By Colin Manton, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal, 15, 2006
In the early years of the last century, an exceptional artist lived comfortably in the refined surroundings of Bedford Park. His accomplished paintings often depicted romanticised historical themes. He also made a good living as a prolific book illustrator. His paintings survive in various private collections and remain popular today, judging from the commercial availability of reproductions of his works on the Internet. Typical of these is At the Coliseum, a study of a beautiful young Roman woman intent on the spectacle in the amphitheatre below. A patron visiting the artist’s studio would probably have been surprised and bemused, however, to see aeroplane components competing for space with the usual easels, canvasses and pigments.
This artist was Harold Piffard (1867-1939) and it was his fascination with aviation that made him exceptional. In that distant era, aviation was still something of a novelty, not necessarily taken seriously by everyone although there was huge popular interest in the subject. Piffard himself led a chequered career. He was born in India in 1867, the son of a Colonial official. He was sent back to England to be educated at Lancing College, near Shoreham on the Sussex coast. He did not take study too seriously but exhibited a precocious talent for acrobatics and tap-dancing. He was known as something of an exhibitionist. He left Lancing in 1883 and attempted a career in show business, fancying himself as an entertainer. Abandoning this idea, he returned to India to work on a tea plantation.
He returned to England again on the death of his father to study painting at the Royal Academy. He married, had four children and, in 1896, acquired 18 Addison Grove where he lived for the remainder of his days (his family continued to own the house until the 1990s). Piffard appeared to lead the life of a successful artist. Then at the dangerous age of 40, his more unconventional leanings seem to have got the better of him. He became totally absorbed by the practical possibilities of aviation. He began to build model aeroplanes from about 1907.
Aviation had barely registered in the public consciousness, especially in the UK, which technically lagged behind the USA and the Continent. The American Wright Brothers had made the world’s first successful flight in Carolina in 1903 but attracted surprisingly little publicity until they demonstrated their invention in France in 1908. Progress was slow in this country. Samuel Cody, grudgingly backed by the government, had flown a cumbrous machine in 1908 but many contemporaries thought that this did not really count, as he was still an American citizen. As far as the UK was concerned, 1909 was the big year. Louis Bleriot flew the Channel, landing at Dover to public acclamation. A V Roe, working in London, designed, built and flew the first truly successful British aeroplane.
His early experiments
Returning to Piffard’s achievements, one of his aeroplane models won a bronze award at the 1909 Olympia Aero Show. These events inspired him to new heights of ambition and he commenced work on a full-sized aeroplane. ‘I think aeroplane fever is decidedly infectious’ he later remarked in The Aerin 1911. He bought a power plant, an eight-cylinder 40hp ENV ‘D’ engine, and began his flying experiments in 1909. The airframe was built in his studio, with the assistance of the Nixons, two carpenter brothers. The final assembly of the machine and engine testing was carried out in a rented shed at Back Common Road, Turnham Green. Amazingly, neither he nor his mainly voluntary helpers had any special engineering or aviation knowledge, only tremendous enthusiasm and self-belief.
Around September or October that year he rented a flying field ‘near North Ealing Station, on the western side of Masons Green Lane.’ In later years, there was some debate regarding the precise location of Piffard’s activities. There seems to have been confusion with a later airfield, known as ‘Acton Aerodrome,’ sited on the eastern side of Masons Lane. Piffard’s field was actually on the west, ‘adjoining Mr Snell’s Farm, Ealing’, marked on maps of the period as ‘Hangar Hill Farm’.
To accommodate and protect the bulky but fragile wood and canvas aircraft, spanning about 38 feet, Piffard rented a large marquee. In an attempt to overcome the soft, uneven nature of the local terrain, he laid down railway sleepers as a ‘runway’ for take-offs. In fact, the area was so undeveloped that The Aero sanguinely described ‘a good four-mile course free from trees as soon as he can get off the ground sufficiently to clear a few ditches and fences.’ The Aero was sufficiently impressed to describe the aircraft in detail. ‘The whole machine is very carefully thought out, and is the result of many years of experiments and research with various kinds of models of large size.’ A substantial biplane, it was fitted with a fixed forward plane and elevator in front of the main plane [wing]. The propeller was noteworthy in having blades of ‘wooden sheet’ covered with fabric, built on to steel shafts, ‘which can be varied in pitch, so that experiments can be tried with different pitches, but without changing the propeller.’ The undercarriage was another intriguing feature, being fitted with wheels and skids of cane, shod with iron. ‘The wheels project below them, and, when the machine lifts, two pegs are withdrawn by a wire, the wheels springing up above the skids away from any contact with the ground on landing’ according to The Aero in 1909.
The events were judged important enough to be reported in The Acton Gazette of 8 October 1909, under the heading of ‘Latest British Aeroplane: in an Ealing Field’. Interviewed for this article, Piffard exhibited not only astounding confidence but also somewhat misplaced inventiveness. Determined to ensure the aeroplane’s fore and aft stability, the engine, he described, was mounted on a slide, ‘which gives it a play of about seven inches. It is held back by a powerful spring, but as the speed increases the thrust of the propeller forces the engine forward. This shifting of the weight should balance the machine.’ Fortunately, Piffard had the good sense to listen to qualified advice from the engineer, W O Manning, and abandoned this dangerous, impractical innovation. Amazingly, the machine actually ‘flew’, although somewhat reluctantly. In Piffard’s own words ‘. . . in December, 1909, having spent three months at North Ealing coaxing her to fly, she deigned to rise a foot or two from the ground for a distance of a hundred yards or so.’ Such was his almost boundless optimism that he later admitted that he ‘saw myself sailing over London in the immediate future . . .’ Harsh reality temporarily destroyed his dreams. A gale brutally flattened the marquee and wrecked the aeroplane during the early morning of 3 December 1909.
Trials at Shoreham
Like the hero figures that he was well known for illustrating in countless books and magazines, Piffard refused to be downhearted, picked himself up and tried again. Memories of his schooldays led him back to Shoreham and a much more suitable flying field. He and a solicitor, George Wingfield, set up the Aviator’s Finance Company Limited and leased land close to his old college, adjoining Old Salts Farm, which even had a large wooden hangar. Edouard Baumann technically assisted Piffard and ‘two young enthusiastic amateurs, one a fitter named Ouinch (pronounced Winch) and the other a rigger named Sutton.’ Piffard slightly modified the aircraft design and was operational again by 3 May 1910. The curve and camber of the wings were made flexible and the span was reduced by about three feet. The reborn machine made short ‘hops’ across the field and the intrepid pilot became well known locally, his aircraft being nicknamed The Grasshopper. Locals even volunteered to help rebuild it after frequent crashes. Unfortunately, the hazardous drainage ditches that criss-crossed the area often caught out Piffard. Unsurprisingly, he began to suffer injuries although he apparently maintained his appearance of complete sang froid. Perhaps his acrobatic training helped him to escape more serious physical harm.
Writing of his long experience a year or so later, Piffard described ‘The Pleasures and Pains of Aeroplane Experiments’ in characteristic, romantic vein (if breathtakingly politically incorrectly by today’s standards!) ‘. . . I feel convinced that they belong to the female gender – capricious, fascinating, expensive, and, generally speaking, an infinite source of pleasure and pain’ (The Aero 1911). Whilst hardly daring to hope that he would win the famous Daily Mail £10,000 prize, he felt that he stood a chance of winning the crate of champagne offered for completing the 3/4 mile flight across the field by the proprietor of The Sussex Pad, a well-known local hotel sited just across the present A27. A serious crash interrupted Piffard’s ambitions when he was hit by an awkward gust of wind at 30 feet, suffering ‘a good shaking,’ a cut leg, bumped head and brief unconsciousness, which required a doctor’s attention.
After extensive repairs the aircraft was tested and ready for flight again on 10 July. Piffard’s spirits soared and he even asked the distance to Brighton ‘as the crow flies’! This was characteristically wild optimism – he had not even learned how to turn the aircraft in flight anyway. Fate intervened and another crash resulted. Ready to try again on 29 July, Piffard said in The Aero that ‘I was just lifting when I felt a sudden shock as if I had been charged into by a motor ‘bus.’ This time, a propeller blade had fractured. Piffard explained how a new blade was spliced on to the splintered fragments of the old, ‘an achievement that we had just cause to be proud of’. The then editor saw this not as a triumph but recklessness, adding his own ‘health and safety’ admonition, ‘Some will not fly with even a chip out of the blade, no matter how well repaired.’
Successful, longer hops followed during September 1910, flying at 30-40 feet altitude for l/2 mile. At last he achieved his immediate aim – the elusive flight across the field to The Sussex Pad. ‘. . . I earned our champagne at last, for I succeeded in doing the half-turn and getting to the hotel on the furtherest side of the ground. I covered the distance in about forty seconds, but it took me an hour and a half to get back, as there was no suitable ground to get a proper run without crossing a rather wide ditch. This meant planks, gates etc and there was the champagne too, which did not assist matters.’ Perhaps deliberately ambiguously, Piffard did not explain whether this was due to the bulk of the champagne crate or the previous consumption of some of the contents!
Characteristically, Piffard did not seem to know the meaning of the word hubris. Having attracted massive attention as the first aviator to fly over Sussex (and indeed one of the first to fly in UK) he could not resist the wiles of the local cinematograph firm. ‘Here was a chance to distinguish myself!’ he confidently predicted. Even though he was warned about a ditch, he was convinced that he would soar over it. Humiliation followed and the machine was wrecked, the ‘comprehensive smash’ being captured on film. Not really the kind of publicity he sought intentionally but Piffard proudly saw it as a form of recognition. Eyeing the cameraman, Piffard sensed, seemingly naively, that ‘. . . he seemed in no way disappointed; in fact, I thought I saw a gleam of satisfaction in his eye as he packed his apparatus. These pictures of the wreck have been extensively exhibited at various cinematograph shows.’
Writing many years later in 1951, Air Vice Marshall Vincent described how he had witnessed this early flight in his youth, although his impression of Piffard himself perhaps reveals another dimension to the aviator’s personality. ‘Piffard was a man of over 40 then, and was a poster artist by profession; and for some strange reason he had decided to take up aviation. He was a bundle of nerves, and I have never since seen anyone smoke so many cigarettes in such a short time as he did when he had decided to get his aeroplane into the air’ (The Royal Aero Club Gazette 1951). Vincent also explained how the machine gained its name, Hummingbird. Spectators gathered and the ‘engine was run up and, there being no rev counter or other instruments, everybody hummed the highest note reached by the engine. On switching off, the crowd still hummed the note, and a tuning-fork . . . was sounded. If the two notes agreed then all was well, the engine was restarted and the flight was on!’ If not, then adjustments were made to ‘tune up’ the engine.
After a series of further crashes, even Piffard seemed to have lost heart and decided to write off Hummingbird with the words ‘May her successor be more fortunate’, implying that he was down but far from out. His next machine, the ‘Piffard Hydroplane‘, was tested from Shoreham Beach in the summer of 1911 but was a failure and obstinately refused to fly. Perhaps Piffard changed the design configuration because he regarded the sea as a potentially kinder landing place than a rough field. A photograph in Lewis’ book shows the machine on the beach, equipped with floats, Piffard himself posing in overalls, and the striking figure of Mrs Barbara Manning, (nee Blanck), who married the engineer, W O Manning. In the beginning, as Barbara Blanck, she had helped him in his Bedford Park studio with his ‘strange’ ideas making aeroplane models and, at first sight, could well have been the model for the history painting, At the Coliseum.
Whatever the reasons – a final sense of defeat, financial exigencies or perhaps the feeling that he had enjoyed his brief moment of glory – Piffard abandoned aircraft after 1911 and continued his career as a successful artist and illustrator until his death in 1939. His paintings and commercial artwork are still recognised by collectors. As an aviator, he was isolated and overtaken by more practical, determined and businesslike contemporaries such as A V Roe, the Short Brothers, Geoffrey de Havilland and TOM Sopwith (all active, incidentally, in West London). His designs led nowhere but he did give an early impulse to flying at Shoreham, said to be the oldest licensed airport in UK. The Shoreham Airport Historical Association (SAHA) currently commemorates Harold Piffard’s brave and exceptional achievement with a key exhibit. In a Shoreham hangar, on public view, is a full-size replica of his Hummingbird, hatched in Ealing and fledged at Shoreham, nearly a century ago. ‘After all, Piffard was a pioneer, and he just had to fly because he wanted to, even though it was only a little’, wrote Air Vice Marshall Vincent.
British Aircraft 1909-1914 by P Lewis, 1962; The Story of Acton Aerodrome and the Alliance Factory complied by P Roberts, London, Borough of Ealing Library Service 1978; The Piffard Monograph Shoreham Airport Historical Association c.2000; ‘The Piffard Biplane’, The Aero 12 Oct 1909; ‘The Pleasures and Pains of Aeroplane Experiments’ by Harold Piffard, The Aero 25 Jan 1911; ‘The Beginnings of Shoreham Airport’ by S F Vincent, The Royal Aero Club Gazette Golden Jubilee Number 1951.
The author would like to thank David Dunstall, Shoreham Airport Archivist, for allowing access to material relating to Piffard.
Colin Manton lives in Mid Sussex and is a part-time tutor at Sussex University, where he teaches local history, combining this with museum consultancy and freelance lecturing. He acquired a fascination for London’s history whilst working for over 20 years at the Museum of London, which he left in 2000. A particular interest is London’s prominence in the pioneer aircraft industry and he organised an award-winning museum exhibition on the theme. He has published various articles and books, including histories of Heston Airport and Billingsgate Market. He is currently writing a distinctive history of the county of Sussex.