Harry Harper
Harry Harper. Date unknown.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum © 2014


Harry was the son of journalist and author Henry George Harper and if I tell you that the latter often wrote under the pseudonym of GG you will guess what his favourite subject was: that may well be why he came to live in Epsom. GG wrote a number of books about riding and horses and edited 'The Old Surrey Fox Hounds' by Humphrey R Taylor of Cheam.

Henry Harper was no stranger to country pursuits. He was born in 1851 in the hamlet of Hatherton, Cheshire, near Nantwich; the family lived at Hatherton Hall, where his father, also Henry, farmed over 120 acres.

For reasons unknown Henry Senior gave up farming to become a newspaper canvasser and by 1871 the family had moved to West Hackney, by which time Henry Junior was already a journalist. In 1879 he married Miriam Josephine Timms from Ramsbury, Wiltshire (born 1859), daughter of a schoolmaster turned clerk; the Timms family had also moved to London.

Henry and Miriam's first child, Harry, was born in Herne Hill in 1880 and a second son, Massie (named after Henry's brother), arrived in Epsom in 1889. In the 1891 census the family lived at Villa Madrid in Lower Downs Road; they stayed at this address for several years, having their third child, Annabel, in 1892, but by 1901 they had moved to Folkestone. Massie had died in 1892 (he is buried in Grave C70A at Epsom Cemetery with his father - Miriam is in G526).

The lure of Epsom (or the local gee-gee scene) proved too strong and the family returned, settling at Heathfield in College Road, followed by a move to Westfield in Bridge Road, where they were living in 1911. Eventually they moved to Hatherton at 31 Worple Road. Henry died on 7 May 1942, after which Miriam moved to Croydon, where she died in 1949.

Meanwhile Harry, who seems to have lived in Epsom and surrounds for virtually all of his adult life, followed in father's footsteps and became a journalist, but he was interested in winged transport rather than the four-legged variety. There was a new passion for flight and Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail, recognised its importance: he appointed Harry as the paper's first Air Correspondent in 1906.

Early career

Early biplane, c.1914
Early biplane, c.1914
Image from 'Learning to Fly', via project gutenberg.

Flight was an exciting, and very dangerous, undertaking back in 1906. It had been barely three years since the Wright Brothers had managed to keep their aircraft off the ground for 12 seconds, with Orville steering from a prone position on the wing and Wilbur running alongside holding the machine steady until it took off. Harry began his career by writing about balloons and then the aerial endeavours of Paris-based Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont, but by 1914 he knew enough about the subject to co-author a book called 'Learning to Fly' with celebrated British aviator Claude Grahame-White.

Vanity Fair caricature of Santos-Dumont, 1901.
Vanity Fair caricature of Santos-Dumont, 1901.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Claude Grahame-White 1910.
Claude Grahame-White 1910.
Image source: Library of Congress

Illustration from 'Learning to Fly', via project gutenberg.
Illustration from 'Learning to Fly'
Image source: project gutenberg.

Even though Bleriot successfully crossed the Channel in 1909 (Harry was there to see it), those early aircraft were not to be trifled with and pioneer Hubert Latham came a considerable cropper at Brooklands in 1911, as the next picture shows.

Hubert Latham's plane Brooklands 1911
Hubert Latham's plane Brooklands 1911
Image source: Wikipedia.

Harry Harper witnessed this crash and wrote
'Latham threw his machine about in the air in a way that made fellow airmen gasp. They had never seen anything like it before. But in making one final manoeuvre he misjudged by a matter of inches his height above a shed. One of his wing-tips just touched the roof. Instantly there came a devastating crash. A huge cloud of dust arose. And then the monoplane could be seen hanging - a mass of wreckage - on the top of the roof. It seemed almost certain that Latham must have been killed. The impact had appeared so tremendous - the crash so complete. But suddenly, amid the drifting dust clouds, a slight, dapper figure could be seen disengaging itself from the battered fuselage, and lowering itself deftly to an undamaged part of the roof. Then out came that inevitable cigarette case, and Latham sat there smoking till someone arrived with a ladder.'
Ironically Hubert Latham was not killed in an aeroplane crash, but was either murdered by gunshot or gored to death by a wild animal in Africa.

Harry Harper 1910
Harry Harper 1910
Image from 'Flying Witness, Harry Harper and the Golden Age of Aviation',
written by Graham Wallace and published in 1958 by Putnam.

The First World War years

It is staggering to think that by 1914 aviation had developed to the extent of aerial warfare capability. The Royal Flying Corps was formed in May 1912 and by the end of that year it had 36 aircraft and 12 manned balloons. Expansion was rapid, but the growing threat of war caused some people to worry that we were not doing enough and Harry Harper was one of them.

On 10 April 1913 Harry wrote from the family home in Bridge Road to the Editor of The Times.

One need in regard to the aerial problem now overshadows all others and concerns intimately every man, woman and child in this country.

It is that we should, by means of armed, high-speed aeroplanes - handled confidently by expert crews - and by the use of the most effective high-angled guns procurable, proceed to guard our shores and vital points inland against the menace of aerial attack. Here - amid a confusion of counsel - is the task which is vital and lies first to hand.

He was sufficiently worried that he wrote again on 14 April.

Plain men, who are untroubled by technical differences between airships or arguments in favour of rival types of aeroplane, are beginning to lie awake at night to ponder the aerial problem; and they seek assurance, before sleeping peacefully again, that the necessary counter-move to protect us against this peril from above is being planned upon an adequate scale.

But where, asks the plain man, is the air guard which should by now definitely be taking shape? Briefly, it does not exist; any immediate danger would indeed find us helpless. The aerial programme of the Government is, as a matter of fact, a jerry-built structure consisting of rhetoric and evasion with jugglings of facts and figures, shuffling of machines and men, and, above all, a bold reliance upon the ignorance which still prevails concerning the problems of air defence. Of far-seeing policy there is none; and the bubble may be pricked with a question: If war broke out tomorrow, have we protection against aerial attack? For all practical purposes, the answer is 'No'.

But neither Colonel Seely's chronic optimism - which may be likened almost to a disease - nor Mr Churchill's weighty platitudes will avail them further if plain men will but seize the opportunity now presented to them and arise in their common sense to demand that:-
  1. An air-guard of armed waterplanes should girdle our shores in an efficient patrol.
  2. Vulnerable points, on the coast and inland, should be protected by a service of high-angled guns.
  3. Powerful airships should be stationed at strategic points to co-operate with fleets in long-distance reconnaissance.
  4. Specially equipped vessels should accompany our fleets so that when on the high seas fast armed aeroplanes may be launched from them to attack an enemy's scouting airships, and prevent them from obtaining news concerning any secret rendezvous.
Other requirements exist, of course; but our position is so critical that we must concentrate upon primary needs. Over the details of any scheme the experts - both Government and civilian - may be relied upon to argue; but plain men need not concern themselves unduly with this. Seeing that it is they ultimately who pay the piper, it is certainly for them, in their millions, to call the tune. Ministerial affectations as to the necessity for reticence and for prolonged and secret research before any reasonable air policy is launched merely act as a cloak for ineptitude. Frankly, they are nothing but humbug - and the sort of humbug that in either France or Germany, where the public is enlightened, no statesman would dare to attempt.

Efficient airships, aeroplanes and high-angle guns could be obtained without delay and in sufficient numbers, were the necessary money forthcoming and were the present sporadic efforts to be focused on what is essential.

He was right to be concerned. Zeppelins alone killed over 500 people in Britain during the First World War.

Lieutenant Warneford's* Great Exploit, by F Gordon Crosby 1919.
Lieutenant Warneford's* Great Exploit, by F Gordon Crosby 1919.
Image source: iwm.org.

*Sub-Lt Reginald Warneford RN, aged 23, brought down Zeppelin LZ37 on 7 June 1915 over Ghent, Belgium: this was the first Zeppelin to be shot down. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and the Legion d'honneur for this exploit and was killed 10 days later in a flying accident.

It is facile to talk about the number of machines and fliers lost during World War 1, since this takes no account of the damage and casualties that they inflicted on the ground, nor the value of the reconnaissance they carried out. But aviation casualties were heavy. Die Fliegertruppen (the Imperial German Flying Corps, renamed Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte in 1916) lost 8604 aircrew (a combination of fatalities, missing presumed killed and prisoners of war), 7302 crew were wounded and the loss of material comprised 3126 aircraft, 546 balloons and 26 airships. The British fatality figure was higher, but it should be remembered that a large number of crew perished in accidents. The average life expectancy of a pilot was just 11 days.

We should not forget, however, that colossal investment and effort was required in a very short time to assemble a large force of aircraft and crew, plus the necessary infrastructure to get men and machines into the air. The development of one particular type of British aircraft serves to illustrate some of the problems.

The BE2 was a biplane, built primarily for reconnaissance and light bombing. Various adaptations were made in the light of experience and in 1914/15 the BE2c was introduced. The manufacturers had concentrated on stability, to aid aerial photography, but this came at the expense of combat capability. Weight was a critical factor and the wing struts interfered with line of sight and ability to aim the gun. It became a favoured prey of German fighter aircraft and was known as 'Fokker Fodder'. In 1916 an MP said in the House of Commons that BE2c pilots in France were being murdered rather than killed. The problems abated somewhat when the British produced effective fighter aircraft. But so it went on, with each side responding to a new threat by developing an improved machine or technique.

A BE2c.
A BE2c.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

During World War 1 Harry Harper was aeronautical secretary and consultant to Lord Northcliffe (an influential man, as he owned both The Times and The Daily Mail) and technical secretary of the Civil Aerial Transport Committee.

The inter-war years

After World War 1 Harry was associated with Imperial Airways (later BOAC and then British Airways) in developing the first long-distance air mails (started 1927) and the first trans-ocean flying boat services. In 1934 he chronicled an exciting journey by air (mostly) from London to Singapore, which had taken 10 days. Civil flying was just 14 years old at the time. The itinerary went like this.
  • Saturday lunchtime - London to Le Bourget in a 4-engined Heracles aircraft.
  • Luxury express train from Paris to Brindisi - arrive Monday.
  • Board Scipio flying boat, cross to Alexandria via Athens - arrive Tuesday.
  • Alexandria to Cairo - mode of transport unspecified, but not camel.
  • Cairo to Basra via Baghdad in a 4-engined Hannibal aircraft.
  • Wednesday night free in Basra.
  • Fly on down to the Persian Gulf - arrive Thursday.
  • Friday - arrive Karachi, change to a 4-engined Atlanta monoplane.
  • Friday night free in Jodhpur.
  • Saturday evening - arrive Calcutta, having taken in glimpses of Delhi, Cawnpore and Allahabad.
  • Calcutta to Rangoon - arrive Sunday.
  • Rangoon to Bangkok.
  • Bangkok to Alor Star, Malaya - free night here on Monday.
  • Tuesday - Malaya to Singapore. You have arrived at your destination.
A Scipio class flying boat.
A Scipio class flying boat.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

An Imperial Airways map from 1935, showing Harry's route from London to Singapore.
An Imperial Airways map from 1935, showing Harry's route from London to Singapore.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Well, it beats being jammed in steerage on a 747, albeit that it takes a tad longer. This air journey, if you could afford it, took exactly half the time of an overland trip from London to Singapore.

Aviation advanced hugely between the Wars and, to save me researching it all, Harry kindly wrote to The Times again. It was 1938 and by now he was living at Elm Cottage, 3 Harriotts Lane, Ashtead.

… Even in the War period when this plan was first under review and when aircraft were carrying bombs rather than mails, the possibilities of the flying machine as a transport vehicle were beginning to be realized, and people were speculating as to its future, commercially, as soon as hostilities ceased. It was to examine such questions officially that the Government decided to adopt the plan put forward by advisers and bring into existence the Civil Aerial Transport Committee. When, in the spring of 1917, that famous committee had been established and had actually set out on its fascinating and hitherto untrodden path, I had the honour of being one of its secretaries - having already, at that time, devoted 10 years to a study of aeronautics. Even while hostile aircraft were dropping bombs on London we found ourselves drawing up tentative plans for an era when the aerial conquest would be devoted to constructive rather than destructive purposes.

A memorable committee, that! The late Lord Northcliffe, enthusiastic supporter of aviation, was its chairman; while one of our members - who used to linger with us occasionally, after official meetings were over, discussing informally the commercial era of the air - was Mr H G Wells.

The recommendations of our committee were followed, early in 1919, by the establishment of the first Civil Aviation Department, and a few months after that some of our dreams came true with the institution of the world's first daily air service, for passengers and freight, between London and Paris. So dependably did that pioneer service operate that within three months it was entrusted by the Post Office with the carriage of mails.

Driven by 360 h.p. engines those first London-Paris aircraft carried a pilot and two passengers at about 80 m.p.h. Today, as a contrast to that, British craftsmen are making ready for flying trials 3,200 h.p. aircraft which will carry 40 passengers and a crew of five at 200 m.p.h.

In the earliest days of the London-Paris service it cost half-a crown to send a letter for 250 miles by air between the two capitals. Today one can send a ½ oz letter 8,000 miles by air, between England and South Africa, for 1½d. At the end of civil aviation's first year, in 1919, the total mileage of the world's airlines did not reach a figure of more than 3,000. Today that figure has reached, and slightly exceeded, 300,000.

What it all amounts to is this. The rate of civil air progress which most of us envisaged 21 years ago has been exceeded by the developments actually achieved since then with aircraft, routes and loads. Fact has outstripped even optimistic anticipations, and pioneers themselves have been astonished at the pace at which civil air progress has swept ahead, triumphing not only over trade depressions but over many other difficulties, both political and international.

An air letter carried round the world in 1939.
An air letter carried round the world in 1939.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In June 1939 Harry wrote to The Times once more, recalling one of his earliest assignments - probably the most amazing assignment that he ever had.

Next month we reach the thirtieth anniversary of the first aeroplane crossing of the English Channel - an achievement which attracted greater world attention probably than any other in air history, even allowing for the amazement caused by Lindbergh's solo flight from New York to Paris.

Perhaps it was because I stood on the sand dunes near Calais at sunrise on July 25, 1909, watching Bleriot set off in the direction of Dover, that this flight always strikes me as being one of the greatest of all milestones in the annals of the air.

Bleriot himself is no longer with us; but he lived long enough to see come true, in actual fact, many of the developments which he discussed with us, with such animation, immediately after he had crossed the Channel.

On this impending thirtieth anniversary of Bleriot's flight it seems as though we should mark the occasion by some sort of special commemoration; not any conventional banquet, with speeches that are so apt to become banal, but perhaps by some simple ceremony on the actual spot near Dover Castle where Bleriot's little 25 h.p. monoplane made its landing after its 37 miles flight from Les Baraques.

Starting Bleriot's plane for his cross channel flight 1909.
Starting Bleriot's plane for his cross channel flight 1909
Image source: Library of Congress


Harry's career is summarised by his obituary in The Times, which appeared on 7 June 1960.

Harry's obituary in The Times, 7 June 1960
Harry's obituary in The Times, 7 June 1960

Perhaps not the most glowing of tributes to a man who spent his adult life reporting on the evolution of flight and I daresay it would have been somewhat different if Harry had worked for The Times.

The Samuel F Cody manlifter, 1908.
The Samuel F Cody manlifter, 1908.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Harry's wife was Beatrice Mary Tebbutt (born 1871 Kilburn), who had worked as a mother's help to the Harper family in Folkestone: they were married in 1908.

In 1958 Harry received the Royal Aero Club Bronze Medal (something which the obituarist neglected to mention). After Henry Harper died Harry and Beatrice moved back into the family home at 31 Worple Road. and remained there until Harry's death. Beatrice died on 11 December 1964, by which time she was living at The Lea, 27 Alexandra Road, Epsom. I am not aware of any children.

Researched and written by Linda Jackson © February 2014

Attempted flight in a heavier-than-air machine from Epsom Downs

Attempted flight from Epsom Downs
Attempted flight in a Guillon and Clouzy bi-plane, piloted
by Mons. Guillon, from Epsom Downs 11 April 1907.
Image source: Bourne Hall Museum


Aeroplane That Would Not Rise from Epsom Downs.

An aeroplane which runs amok-not in the air but on the ground-travelling in erratic circles at the rate of twenty miles an hour, is a sight which cannot be seen every day.
Yesterday, near the Grand Stand on Epsom Down, Mr. M. H. Guillon experimented with a new aeroplane he has invented, and spectators of the trial had an exciting time.
Standing on three bicycle wheels, and with wings twenty feet across, Mr. Guillon's airship is constructed on novel lines. A 20 h.p. motor works the propellers, each of which is five feet long and made ol aluminium, and a seven feet stretch of calico constitutes the rudder.
The total weight of the machine is 300lb., and with Mr, Guillon on board, reclining in a sloping position of 45deg. at the back, the weight is 420lb.
Although the aeroplane started away at a good twenty miles an hour, Mr. Guillon could not get the engines to work satisfactorily, and the machine failed to rise from the ground.
The rudder, too, did not seem to act properly, darting this way and that. The aeroplane kept the crowd of some fifty persons constantly running to keep out of danger. Six unsuccessful trials were made. Then the axle of the machine was found to be bent, and the experiment came to an end.
"The rough state of the ground and the indifferent working of the engines has been responsible for my failure," said Mr. Guillon to the Daily Mirror afterwards.
"I am perfectly confident that I shall be successful with my aeroplane. If this machine fails to fly I will build a larger one, on the same plan, with more powerful motors."

THE DAILY MIRROR, 12 April 1907