The London to Manchester Flight in 1910

In a challenge to make the first flight between London and Manchester and win a 10,000 prize Louis Paulhan, a Frenchman, landed his bi-plane in a field near Lichfield Trent Valley station on 27th April. He stayed overnight at the George Hotel in Bird Street before flying on to Manchester to win the prize.

On December 4th 2013, in the presence of a group of some forty people, the Society unveiled a plaque celebrating this piece of Lichfield's history at the George Hotel. The principal guest was Martin Jones, founder of Airspeed Aviation Ltd., to whom the task of unveiling the plaque was delegated.

John Thompson, Chairman of Lichfield Civic Society, spoke briefly about the great local interest in 1910 in these flights and the landings in and around Lichfield. Introducing our guest John outlined the many contributions Martin Jones had made to flying and aviation during a long and extensive involvement with both. Before unveiling the plaque Martin Jones described, in the context of aviation history, how great was the achievement in flying from London to Manchester in 1910 and the world wide interest it had aroused. He also alluded to the Anglo-French rivalry in the attempts to make the flight and the expressed chagrin at the time that we, the British, had not triumphed in the attempt.

The magnificent men and their flying visits to Lichfield

The early years of the 20th century were pioneering times in aviation and initially the distances flown were quite short. Flying was seen as nothing more than a novelty and not to be taken more seriously. In the words of Lord Kelvin: "There was nothing in it".

In 1906 the Daily Mail, anxious to encourage interest in flying and especially British interest, offered a 10,000 prize for the first flight from London to Manchester. The flight had to be completed within 24 hours with no more than two stops. As the distance from London to Manchester is 183 miles the prospect of the Daily Mail having to honour its offer seemed remote - given the short distances that had, until then, been achieved.

The Daily Mail challenge was lampooned by the satirical magazine "Punch" which offered a rival prize of 10,000 for a return journey to Mars, a journey to the centre of the earth or a swim across the Atlantic ocean. However as 1910 approached progress was being made in aviation and in 1908 Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel - a distance of 22 miles.

Claude Grahame-White, a Mayfair car dealer, was interested in flying and in 1910 he planned to take up the challenge and make the London to Manchester flight. On April 23rd he took off from London at 5:19 am and two hours later landed, as planned, near Rugby. Leaving Rugby he headed for Crewe, his planned next stop, but heavy winds and a faltering engine forced him to land at Hademore near Lichfield. His engine was repaired but the persistent winds for the rest of the day prevented him from continuing. Even at 3 am the next morning the wind prevented him from taking off and he decided to abandon his flight. Worse was yet to come as the winds overturned and damaged his plane. He and his plane returned to London by train from Lichfield. Back in London the plane was repaired in preparation for another attempt.

However Claude Grahame-White had a rival in the challenge - Louis Paulhan from France.

Arriving in London from France Louis Paulhan started his attempt at the flight on April 27th. He took off from London at 5:30 pm. Claude Grahame-White was informed that Paulhan was making an attempt and he took off from London at 6:30 pm. By nightfall Louis Paulhan has reached Lichfield and landed near Trent Valley station; whereas Claude Grahame-White had only reached Roade in Northamptonshire. Here he was 50 miles behind Louis Paulhan.

To try and catch up Claude Grahame-White decided he would take off before daylight early the next morning. Taking off in the dark was something which had not previously been attempted. After leaving at 2:45 am heavy winds forced another landing at Polesworth, 10 miles east of Lichfield.

Meanwhile Louis Paulhan, after staying overnight at the George Hotel, took off from Lichfield at 4:09 am and landed at Didsbury, near Manchester, at 5:32 am.

Whilst still at Polesworth, Claude Grahame-White learned that his rival, Louis Paulhan, had reached Manchester but undaunted he decided to continue. However the wind again forced him to land at Streethay where he abandoned his flight.

The local landings at Hademore, Lichfield Trent Valley station and Streethay attracted large crowds who came to see the aviators and their flying machines.

After Claude Grahame-White abandoned his flight at Streethay he came into Lichfield to join his mother and sister at the George Hotel. Crowds gathered outside the hotel and shouted for a speech. Claude Grahame-White did not oblige them but subsequently he wrote a letter to the Lichfield Mercury thanking the people of Lichfield for their support.

The Mercury of 29th April 1910 carried a detailed two-page report of the flight attempts. On April 30th 1910 a celebration lunch was held at the Savoy Hotel in London at which Louis Paulhan was presented with his 10,000 prize. Claude Grahame-White was a guest at the lunch together with other leading figures of the day; including the writer H.G. Wells, the aviation pioneer Lord Brabazon and C.S. Royce, the co-founder of Rolls Royce.

The new plaque, which was prepared and organised by the Lichfield Civic Society with the co-operation of Webb Hotels and Travel (the owners of the George Hotel) commemorates the historic flight and its Lichfield associations. Financial support was provided by the Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust and the plaque was supplied by the Lichfield company Sign Technology.

Amongst the guests at the event were Angela Burns (Chief Executive of Webb Hotels and Travel), C'llr David Leytham (Chairman of Lichfield District Council) and Mrs Laytham, C'llr Mike Wilcox (Leader of Lichfield District Council), Bob White (Chairman of Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust), C'llr Bob Awty (Mayor of Lichfield City) and Mrs Awty, Les Ashley (local historian) and David Connolly (Managing Director of Sign Technology).

Frank Horsfall
December 2013

Louis Paulhan - Aviator Plaque

Photo - Lesley Bushell, 2019