13th September 1912 - First Wirral built aircraft crashes
A company called Planes Ltd. had been formed in 1909 by a Mr.W.P. Thompson and located at premises in
Birkenhead between 54A & 56 Duke Street and on Cleveland Street. Thompson had worked for Handley Page
Ltd in Barking, where he had designed a biplane. This aircraft had been damaged when a gale blew down
part of the Handley Page factory. The aircraft was brought north and rebuilt in 1910 by one of Thompson’s
assistance Robert C. Fenwick. Fenwick took the aircraft to the flying ground at Freshfield were he flew it and
eventually gained his pilots certificate (No.35) on 29th November 1910.
|The company 'Planes Ltd' formed in 1909 by W.p Thompson, was located in Birkenhead. Thompson had designed a bi
plane for Handley Page Ltd which had been damaged in a gale. The aircraft was brought North and rebuilt in 1910 by one of
Thompson's assistants Robert C Fenwick.
|Above in its original form is the 'Mersey', built by Planes Ltd in Birkenhead late in 1911. It was damaged in a crash in 1912,
it was rebuilt and entered later in the year at military trials at Salisbury Plain as 'No 19'. Flown by Robert Fenwick, it
crashed on the 12th August killing Fenwick, the 16th Britain to be killed in an aircraft.
In the following year, Fenwick in collaboration with Sydney T. Swaby designed and manufactured an all-British
aircraft, which was completed in late 1911. They called it the “Mersey”. It was a monoplane with a 7ft long
open cockpit nacelle. This provided some protection for the two seats mounted side-by-side, but still left the
occupants heads out in the slipstream. Steel tubing was used for the wing spars and undercarriage structure.
Wires to two tall kingposts and the undercarriage structure braced the wings. The tail unit consisted of a
single tail plane and elevators with a balanced rudder and small fin below, all carried on a pair of horizontal
tubes with a meagre single wire bracing to a kingpost and to the undercarriage. The overall length of the
aircraft was 24 feet with a wingspan of 35 feet and a cord of 7 feet, giving a wing area of 220 square feet.
The aircraft weight was 750lbs with an all up weight of 1,150lbs and a top speed of 55mph.
With the exception of the 7-cylinder 45hp Isaacson radial engine, which was manufactured in Sheffield, the
whole aircraft was Wirral built. In those early days, aircraft were either tractor or pusher types. A tractor has
the engine and propeller at the front of the aircraft, to pull the aircraft through the air. A pusher has the
engine and propeller at the rear of the aircraft, to push the aircraft through the air. On the “Mersey”, the
engine was mounted back to front in the nose of the aircraft, but instead of the pilot having to suffer the
wash of the propeller, the propeller was mounted in the pusher configuration at the rear. It was connected to
the engine by a long shaft running between the two seats, and was geared to run at half the speed of the
The aircraft was transported over to the aerodrome at Freshfield were it was test flown by Fenwick. During
these trial flight’s, he flew over 600 miles. On one flight, he reported that he had flown from Freshfield to
Ainsdale, which he circled and gained a height of 600 feet, then flew to Seaforth before landing at Henry Melly’
s flying school at Waterloo in quite gusty conditions. The twenty miles were covered in twenty-two minutes,
at around 60mph. Later in that day Swaby who weighed 12 stone, joined Fenwick in the second seat for a
flight to Ainsdale and back. Another passenger flown was Mr Thompson, who was reported to be over 70
years of age.
In May 1912, Fenwick and Swaby set up the Mersey Aeroplane Company, which bought the “Mersey” from
Planes Ltd. The aircraft remained at Freshfield. A June issue of the “Aeroplane” magazine reported that the
aircrafts name was “brilliantly painted on both wings”. The magazine also described some of the flights. “Three
or four ladies after seeing the machine in flight, showed their confidence in it by taking flights of several miles. One
remarked that to their surprise it was as comfortable, if not more so, than a railway carriage”
The “Mersey” was extensively damaged in a crash in early 1912, when it landed in some quicksand and
turned over. Fenwick was uninjured and set about rebuilding the aircraft. In the reconstruction, longer wings
were fitted and were rigged without the dihedral used on the original aircraft, the area of the tail surfaces
were increased and the tail-booms shortened; only the engine and nacelle remained in their original form.
Military Aeroplane Competition
During the early part of the last century, the French dominated aviation, not only with their aviators, but also
with their aircraft and engines. For the British it was becoming embarrassing. At the first two aviation weeks
held in England at Doncaster and Blackpool in 1909, not a single British manufactured or designed aircraft
were present. However by 1912, quite a few British designed aircraft had appeared, but still the French
dominated the scene, with a large number of these aircraft having French engines. About this time the use of
aircraft in war was beginning to be realized by the British War Office, albeit not to the extent that they would
be used in the Second World War. Reliance on other countries, to supply a vital part of the aircraft, lead to the
clamour for a totally British aircraft that would meet War Office conditions.
In December 1911, the War Office had announced that a Military Aeroplane Competition would take place in
August 1912 at Larkhill camp on Salisbury Plain. At the time, this competition was the most searching test that
had been carried out on aircraft. The list of entrants included most of the famous names of the day with
aircraft from Avro, Bristol, Vickers, Handley Page, Bleriot, Farman etc. piloted by such well-known names as T.
O.M. Sopwith and Samuel F. Cody etc. The partner’s entered the “Mersey”, in the competition as entrant
number “19” with an indicated purchase price at £900, the second cheapest of all the entrants. In all thirty-
two aircraft were entered with only five of them being totally British. Of these five only two, the “Mersey” and
an Avro actually took part in any of the tests. Many of the other twenty-seven entrants did not compete in all
of the tests if at all.
its transport case, assemble it and have the pilot do a circuit of the aerodrome to make sure nothing had
been left off. Of the nineteen entrants in this test, the “Mersey” came 17th with a time of four hours twenty-
five minutes, using a team of three men. This contrasted quite poorly with the winning Avro “G”, that did this
in fourteen minutes using a team of six men. But it was nowhere near as bad as the last aircraft, a French
Farman biplane with a time of nine hours twenty-nine minutes, using five men. Unfortunately, the “Mersey”
did not to take part in all of the tests. The “Mersey” flew on Friday 9th, with Fenwick at the controls and
Swaby in the passenger seat plus fuel for six hours in the tank. On landing, the rubber shock absorbers on
the undercarriage were damaged but were soon repaired, and the aircraft was flying again by 11th August.
Tuesday, 13th August was windy and cold, but at 6.06pm, when the wind had dropped. Fenwick took off and
flew towards Stonehenge. Precisely what happened is not clearly recorded, but when the aircraft was about
a mile and a half away, at a height of 200 feet, it was seen to be in difficulties. It dived about 50 feet,
recovered, and then plunged vertically to the ground. Fenwick was killed, becoming the 16th Britain, to be
killed in an aircraft accident since the first, C.S. Rolls, was killed at Bournemouth in July 1910. Although the
aircraft was destroyed, the Royal Aero Club enquiry interestingly found that the controls were intact, and
attributed the accident to turbulence and the fact that the “Mersey”, was inherently unstable. They thought
that the insecure bracing on the tail had allowed the tail plane to flex downwards thus making the elevators
16th October 1912 – Chester visited by Gustav Hamel
Wednesday the 16th of October saw Gustav Hamel land his Bleriot at the Chester City football ground in
Sealand Road. After a civic reception he gave demonstration flights, getting up to a height of about 5,000 feet
in spite of the gusty wind, which prevailed. In the second trip he was in the air for about half an hour, and
was loudly cheered on landing. Part of the proceeds went to the Chester Infirmary.