When thinking about locations for aeronautical records in south London, the most obvious places to consider are, perhaps, Biggin Hill or the old Croydon Aerodrome (covered in passing in relation to ‘Lady Icarus’); a long way down the list would be Lee. But Lee has been home to two records – the first known parachute fatality at Burnt Ash Farm, which was covered in the blog in 2015, and, for a short period in the early 20th century, it was the accidental location for the end of the longest airship flight when Willows II landed somewhere around Winns Road on what was known as Woodman’s Farm.
Like the sad tale of Robert Cocking, Lee’s claim to fame was a purely accidental one. The pilot was aiming for Crystal Palace but due to poor visibility and some technical problems had somewhat overshot his destination.
From postcard in author’s ‘collection’
The pilot was Captain Ernest Thompson Willows, he was the son of a wealthy Cardiff dentist and born in 1886. He had been inspired by the Wright Brothers and built his first airship, Willows I, two years after their flight at Kitty Hawk when Willows was just 19. It was powered by a motorcycle engine and was reasonably successful, its maiden flight outside Cardiff lasted for 85 minutes, the first of half a dozen flights.
The follow up, the imaginatively named Willows II, was another four years in the making and was slightly bigger than the first one and launched in 1909. He extended the length of the flights – flying from Cheltenham to Cardiff in four hours in July 1910.
The flight to Lee was the following month. He left his ‘shed’ in the moors above Cardiff around 8 pm on an August Saturday evening, guided initially by the lights of his father’s car. The car lights failed soon after England had been reached and Willows was left to steer by a combination of stars, lights from towns and occasional forays down to almost ground level to check where he was via megaphone (1) His flight took him over Chippenham, Colne, Reading and Chertsey before heading towards Crystal Palace (2).
Coming to a stop was fairly rudimentary and involved throwing a grappling iron out and hoping someone would be able to get hold of it and secure the airship. On the approach to Crystal Palace, the grappling iron got stuck in a tree and the rope broke. He drifted on to between Lee and Mottingham, where a watchman with some help from others was able to catch the rope and secure Willows II (3).
There was some damage to the skin with a consequent loss of hydrogen, which needed to be replaced. So it wasn’t until the following Monday evening that he was able to complete the trip to Crystal Palace – his flight took him over Lee, Hither Green, Catford and Lower Sydenham before reaching Sydenham Hill 18 minutes later – the journey was watched by thousands on the ground. The final destination was in cloud and he lost those on the ground who he was following, so like the flight to Lee, the final descent was a bit haphazard.
Once at Crystal Palace he did regular demonstrations, which adverts were taken out for in the local and national press – such as this one in The Times (4).
Willows continued with building airships – Willows II was re-built and re-named as the City of Cardiff in an unsuccessful attempt to win a £2000 prize for the first flight between Paris and London. While he was able to sell Willows IV to the Admiralty for just over £1000, it seems to have been the only significant money he made from his passion for flight. A period in the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1 was bookended by offering sight-seeing flights – it was on one of these near Bedford in August 1926 where the basket became detached from the airship and Ernest Willows and his five passengers hurtled to the ground – one of the passengers survived but all the others, including Willows, perished.
As for Woodman’s Farm in Lee, it seems to have been a relatively short lived farm, its location is highlighted on the map above. It may well have originally been part of Horn Park Farm which the blog covered a while ago. The unplanned landing of the airship seems to be its first mention. It was also known as Melrose Farm – which it was referred to in the 1914 Kelly’s Directory (5).
The farm was a market gardening operation supplying the army during WW1 and selling produce at Greenwich market (6). It was run by the Woodman family seemingly until the 1930s, when, like Horn Park Farm, it was lost to developers (7). The farm house remains on Ashdale Road, helpfully called ‘The Old Farm House’ to make identification easy and was used by the builders of streets around there, Wates, as a site office during the construction (8).
- Flight 13 August 1910
- The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Aug 23, 1910; pg. 1; Issue 39358
- Josephine Birchenough and John King (1981) ‘Some Farms and Fields in Lee’, p14