the object being released from a steamer in the Bristol Channel, so paralleling the later notion of flying saucers coming from motherships.
- In addition to tales of other sightings in that day’s paper there was a note of War Office action and its impounding of an object – an air-ship fender supposedly – found the day after an airship flow over Great Clacton. Here we have the shadow of military intervention with witnesses and removal of an artifact.
After such massive publicity, May 21st was no disappointment to readers either. A football shaped object speedily crossed Dublin Bay despite no wind, and a cyclist reported that near Dublin he saw a cigar-shaped object with two lights in front.
At which point enter Percival Spencer’s theory. He owned a company manufacturing airships. Within the past year he could trace two five-man airships sold to a firm in the eastern counties, and another to a man in Cardiff (where the publicised sightings were made. Conveniently or not, Mr Spencer took the opportunity to broadcast that for £250 he could provide more such machines.
More dampening followed with the announcement by the Admiralty that the ‘airship fender’ was one of their gun targets, used in practice, which had become detached, and credibility took another knock with a piece from the Cowes (IOW) correspondent of the Daily Chronicle:
“I have interviewed today a prominent official of the Isle of slight county asylum who expressed the opinion that the mysterious airship was a myth of supposed eyewitnesses who were bordering on ‘aviation insanity’. It is a nightly occurence that the inmates insist they see airships racing around the asylum and will describe their appearance in graphic terms. They are always accompanied by lights and a whirring mound.”
At which point the ‘sinister’ label takes a knock:
“The red label bearing an instruction in French which might have referred to the use of a motor tyre valve has been recognised by the Michelin company as a label attached to a brass pin which is affixed to the inner tube of their motor car tyres. The word ‘obus’ which is French for shrapnel also means valve plug. This disposes of the supposed significance of the discoveries made on the spot where the airship was seen.”
Nevertheless reports were made that day of a Monmouthshire sighting, and for several nights residents of Small Heath Birmingham had seen an airship, believing a local inventor was making trial trips.
Starting with the words “A sensation was created in the neighbourhood of Dunstable…” a report tells us on may 26th that a bamboo framework, powerful lamps and other wreckage was found plus a document stating that any finder would be paid £5. Upon sending a telegram the airship wreckage was removed, and the airship was said to belong to the British agents of a continental motor company and used for advertising purposes.
But the same issue of the Northern Daily Mail includes a piece entitled “Wearside Resident’s Story”. It seems to echo the phenomenon of wished for occurances happening to meet a psychological need:
“Sunderland people have of late had grievance because of the absence of airships which would insist on hovering over their district.
This feeling of injury has, however, now been removed since that section known as Southwick had yesterday an airship story of its own to gossip about. But in no jocular spirit are those who swear they saw the flying machine.”
This light in the sky had illumination radiating, and it chose to project it on a new Roman Catholic church above which it manouvered for three to four minutes before speeding off at tremendous speed. The stewardess of Southwick Club and others corroborated the account and said the noisy object was an airship with car.On June 5th an account of an airship over Jarrow Slake, on Tyneside, recorded “at times the object would be motionless and aj;. others would dart in different directions” (hardly dirigible behaviour).
By June 14th the paper was disclaiming the mystery of the Tyneside appearance, and said that a company was making experimental flights with the airship. True to form, someone came up with an all-encompassing bid to nix the tale and take personal credit. A Dr M B Boyd claimed that he had spent eight years perfecting his airship, though it had only been built for one year. The report however fails to answer most points, some of the discrepancies being:
- Average speed 32 mph, so no fast disappearance.
- Oval, rather than cigar shaped.
- No car suspended
- It had wheels so that on the ground it could be driven like a motor car
- Although the arclight had been invented in the 19th century, searchlights of the type required extremely heavy equipment, and the only lights that could be used on an airship were dim, incandescent ones incapable of creating the extent of illumination claimed.
Dr Boyd’s claims are reminiscent of the self-proclaimed inventor from Worcester, Massachussetts, who became the focus of many press stories on the 1909 US flap, described in John Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse. Tillinghast boasted of taking his invention at least 300 miles non-stop at 120 mph. An early investigative reporter found fourteen men working at a secret shed near Worcester, Mass. but he was unable to confirm or deny the presence of an airship. Keel propounds an ingenious explanation involving an encounter between Tillinghast and ultraterrestsials. I prefer not to comment on this, but merely note the interesting comparison between the parallel mystery inventor tales documented by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.
All we know is that something was going on, and being reported as faithfully as the journalists of their day knew how.