A Day at the Air Races (Part 1)

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Flight-Lieut. Atcherley, the British Schneider Trophy pilot, will represent Great Britain in the American national air races at Chicago on August 22. He has been invited to visit the United States by Lieut. Williams, the American Schneider pilot, who has been in Europe during the past two weeks conveying invitations to representative pilots from Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany.  — Singapore Free Press, August 1930.

Richard Llewellyn Roger Atcherley embarked on his first journey across the Atlantic on 10 August 1930, aboard the steamship Leviathan. Although he was to represent his country at the National Air Races, he would not be representing his employer, the RAF. The conditions of the leave he was granted meant that he was to wear plain clothes rather than his uniform, obtain his own passport – and fly his own aeroplane! Fortunately Robert Blackburn was only too pleased to sell Richard one of his new Lincock machines for the knockdown price of 10 shillings, on the basis that its aerobatic capabilities would be demonstrated to a massive audience in America. The Lincock was duly crated up and accompanied its new owner on his transatlantic voyage.

The other Europeans who were to take part in the Air Races in addition to Richard Atcherley were Friedrich Lohse of Germany (whose name was invariably given in media reports as Fritz Loose), Pierto Colombo of Italy, and Marcel Doret of France. The welcome given to these airmen when they arrived in America was far from low-key. In New York they were driven around the city in a motorcade with a police motorcycle escort, sirens blaring, at its head, and presented to the Mayor in a ceremony held at City Hall (see photo below). Then in Chicago the aviators found themselves part of a two mile long procession, headed by five bands. They were  showered with confetti and streamers, while planes flew overhead.

Above: The “European air aces” at a reception at New York City Hall, 19 August 1930. From left to right are Clarence Warden, chairman of the Mayor’s aviation committee; Friedrich Lohse of Germany; Richard Atcherley; Mayor James L Walker; Al Williams (USA); Pietro Colombo (Italy); Marcel Doret (France).

The National Air Races of 1930 took place at Chicago’s Curtiss-Reynolds airfield from 23 August to 1 September. Flight magazine reported that there were “about 34 races spread over the ten days, in addition to many other events on each day’s programme” and that, with the exception of the races, each day’s programme of events was much the same. The daily events included glider contests and demonstration flights, balloon-bursting competitions, dead-stick landing contests, exhibitions by Army, Navy and Marine Corps’ aircraft, parachute jumping contests, civilian aerobatic exhibitions and flights by the renowned American pilot “Jimmy” Doolittle. Plus, of course, Al Williams and the ‘foreign pilots.’ A correspondent for Popular Aviation reported on the the Europeans as follows:

Now, all eyes are on three planes lined up just in front of the stands. They are the foreign flyers’ planes and would have been four except that Capt. Loose washed out his Junkers Junior on the opening day. The red and silver biplane on the left is a Breda brought over from Italy by Marshal Pietro Columbo. And there’s the Englishman, Flight Lieut. Richard Atcherley, standing next to his little black and red Blackburn ‘Lincock’ fighter, powered with an Armstrong-Siddeley, 250 h. p. ‘Lynx.’ But Lieut. Marcel Doret, the Frenchman, has the snappiest looking outfit. Doret is that stocky fellow in the chamois flying suit. His plane is a Dewoitine tapered wing parasol monoplane with a 500 h.p. Hispano and has a top speed of 192 m.p.h. First Atcherley takes off and spends most of his time on his back, as he is a master of inverted flight. Then Columbo, not to be outdone, does a series of outside loops—a remarkable performance for the plane he is flying. Doret’s plane is not equipped for inverted flight so he contents himself with a beautiful exhibition of ordinary aerobatics generously interspersed with terrifying power dives.

Just as Doret lands we notice a Curtiss Fledgling training plane going through some mighty queer antics. It takes off in a zoom, stalls about 50 feet from the ground, slips off on one wing, partially recovers, but comes down on the landing gear and then bounces 20 feet in the air. Coming to the pylon, it starts a turn but banks in the wrong direction and goes into a violent outward skid, crabbing along sideways until the outer wing tip settles on the ground and in this position it rounds the pylon, the wing tip leaving a trail of dust behind. The announcer finally explains that this is Dick Atcherley giving an exhibition of what he calls ‘crazy flying’—everything a good pilot should not do. After watching him round the field with the tail skid dragging and the wheels two feet off the ground, we agree it may be crazy flying, but it is also one of the best exhibitions of skill ever put on.

Richard’s ‘crazy flying’ was a crowd-pleasing addition to his aerobatic displays, which included “outside banks and circles, ending in an inverted falling leaf descent”. This was, according to Reuter, “a manoeuvre never before seen in this country.” The Oakland Tribune reported: “Crowds here eat up the stunt flying. Marcel Doret, the French ace, and Lieut.-Commander Richard Atcherly, of the victorious British Schneider cup team, had the spectators ducking their heads as they streaked back and forth.” But while Richard’s stunts were consumed with awe,  his crazy flying had the crowds convulsed, as The Milwaukee Journal testified:

The great surprise of the day was modest, undemonstrative Flight Lieut. Richard L. R. Atcherley of the British royal air force, providing comedy relief. When an Englishman sets out to be funny he is good. There is a notable example of this in the movies, and when Lieut. Atcherley left his fleet little English pursuit ship on the ground Friday afternoon and took off in a long winged, leggy American training ship, he provided as many laughs as his fellow countryman, Mr. Chaplin. No student on his first solo flight ever gave such a demonstration of how not to fly an airplane.

Throttled down almost to the stalling point, the lieutenant skidded and slithered about the field, first one wing low and then the other. He never rose higher than 20 feet, and more often was somewhere between 10 and the point where altitude and the ground meet. He grazed the high board fence at the east end of the field, skidded out of danger and wobbled back into the clear. He dropped his nose until it seemed that his propeller tips must be splintered, lunged awkwardly up a few feet and zig-zagged back across the field. But the man who has been flipping his little biplane over Curtiss-Wright field the last week, appearing as much at home on his back as right side up, was making no mistakes, and finally slid in for a perfect three point landing, just to show that it was all in fun.

A day or so ago Lieut. Atcherley stood before the microphone in front of the grandstand and in a broadened rendition of his usual Oxonian accent, said, ‘Ai was teold if I speoke to yeou in my ord’n'ry accent yeou would lawf. Well, lawf.’ The crowd lawfed then, and it laughed again Friday, with an overtone of relief in its laughter when the lieutenant finally came in from his performance.

A Blackburn Lincock

Richard obtained permission to practice some of his crazy flying stunts over fields lying close to the Curtiss-Reynolds airfield, which had been pressed into service as a car park for the air races. This resulted in an unplanned addition to Atcherley’s crazy flying routine. The Chicago Tribune takes up the story:

As County Highway Policeman Jack Davies says himself, he is a conscientious policeman. So, when cruising along Lake avenue on his special air race duty yesterday morning, and observing a Curtiss fledgling plane skim over the tops of cars parked south of Curtiss air field, he took notice. Halting his motorcycle, he looked with astonishment as the plane scraped a telephone pole. He watched the strange pilot apparently lose complete control of the plane. Then, as motorists began leaving their cars before they completed parking them, to run from the field, Policeman Davies roused himself to action.

Cop Gets His Orders

“First thing I did,” he said later, “was to speed to headquarters in the hangar. Cliff Henderson had several phone calls by that time from persons who saw the ship. ‘The Curtiss people have some student flyer who can’t manage his plane,’ they’d phoned, ‘and he’s about to crash and kill a lot of people.’ So when I got there Henderson said: ‘Go out and arrest him, quick!’ I hurried off.

“When I get there, by golly, the fool student was hung up in a telegraph wire. It looked like that to me. But he got loose. I set out for him on my motorcycle. But when I got right on him, he turns and begins heading my way. I knew he couldn’t run the darn thing. No telling what the fool would do. So I stepped on it. He was right behind me. Twice he landed, bumping up and down, a few feet from my rear wheel.

He Draws His Gun

“I keeps turning around and yelling and waving at him, but whenever he comes down, he goes up again. People were standing all around the field yelling. Finally I figured there was no use losing my life because the fool couldn’t stop the plane. So I pulls my gun. The the plane stops and he crawls out. Smiling, by golly; he has the crust to smile. Before I could get my breath a motorist rushes up to him on foot. He’s a big shot, see—a big insurance man, I think he was. ‘Who the hell do you think you are,’ he says to the pilot, and other language not fit for me to repeat. It makes him sore, naturally, to see the young green student standing there grinning. Then the young feller asks, just like nothing was wrong, ‘And who are you, sir?’ The big insurance man tells him then just who he is.

The Mystery Is Solved

“The the young feller—he was dressed in some old clothes, didn’t look like nobody at all, see—he says, ‘And I’m with the British air corps. My name’s Atcherley. I’m awfully glad to meet you.’

“Then he turns to me and says, ‘I was just having a little fun, old fellow. Was just getting ready to go up and take a dive at you.’ And he laughs. Well, it wasn’t funny to me. Then he says, ‘I had permission to practice here for a stunt I’m going to do. Sorry, old fellow, if I put you to any trouble.’ Trouble! What does he think it is to go 50 miles an hour over a cornfield on a motorcycle?

“So,” concluded the policeman, “when some of the race officials found out about and thought it was so funny they’d put me in on the program this afternoon I said ‘Nothing doing! You get somebody else!’”

When Lieut. R. L. R. Atcherley performed his stunt of “crazy flying” in a low powered student plane in the afternoon the order was reversed and a policeman chased him. Bill Beyer of a Chicago motorcycle squad played the part Davies declined to play. Beyer’s motorcycle crashed in the stunt, but he was not hurt.

Richard Atcherley’s contribution to the American National Air Races of 1930, attended by a total of some 360,000 people, was beautifully summed up by an article in that year’s October issue of U.S. Air Services:

THE air races at Chicago were a Roman holiday, highly successful as a circus, leaving nothing for the spectators to growl about as to weather, thrills, tragedies, and providing for them innumerable aerial scenes memorable for their excitement and beauty. The feature of the show was the foreign flyers. An international flavor at an air meet is like a touch of lemon in ice tea. One can get just as tired at a meet which does not have an Atcherley, Colombo, Doret, or Loose on the tarmac, but at Chicago it was noted that the foreigners, together with the man who worked so effectively to achieve their participation, Lieut. Al Williams, formerly of the Navy, provided most of the dazzle and took the minds of the masses off their falling arches.

It was impossible to suffer from brooding hyperchondriasis while watching Atcherley’s imitation of a well-bred but inebriated younger son of an old English house. He made his airplane perform close to the ground maneuvers so difficult and ridiculous, that connoisseurs in staple and fancy flying defined his work as being extraordinarily ripping—rawther. Lord Dundreary, in the play ‘Our American Cousin,’ made audiences roar by his rendition of the part of a silly ass. P. G. Wodehouse might have conceived the part played by Atcherley at Chicago, when he astonished the spectators with his matchless performance.

The man in the airplane had no inhibitions, no sense of responsibility either to the Republican or Democratic party, no desire to go from one point to another if a way could be devised which would insure the complete failure of any orthodox effort to keep to anything resembling an itinerary. The crowd was convulsed. The Englishman slipped and slid about, giving the impression that a highly cultivated gentleman, with an Oxford accent and a world-stirring record for speed, had decided to cut loose from the chafing restrictions imposed upon the rest of mankind and devote a few minutes to the execution of a flock of very funny maneuvers only a few feet from the ground.

Twenty years ago at the first international aviation meet in America, at Belmont Park, New York, we had Roland Garros in his little Demoiselle monoplane, imitating an hysterical hen. At Chicago Atcherley created a furore. He was a great virtuoso flyer and as such commanded popular applause. But he was much more than that. He brought to bear on the flying he performed a highly trained and original conception of the art of injecting into piloting a subtle sense of delicate and well-bred humor which made the crowds love him, laugh with, as well as at him, and altogether split their sides at his ability to evade the motorcycle cop sent by the management to arrest him and give him a ticket for disregarding traffic regulations.

The reaction to Richard Atcherley’s airborne antics guaranteed that his first appearance at the National Air Races would not be his last. Before his return visit however, he was obliged to return to his ‘day job’ with the RAF. This would see him journey from North America back to England, only to set off almost immediately for yet another continent – Africa.


Image credits. European Air Aces at New York City Hall: Press photo, believed to be in the public domain. Blackburn Lincock: Photo by Canadian Forces, and taken from Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired.


References

[1] The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 12 Aug 1930, page 11. Copy viewed at NewspaperSG.
[2] Passenger list for the Leviathan, departing Southampton 10 Aug 1930 for New York via Cherbourg. BT27/1294/6/1.
[3] John Pudney (1960), A Pride of Unicorns. Pages 101-107.
[4] Chicago Tribune, 19 Aug 1930, page 14.
[5] Flight, 19 Sep 1930, page 1052. Copy viewed at Flight Global Archive.
[6] Popular Aviation, November 1930, pages 27-28.
[7] Lancashire Evening Post, 26 Aug 1930, page 7.
[8] Chicago Tribune, 30 Aug 1930, page 1. Copy viewed at Chicago Tribune website.
[9] Oakland Tribune, 25 Aug 1930, page 2.
[10] The Milwaukee Journal, 30 Aug 1930, page 2. Copy viewed at Google Newspaper Archive.
[11] U.S. Air Services, October 1930, page 37. Copy viewed at Hathi Trust Digital Library.


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The stage career of Rowland Hill Atcherley: Act 1

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Rowland Hill Atcherley was born in the Essex parish of Theydon Bois in 1870. His father and grandfather were both doctors, of science and medicine respectively, so I was somewhat surprised to find that Rowland, according to the 1901 census, was an actor!

Cottage at Theydon Bois, Essex, the parish where Rowland Hill Atcherley was born.

The census of 1901 shows Rowland Atcherley living with his wife, Florence, an actress born in Australia, the couple’s daughter, Phyllis, age 2, also born in Australia, plus members of Florence’s family: her mother Meta Pelham (another actress, born in Ireland), her sister Lala Pelham (yet another actress, born in Australia), and her brother Jack Pelham (born in Australia, no occupation given).

At first I thought that the information on the census was wrong. Surely Rowland was a doctor, but this had been written as ‘actor’ in error by the enumerator, most likely because everyone else of working age in the household was in the acting profession. Yet, when the 1911 census became available, this too showed that Rowland Atcherley was an actor. (It also showed that his mother-in-law was still living with Rowland, Florence and Phyllis, but was now known as Minnie Poole rather than Meta Pelham).

My attempts to find out more about Rowland Atcherley’s acting career initially drew a blank. I could find nothing at all relating to this aspect of his life. I did however, quite by chance, find details of his marriage to Florence Bertha Rose Poole – in New Zealand in 1898. This information, in conjunction with the 1901 and 1911 census records, suggested that the Poole family had adopted the surname Pelham as a ‘stage name.’

It was my discovery of Rowland Atcherley’s own stage name that finally provided the key which gave me access to more than two decades’ worth of information about Rowland’s career in the theatre. This information came to light thanks to the National Library of Australia’s wonderful online archive of digitised historic newspapers Australian Newspapers Online (part of the Trove website). An entry in the Marriages column of the Melbourne Argus, published on 26 May 1898, reads as follows:

ATCHERLEY—POOLE.—On the 14th May, at Auckland, N.Z., Rowland Hill (George Rowlands), eldest son of Dr. Atcherley, of Richmond, Surrey, Eng., to Florence, eldest surviving daughter of Charles and Minnie Poole (Meta Pelham), of Melbourne.

Armed with this information, further searches of the Australian Newspapers Online site, along with New Zealand’s Papers Past, the archives of The Stage magazine, and a few other online sources, have enabled me to piece together the story of Rowland Hill Atcherley’s stage career.

The earliest stage performance I know of which may have featured Rowland Hill Atcherley was a smoking concert at the Minor Lyric Hall, Hammersmith, on 6 April 1889. The list of contributors to the programme listed in The Primrose League Gazette included a Mr R M Atcherley – this could very well have been in error for R H Atcherley. Rowland, although he was then 18, was far from being the youngest actor that evening – that title went Hilda Trevelyan, who was said to be 9 years old (pictured right, when older). She became best known for playing the role of Wendy in the original production of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan.

As for Rowland, the next stage production which I can say with certainty he took part in was reviewed in The Era of 11 May 1895:

GOOD QUEEN BESS.
An original Opera-Burlesque, in Two Acts,
Written by Messrs Leo and Harry Trevor,
Composed by Messrs Burnham Horner and Harry Trevor,
Produced at the Theatre Royal, Richmond,
on Wednesday, May 1st, 1895

The Lord Chamberlain .  .  .  .  .  Mr A. Brownlie
The Lord Privy Seal .  .  .  .  .  .  . Mr R. H. Atcherley
Sir Francis Drake .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Mr Leo Trevor
Hon. Horatio Muckit .  .  .  .  .  .  Mr Harry Trevor
The Mayor of Plymouth .  .  .  .  Captain Philip Trevor …

After listing the cast, The Era’s correspondent wrote: “This burlesque, if at times uneven, possesses some smart lines and certainly some clever songs satirising the principal topics of the day.” One of the best musical numbers was said to be “a taking song of the Lord Privy Seal, capitally sung by Mr. R. H. Atcherley”.

Although I have not found Rowland on the 1891 census, his family were living in Richmond at that time, so the Theatre Royal was quite possibly Rowland’s local playhouse. He returned there in August 1895, appearing in The Story of a Sin, a drama written by Courtenay Thorpe. According to The Era, the first performance was “a decided success” with “the small part of the footman being done full justice to by Mr Rowland Atcherley.”

Moving onwards and upwards, in September 1895 Rowland became part of Mr Stanley Hope’s company of actors and began touring with them for 8 months or more, appearing in the comedy drama Sowing the Wind. Reviews in The Stage along with newspaper advertisements and reports show that Sowing the Wind was performed, after a long and successful run at the Comedy Theatre in London, at various provincial theatres.

Rowland was now using his stage name, and the first performance of Sowing the Wind which included George Rowlands on the bill was at the Opera House in Northampton. Thereafter he appeared in the play at venues including Torquay (Royal), Cheltenham (Theatre and Opera House), Great Yarmouth (Royal Aquarium), Stratford (Theatre Royal), London (The Parkhurst), Sheffield (City), Ealing (The Lyric), Swansea (New Theatre and Star Opera House), Blackpool (Opera House), Northampton (Opera House; a return visit) and finally South Shields (Royal) in May 1896.

The first role taken by Rowland in Sowing the Wind was that of ‘fashionable attorney’ Mr Deakin, although at Great Yarmouth he played Annersley and was named in The Stage’s review not as George Rowlands but as Mr Atcherley. Later he switched to the part of Sir Richard Cursitor (the image, right, shows another actor in that role, with the characters Maud Fretwell and the Hon. Mrs Fretwell, in 1893). Rowland received favourable reviews throughout the play’s run, and I am sure he would have been pleased to read the likes of those which opined that he was “excellent,” “capital,” and deserved “great praise.”

After his success in Sowing the Wind, Rowland moved from a comedy drama to a “farcical and musical comedy”: he was listed among the cast appearing in Skipped by the Light of the Moon at the County Theatre, Reading, during August and September 1896. By a strange coincidence which would soon become apparent to him, Rowland played the character Frank Pelham. In all probability this was the last role he played in England for a while, for within weeks of his appearance at Reading he had embarked on a journey to the other side of the world, where his talent for farce and comedy would be further developed with the renowned Frank Thornton and his English Comedy Company.

Frank Thornton, an actor, comedian, singer and producer, had toured Australia and New Zealand before and this return visit was no doubt eagerly anticipated by theatre-goers. In New Zealand, the Auckland Star newspaper reported on 31 Nov 1896 that: “Mr Frank Thornton sails again for Australia, per Orizaba, on Oct. 30, taking with him a repertoire consisting of ‘Charley’s Aunt,’ ‘Mamma,’ ‘The Private Secretary,’ ‘The Bookmaker,’ ‘The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown,’ and ‘Sweet Lavender.’”

Sure enough, the passenger list for the Orizaba (pictured below), which actually departed from London on 29 Oct 1896, included the following, who were all contracted to land at Melbourne: Mr F Thornton, Mr F Shepherd, Mr H Terry, Mr Heath, Mrs Heath, Miss N Seabrooke, Miss E Carew, and of course Mr G Rowlands, a.k.a. Rowland Hill Atcherley. Rowland was setting off on a voyage at the end of which he would win not only praise from theatre critics, but also the heart of one of his fellow actors.


Image credits. Old thatched cottage at Theydon Bois: © copyright Robert Edwards, taken from Geograph, cropped, used and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Hilda Trevelyan (Hilda Marie Antoinette Anna Tucker): photo by Bassano Ltd, National Portrait Gallery image NPG x101482, used under a Creative Commons licence. Actors playing the roles of Maud Fretwell, the Hon. Mrs Fretwell and Sir Richard Cursitor in Sowing the Wind: image from The Sketch, 25 Oct 1893; out of copyright. Orizaba (steamer) and Racer (tugboat): photo by Allan C Green, taken from State Library of Australia; out of copyright according to Wikimedia Commons.


References

[1] Birth of Rowland Hill Atcherly registered at Epping, December quarter 1870; volume 4a, page 95.
[2] London Daily News, 20 Oct 1870, page 1. Births.
[3] 1901 census of England and Wales. Piece 424, folio 35, page 10.
[4] 1911 census of England and Wales. Piece 3624, Schedule 174.
[5] New Zealand marriage registration 1898/2405. Found at Births, Deaths & Marriages Online.
[6] The Argus (Melbourne), 26 May 1898, page 1. Copy viewed at Australian Newspapers Online (Trove).
[7] The Primrose League Gazette, 6 Apr 1889. Transcript viewed at Stage Beauty (website, accessed 4 Jan 2015).
[8] The Era, 11 May 1895, page 12. “Good Queen Bess.”
[9] 1891 census of England Wales. Piece 619, folio 84, page 13.
[10] The Era, 3 Aug 1895, page 9. “The Story of a Sin.”
[11] The Stage, 5 Sep 1895. Opera House, Northampton.
[12] The Stage, 19 Sep 1895. Royal, Torquay.
[13] The Stage, 10 Oct 1895. Theatre and Opera House, Cheltenham.
[14] The Stage, 24 Oct 1895. Royal Aquarium, Great Yarmouth.
[15] The Era, 2 Nov 1895. Stratford Theatre Royal.
[16] The Stage, 7 Nov 1895. The Parkhurst, London.
[17] The Stage, 21 Nov 1895. City, Sheffield.
[18] The Stage, 5 Dec 1895. The Lyric, Ealing.
[19] The Stage, 20 Feb 1896. New Theatre and Star Opera House, Swansea.
[20] The Stage, 2 Apr 1896. Opera House, Blackpool.
[21] The Stage, 16 Apr 1896. Opera House, Northampton.
[22] The Stage, 7 May 1896. Royal, South Shields.
[23] The Stage, 24 Sep 1896. County, Reading.
[24] Auckland Star, 31 Oct 1896, page 2. Song, Stage and Story. Copy viewed at Papers Past.
[25] Outwards Passenger Lists (series BT27/219, The National Archives, Kew). Copy viewed at Ancestry. Orizaba, departure date 29 Oct 1896.


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