THE BIRDMAN OF LAND'S END
PUBLISHED: 16:51 01 February 2016 | UPDATED: 12:43 30 August 2017
Peter London recalls the first flight of Gustav Hamel at Land's End more than a century ago...
The pioneer aviators of the early 1900s were national heroes, idolised by an adoring public and constantly in the glare of the Edwardian media limelight. For most people at that time, the notion of flying was barely imaginable; aeroplane exhibition flights created feverish excitement among the crowds which always came to watch. One of the most popular of the Magnificent Men’ was Gustav Hamel.
British despite his name, the young pilot was exceedingly well-connected; his father was masseur to King Edward VII and from time to time His Majesty called at the family home. Gustav’s great passion was the brand-new art of aviation; in 1911 he learned to fly. Travelling across Britain in his spindly Blériot monoplane he became noted for ever greater feats of airmanship, winning big prizes in aerial races. But Gustav was unassuming despite his wealth and success, a cheerful modest man whose good looks made him a pin-up of the flappers.
During September 1913, in west Cornwall huge anticipation grew when it was learned Gustav would be visiting Penzance with his aeroplane. The trip was arranged by sculptor and photographer Mrs Georgina Bainsrnith of St Ives, an aviation enthusiast who knew the Hamel family, helped by Mr R J Symons of the Navy League’s Penzance branch.
Gustav duly arrived on the early afternoon of Tuesday 23 September. He planned several exhibition flights around the town but his real ambition was to be the first person ever to fly to Cornwall’s beautiful and most isolated point: the Land's End. A civic reception was held in his honour, headed by the Mayor, Councillor Andrew Barnett; the airman then travelled by motorcar to nearby Trengwainton, the estate outside Penzance owned by the prominent Bolitho family.
There, a field had been made available for his flights; unfortunately though the weather settled into a drizzly rain. The Bolithos turned out to see the strange new craft but the Blériot stayed under cover of sorts, a small canvas marquee which began to leak. Gustav must have viewed the facilities doubtfully; around much of the field’s perimeter were tall trees, which might prove difficult to clear.
The conditions weren’t the only disappointment. Initially, it had been planned that on some of his flights the aviator would carry passengers; the chance to fly with him was advertised in the Cornishman newspaper. But the experience would cost five pounds, a colossal sum for the day. Only one person, local suffragist Mrs Glave Saunders, had come forward and because the response had been so muted Gustav brought just his single-seat Blériot. Mrs Saunders had to be content with his autograph.
Gustav Hamel photographed with dignitaries at Trengwainton: left to right, Mrs Bolitho, Major Bolitho, Lord Amherst, Mr T Bedford Bolitho MP, Gustav, Lady St Levan, Lord St Levan (image by kind permission of Reg Watkiss).
Undeterred by the weather, at Trengwainton big crowds gathered. Lord and Lady St Levan also arrived, visiting the Bolithos from their home at St Michael’s Mount. In the late afternoon the rain eased and Gustav wanted to fly, but the damp had affected his aeroplane’s engine, making it sputter and cough. Meanwhile the Penzance Town Band attempted with their renditions to keep the sodden spectators amused.
Finally though, around 5.30 pm Gustav managed a brief flight. The Blériot lifted gently into the sky and headed toward Newlyn, but was soon spied back above the Madron road. Gustav returned to his field, skimming the trees, while the delighted spectators cheered and threw their hats in the air; even a short flight drew huge admiration, and sometimes shocked disbelief. But sadly the rain saw to it there were no more forays that day. Later over dinner, Gustav confessed to Mrs Bainsmith his ambition to be first to fly to the Land's End.
Happily the following morning was sunny, though breezy, and the bold aviator was up again. As Penzance people heard the buzzing of Gustav’s aero-engine and searched the sky for him, windows were thrown open and traffic came to a stop. Hundreds stared up to catch the amazing sight; the Blériot flew over Market Jew Street and on to Newlyn. Passing across Mount's Bay, Gustav circled clockwise around St Michael's Mount, exchanging waves with Lord and Lady St Levan. Via Carbis Bay and St Ives, the Blériot returned safely to Trengwainton though its pilot found the gusty conditions tricky.
The second day’s cheerier conditions resulted in even larger crowds; charabancs and horse-drawn vehicles made a constant procession between Penzance and the landing ground. Surrounding fields and hilltops became populated with people who declined to pay the charge to enter Trengwainton, but were happy to watch events from outside – a situation repeated at air shows ever since.
Gustav made several more short flights over and around Penzance; again though, the weather began to crumble. Banks of heavy grey mist appeared, the wind grew blustery. But the aviator was determined to make the longer journey to Land’s End if he possibly could; he was due back in London the following day.
By teatime he could wait no longer. While volunteers held the flimsy plane steady against the squalls, he gunned the engine. A cry – the helpers let go, Gustav raced across the field. Hurled up into the air, the Blériot was lost in the murk.
His absence was uncomfortably prolonged; it was nearly 40 minutes before the engine was heard once more. The sky cleared and Gustav approached Trengwainton, a dragonfly high in the rays of the sinking sun. As he landed, convinced he’d achieved his goal the spectators cheered wildly.
Gustav Hamel had succeeded, though not without several heart-stopping moments. Heading west he’d tried to climb above the poor weather, but held back by headwinds put down at Lower Botrea Farm, near Newbridge. During a lull he set off again, with better luck; at Land’s End the Blériot happily puttered over the headland.
But out to sea, as he flew around nearby Longships lighthouse he found the winds fierce and conflicting. Buffeted and thrown about, back near the First and Last House at the peninsula’s tip he’d been blown down almost to sea level, but somehow clawed the Blériot skyward for the return flight.
A piece of history had been made and that evening, one more ambition fulfilled, Gustav returned to London. His flight to Cornwall’s most westerly point was reported widely, saluted by the Duchy’s newspapers. Today a few souvenirs still survive, sepia post-cards bearing Gustav’s photograph, reminders to Penwith people of his visit and their first sight of an aeroplane, a hundred years ago.