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When Sheppey had Wright stuff

John Moore-Brabazon starts the first flight in Britain by a British aviator, on Shellbeach, May 2, 1909
John Moore-Brabazon starts the first flight in Britain by a British aviator, on Shellbeach, May 2, 1909

Among the many aviation anniversaries to be celebrated during 2009 and 2010, one of the most significant is that at Leysdown and in particular at Muswell Manor. Aviation historian and writer Robin J. Brooks tells the story.

Known as the “cradle of aviation in the UK”, this historic place has not until now received the true recognition that it deserves.
Although it is the Wright Brothers who are acknowledged to have been the first to fly heavier than air aircraft when they flew the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903, in the UK the first fledgling steps in powered flight were carried out at Shellness, Leysdown.
With their success in America, Orville and Wilbur Wright turned their attention to Europe.
Griffith Brewer, the British agent for the brothers, had invited them to come and display their aircraft in France.
On the UK mainland, Short Brothers were making balloons at their factory beneath the arches at Battersea.
The three brothers, Oswald, Horace and Eustace, had heard of the success of the Wright Brothers and Eustace had in fact travelled to France and had flown with Wilbur Wright.
This prompted him and many others to ask the brothers to bring a Flyer to the UK, a request that they refused owing to the fact that their were no manufacturing facilities here capable of building the Flyer.
Griffith Brewer, however, persuaded the Wright Brothers to let Short Brothers build the Flyer under licence provided they found suitable premises from which to fly the aircraft.
Accordingly, Griffith Brewer looked and found an unobstructed flying area of level marshland between Leysdown and Shellness known as Shellbeach on the Isle of Sheppey.
Immediately the Short Brothers set up the first aircraft manufacturing facility in the UK and were given a contract by the Wright Brothers to build six Wright Flyers.
Meanwhile several other intrepid aviators had arrived at Shellbeach among them J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, the Hon Charles Stewart Rolls and Frank McClean.

Perhaps the most famous aviation picture ever, the who's who of early flight taken at Muswell Manor, Shellness, on May 4, 1909.
Perhaps the most famous aviation picture ever, the who's who of early flight taken at Muswell Manor, Shellness, on May 4, 1909.

It was the latter that purchased a local farmhouse known as Mussel Manor to be used as a clubhouse for the aviators, now known as the Aero Club.
The contract was worth £1,200 to the Short Brothers with all six machines later committed to members of the Aero Club.
On May 3 and May 4 1909, the Wright Brothers visited the Short Brothers’ works at Battersea and Leysdown, arriving at the latter in a Silver Ghost Rolls Royce driven by Charles Rolls.
Apparently very pleased with what they saw and with the standard of workmanship, a meeting was held at Mussel Manor together with lunch there afterwards.
The Wright Brothers, the Short Brothers and the members of the Aero Club had their photograph taken at the main entrance to the manor.
At this time Charles Rolls took the opportunity to ask the brothers if he could have a glider made on the specifications of the Flyer so that he could teach himself to fly.
This was readily granted and an order went to Short Brothers to build what was called a Short-Wright Glider. With the aircraft being delivered on July 26, 1909 Rolls flew from a hill that he rented called Stamford Hill at nearby Eastchurch.
In this he taught himself to fly but with the advent of powered flight, the glider was put up for sale.
Similarly it was to aircraft with engines that the members of the Aero Club concentrated on and by July 1909, Short Brothers were employing around 80 men at Leysdown as production of the Short/Wright Flyers went ahead.
Meanwhile, J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon had the honour to be first man in the UK to fly powered flight when he flew a short distance in his French built Voisin aircraft named Bird of Passage.
Exploits
He achieved this in December 1908 and while this was a title of which he was justly proud, it was to Leysdown that his attention turned and the exploits of the Aero Club.
He liked what he saw and ordered one of the Flyers. Over the weekend of April 29 to May 2, 1909 he made three flights, achieving in the last one a distance of 500yds.
Thus he became the first Briton to fly a British built aircraft.
Later flights included one on October 30, 1909 when he won the Daily Mail’s £1,000 prize for the first flight in England of one mile in a closed circuit by an all-British combination of pilot, aircraft and engine.
Another first was achieved by Moore-Brabazon on November 5 of the same year when, upon hearing the expression that “pigs cannot fly” when applied to the new excitement of flying, proved that they can when he took a pig named Icarus II for a flight!

John Moore-Brabazon with a pig called 'Icarus II' proving that pigs could fly. Shelllbeach, November 5, 1909
John Moore-Brabazon with a pig called 'Icarus II' proving that pigs could fly. Shelllbeach, November 5, 1909

Leysdown rapidly became the centre of British aviation. Over the next six months many flights were carried out from the turf that was once a golf club.
Flights by Moore-Brabazon, Charles Rolls, Frank McClean and others heralded a new form of excitement.
Gradually, however, with the constant use of the field at Leysdown, arrangements were made to move the Aero Club to nearby Eastchurch where Frank McClean had purchased Stonepitts Farm and the surrounding land.
He sold three acres to Short Brothers to erect a new factory and by January 1910 the move from Leysdown had been completed.
Somehow over the years since, it has been assumed that flying did in fact begin at Eastchurch.
Even some history books state this fact.
Nothing could be further from the truth and there are documents stating that the first flying field in the UK was Leysdown and that the first aircraft manufacturing firm, that of Short Brothers, was situated at Leysdown.
For this reason, 2009 will see the celebration of 100 years of flight where it should rightfully be, at Shellbeach, Leysdown.


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