Armistice centenary, RAF centenary and supercentenarians!

Along with nearly 250,000 other under 18’s, 12 year old Sydney Lewis, being the youngest authenticated British soldier in WWI, (fighting at the Battle of the Somme), both my own and my husband’s respective maternal grandfathers, we know, as teenagers, also fought. My late mother would regularly recall how unnerving and alarming, as a child, she found the sound of the metal plate in her fathers leg. Particularly heard from her bed at night, as he climbed the stairs!

This centenary year of the end of the First World War and Armistice Day, is also our RAF’s 100th year. In 1918 it was founded as a separate entity from the British Army and Royal Navy, becoming the world’s first independent air force.

From 1908, Hendon Aerodrome in Colindale, London, was an important centre for aviation. Closing in 1987, the sites museum was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. This year it underwent a major transformation, incorporating three new galleries, exploring the first 100 years of the RAF. Now known as the RAF Museum London, it also has a First World War in the Air exhibition. Being enthusiastic about flight, from admiring birds and insects, to flying kites and having personally experienced exhilarating high velocity manoeuvres in a helicopter, and claustrophobic, nauseous light aircraft flights over Northamptonshire. A beautifully sublime glide over Dunstable Downs, and relishing the taking off and landing, my favourite part, of numerous commercial flights. In the past, my family and I have enjoyed numerous visits to the museum, and I’m looking forward to discovering it anew. Aerial advances and developments particularly interest me, with over 70 different aircraft’s designed during WWI. From fledgling air reconnaissance, “eyes in the sky”, for spotting, ranging and photography. To identifiable military markings, two seater’s allowing Morse code transmissions, and the use of primitive parachutes to save pilots!

The British Army contracted American born entrepreneur, Samuel Franklin Cody, to design their first aeroplane. A biplane, British Army Aeroplane No.1 a.k.a. Cody 1. Piloted by Cody, flew the first officially recognised, powered and sustained flight in the United Kingdom, 16 October 1908, for a distance of 424 metres (1,390 feet). Primarily, aeronautics then, were undertaken by hot air balloon. Popular among the wealthy and a spectacle for crowds gathered on bank holidays. The infamous international Gordon Bennett balloon race, being the oldest balloon event, continues today.

By quite a contrast later in 1908, the distance of 1,798 km (1,117 miles), establishing the British long-distance in-flight record, was travelled by Air Commodore Edward Maitland. Who, with fellow balloonists Prof. Auguste E. Gaudron and Charles C. Turner, made the flight from Crystal Palace, London, to Meeki Derevi in Russia (now Zarasai in Lithuania), in 36.5 hours. For this historic flight aboard the “Mammoth” balloon, Maitland donned Burberry gabardine, trench coat suiting, to protect him from the severe hardships of cold at high altitude. Invented by Thomas Burberry, this innovative water repellent fabric was ideal for Army officer’s raincoats. More than half a million were made at Burberry’s Basingstoke factory during WWI.

The fashion style of 1908 was covered up. Women’s attire was ankle or full length, with skirts cinched in at the waists and large hats. Men wore bowlers with lounge suits, or top hats with formal morning dress. School leaving age was twelve, the cost of a pint of bitter in the pub was a penny, and the average annual earnings were £70. A motorcar, most likely to be French, cost around £400. We adopted the term chauffeur, French for the professional driver. Lack of capital investment caused many British auto mobile manufacturing attempts to be short lived. Then the more affordable Model T Fords began to arrive from the USA. For the 50,000 or so who owned a car, petrol was 4.7p per litre.

It’s widely known that the 1908 Olympic Games were opened at White City, London, by the reigning monarch Edward VII and could be seen for as little as 12p. That Kenneth Grahame’s cherished, “The Wind in the Willows”, had it’s first publication. Also parliament approved Old-Age Pensions. The first state pension paid five shillings a week (worth around £14 today). It was limited to men aged over 70. The average life expectancy in Britain then was 47.

It’s little known that my paternal and my husband’s maternal grandmothers were both born in 1908; mine living until a few weeks before her 101st birthday. Britain’s current oldest men, Robert Weighton, one of seven children and Alf Smith, one of six; now living with his daughter Irene, who’s only 80. Were not only also born in 1908 but on the same day as each other! Having turned 110 this year, they have become members of the elite supercentenarians! Another 80 year old, Deidre, is daughter to the UK’s oldest living person, Grace Catherine Jones, one of eight children. When commenting upon celebrating her recent 112th birthday, she said, “I still feel the same as I did when I was 60”!

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