Posts tagged ‘Ballater’

March 21, 2017

‘Have you anything for me?’ the story of Ballater airman and the 1937 boat plane, Capricornus

 

Tucks IA No 48

Boat plane Capricornus

I am addicted to looking around graveyards. Some, I admit, are more interesting than others for many give only the name of the dead and tell nothing of a once active life of the corpse buried below. What I am looking for are the ones that will stop me in my tracks.  This is what happened one sunny and cold Sunday when I found myself staring at a tall grey granite gravestone topped by a pair of wings – not angel wings but stylised wing of an aircraft popular in the 1930s. The inscription confirmed this. A young man killed in an air accident at the age of 29 years.  

gravestone of paterson

 

Flying was still in its infancy but growing in popularity in the 1930s. Faster than merchant ships for transporting goods, military materiel and mail – as well as a few passengers – a network of early flight paths soon connected Britain’s far-flung colonies. Imperial Airways took its name from the British Empire it served and among its expanding fleet were 28 flying boats ordered from Short Brothers of Belfast (the first production aircraft company.) 

These flying boat aircraft, Short Empire four-engined monoplanes,were being turned out at one a month with the first completing its initial flight in July 1936. Designated as C class each aircraft given a name beginning with the letter C. The intention was to fly them between Britain and its colonies- to Australia, British-run parts of Africa and North America.

 

Alexander Paterson was brought up in Ballater on Deeside in Aberdeenshire and as a boy he imagined what it would be like to be an airman. On leaving school he became an apprentice with the local Riverside Garage and emerged a time-served mechanic. From farm machinery and the few motor cars that would have been in the area at the time Alexander followed his ambition to work with aircraft. By 1929 he was employed by Imperial Airways and he and his wife set up home in Cairo in Egypt – then part of the British Empire.serveimage

On a clear day on the 24th March 1937 Captain Alexander Paterson took off on G-ADVA Capricornus from Southampton in England for Alexandria in Egypt. This was the inaugural flight for the £40,000, 88 foot boat plane with its 114 foot wing span. It could accommodate 24 passengers and 5 crew on its two decks but that day it carried only one passenger, Betty Coates from Folkestone in Kent, along with its crew of two pilots, radio operator, flight clerk and steward. On board was a large consignment of bags of mail and ten thousand pounds in gold bullion hidden beneath the floor of the cabin.

Over France the good weather deteriorated and atmospheric interference made communications with the ground difficult. As Capricornus flew over Dijon the air controllers there were busy and when finally the radio operator was able to make out a response he assumed it to be from Dijon when, in fact, it was from Tours. It took several more minutes of confusion to correct the mistake by which time Capricornus was way off course.

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Crashed Capricornus with damaged wing

 

Ten hours into the flight with only broken contact with the ground the aircraft found itself in heavy cloud and snow as it approached Marseilles. The pilots could see nothing ahead in the freezing and blizzard conditions and struggled to maintain course. J.L. Cooper the radio operator heard an aircraft controller at Lyon suggest they alter course for it was noted Capricornus was descending on a course of 145 degrees. Suddenly a wing tip hit a tree hurtling the aircraft back into the air out of control and it dropped down careering through a dry stone wall, finally coming to rest in a pine wood.

Traffic control at Lyon was desperately trying to re-establish contact with the plane: at 14.12 pm it requested a bearing, Have you anything for me? Twice more it tried to raise a response but received only radio silence. 

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French people at site of the crash

Cooper was thrown out of the craft and came to dazed and with a broken arm. He searched the wreckage then more or less crawled through snow to a farmhouse two miles away where he raised the alarm.

A rescue party discovered Captain Alexander Paterson and Betty Coates badly injured. She was taken to hospital where she died and Alexander to the farm house where four hours later he also died. The bodies of first officer G. E. Klein, flight clerk D. R. O’Brien and steward F. A. E. Jeffcoate were found in the aircraft.

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Wings atop gravestone of Alexander Paterson

 

Alexander Paterson’s mother at home in Ballater heard of her son’s death from a report on the wireless. He had been due home on a visit in the summer.

Lochnagar from Tullich

Lochnagar in March from Tullich graveyard at Ballater

 

Bodies of the dead were returned to Britain by rail and boat and Captain Paterson was buried in his native Deeside at Tullich Churchyard just east of Ballater where blinds in homes and businesses were drawn in tribute to one of their own. Pupils from Alexander Paterson’s former school lined the road for his funeral cortege. Paterson’s widow was not at the funeral as she was still making her way back from Cairo but her mother was among mourners who heard of the bright boy who longed to be a pilot, of his courage and determination and the high regard in which he was held by those who knew him. Any casting their eyes to the mountain of Lochnagar on the horizon would have noticed it patched with snow, a reminder, if needed of the conditions that caused the plane to crash.

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Biblical quote at the foot of A. Paterson’s gravestone

Among wreaths was one from Imperial Airways and another from Paterson’s former colleagues in the airline’s engineering department. A beautiful wreath inscribed Les Aviateurs Miliniques de Bron a leurs camarades Britanniques (Military Airmen from Bron to British comrades.) A wreath, too, from the Consel Municipal of Ouroux in Rhone where Capricornus was wrecked, one from radio amateurs of Egypt and Greece along with those from his family and friends in Ballater including one from pupils and staff at Ballater School.

The fatal accident was raised in parliament when Under-Secretary of State for Air, Sir Philip Sassoon, announced to the Commons that Capricornus had crashed on her maiden trip but when he was asked if the plane was fitted with de-icers, as was the regulation in America, the Speaker intervened and disallowed the question. MPs were reassured, however, that the mail was safe. No mention was made of the secret stash of gold.

June 3, 2016

Polly Parrot and the Easter Rising

Polly Walker parrot 1929 at Cragievar

The feathered genius Polly Parrot on an outing into Aberdeenshire

This is a tale of two parrots, well three but one is only of passing interest.

The first account is of Polly, a male parrot, who shared a home with two women at 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen in the 1920s.

Polly was no bird-brain but an exceptionally bright bird who recognised and welcomed regular visitors to the house by calling out their names when they appeared. When he heard the postman coming he’d shout “Annie, that’s the postman, hurry up, hurry up!” It seems he didn’t just pick up words and phrases with ease but could produce conversation that related to his circumstances…I’ll give you an example.

One time when the women went off to Ballater for a short holiday Polly was taken along as well, in his cage.  When they arrived to catch the Deeside train at the Joint Station Polly shrieked out, “Hire a cab! Hire a cab!” All went well and the women settled in but somehow or other Polly escaped. This was on a Thursday and the following Sunday morning a local crofter opened his door to discover the poor wee bird cowering on his doorstep, cawing in distress. The man called out to his wife, as reported later, “There’s something at oor door. I ken na gin’t be beast, body, speerit, or deevil, but I wish ye wad come oot an’ see’t.”

The parrot sensing the woman was a body with a bit more sense spoke to the wife, “Take me in, I’m very cold, I’m very hungry, very thirsty. I’m Polly Walker, 32 Witehehall Road, Aberdeen. Take me home!”

And so they did take him in and fed him before heading out to the kirk service. There they heard of a missing bird and a reward of £5 for its return but thought little of it since the description didn’t seem to fit their visitor; the lost bird was said to have a crimson tail and the bird at the croft had no tail at all. Despite this a message was sent to the women in Ballater who quickly arrived at the croft in a phaeton and when they saw the bird they agreed it wasn’t theirs before Polly piped up, “I’m Polly Walker, 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen.” The poor thing had been so desperate and hungry when lost it had pulled out all its tail feathers, and now I’m reporting what was said, sucked the sugar from their roots.

Off it went with its owners who nursed it back to health but the trauma of its adventure was such that Polly complained, “Polly, far, far away; lost, tired, cold, hungry, such a disgrace.”

Oh, and during its sojourn in Ballater the bird had picked up the phrase “You’re a devil!” from some of the local rascals but that sentiment was excised from Polly’s vocabulary once back in Aberdeen.  

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Three years later, in 1932, another Aberdeen parrot raised the alarm and saved lives when his owner’s house at 10 King Street went on fire and it called out, “Come here! I’m feart!”

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My final parrot story is of a visitor to Aberdeen, this parrot was perched on the right shoulder of its elderly lady owner as she made her way  along Union Street. The year was 1924 and the parrot was called Monsieur Coco who bowed to a Press and Journal reporter, or so he imagined, who had been sent out to get an exclusive on the two strange birds gadding about the town. 

mrs pearce and parrot 1924

The reporter learnt the woman dressed in fur was a Mrs Pearse and her companion was “an intelligent Amazonian parrot.” Mrs Pearse was rather better known than her parrot. Formerly Mabel Cosgrove from London, her family were friends of Oscar Wilde’s and she was once married to a Mr Chan Toon, a Burmese barrister of the Middle Temple. She was something of a novelist, in her head at least, which may account for the following. On the other hand she was getting on in years and may have been suffering from senility but wherever the truth lay she claimed she was the widow of Pearse the Irish poet and nationalist executed for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and that the parrot had been with her husband in the moments before he was shot at Kilmainham jail but apparently sensing the approach of death it flew off into a hedge. 

In fact the Pearse she had married was an Armine Wodehouse Pearse who died in the Great War days before the Armistice.  She, herself, lived partly in Ireland but travelled extensively and appears to have maintained herself through robbery, blackmail and forgery, even claiming to have written or co-written plays with Oscar Wilde.

The parrot, she said, had been thrown from its nest by its mother when six hours old and quite featherless because its wings were paralysed. This was is Guadalajara and Mrs Pearse took care of him, feeding him on bread and milk and so he grew. From Mexico they travelled to New Orleans where she claimed the two witnessed the execution of two prisoners found guilty of murdering an Irish policeman.

She returned to Ireland and overcame reluctance to admit the parrot on grounds he was poultry and the Irish Free State was afraid of the spread of foot and mouth – though I don’t think birds get foot and mouth but then I’m no vet. The Irish customs officer let the bird in in exchange for a photograph of King George – which I find even more far-fetched than a bird with foot and mouth.

Once home in Ireland her parrot attracted suspicion, that it was “a new dodge on the part of the British Government for recruiting” and so Mrs Pearse and the parrot were given police protection. She countered these accusations by saying if anything the bird’s green and orange feathers were Sinn Fein’s colours and that, apparently, ended suspicion of it and her.

The parrot was a fluent French speaker, from their time in Paris and it was claimed had his portrait painted by the artist Dorin, as Monsieur Coco (the bird not the painter) and while in France he enjoyed a dejeuner of omelette and black coffee outside. In addition the parrot spoke excellent Spanish and English as well and was said to have had an extraordinary memory which is more than can be said for his mistress who appears to have confused memory with imagination.