Conisbrough & Denaby Main
Heritage Group

A Magazine Article about the Flying Club
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Flying Club
31st May 1910
Conisbrough is to have its aviation meeting for model aeroplanes.  This novel event which is to take place on Saturday 2nd July is the result of the enterprise of the Conisbrough and District model aeroplane society. Prizes will be given for distance flown,  excellence of construction and gliding and there will be two classes, one for models measuring five feet and under and one for those over five feet.




The following article was researched by Neil Carver
 
The Conisbrough Glider and Patrick Young Alexander.
 
Foreword.
 
This piece came about as a result of my research into early flight in Sheffield. Around 1910 clubs dedicated to building and flying model aeroplanes proliferated in the U.K. More than a few also attempted to fly man carrying gliders. The Conisbrough and District Model Aeroplane Society was one such club.
 
The Strange Life of Patrick Young Alexander
 
Although the Conisbrough club was mainly a model flying club, aviation historians associate it with no less than 2 man carrying gliders. However it seems that only one flew and it has a very unusual history, some of which has never been told. The glider in question is the ‘biplane’ referred to by Tony Greathead in the untitled article on the Conisbrough heritage website (see link at the end of this piece) and pictured in Photo 1. 

















Tony’s recollection that it was built by the Conisbrough club is not strictly accurate though.
This glider was in fact given to them by the Sheffield and District Aero Club in the spring of 1911. For some reason the year old Sheffield club ceased to exist at that time and this is probably why the glider was gifted to Conisbrough.
 
It wasn’t built by the Sheffield club either though. It was given to them by a Mr Patrick Young Alexander several months previously and delivered from London. Patrick Alexander is a little known figure these days and his biography is not even easy to come by. His life though is the stuff of fiction.
 
Patrick’s father, Andrew Alexander was, for a time, manager of the Cyclops works of Charles
Cammell and Company in Sheffield. Patrick Alexander attended school at Wesley College
(now King Edwards on Glossop Road) until 1884 when the family moved to Bath. His father and Patrick were fascinated by the possibility of man flying and of powered flight. In 1878 Patrick built and flew a small 18inch aeroplane powered by rubber. It is difficult to convey the novelty of this to those who witnessed it. The first rubber powered plane in the world had only flown, in front of an amazed audience in France some six years previously.
 
Why Patrick turned his back on the steel industry when he left school is unclear but in April 1885 he became an apprentice Merchant Navy Officer. Within weeks however, his career was over; his leg badly broken by a fall from the masts. Before he left the ship, and in a cruel twist of fate, he slipped and broke the leg again. He would be lame for life.
 
Tragedy followed tragedy. By the time Patrick was 23 his father, mother and brother had all died. Although alone in the world at least Patrick was not to become destitute.  He inherited the entire wealth of the family, the equivalent of more than £ 5,000,000 in today’s money.
 
 Patrick went on to use his funds to become an experimenter in balloon flying, meteorology, the development of parachutes and other aspects of flight. With the money to travel, he was unceasing in his efforts to meet and support those attempting to master flight, not just in Europe but in America too. Among his numerous contacts were Samuel Cody, the first person to fly a powered aeroplane in the U. K. and even the Wright Brothers who he met in America.
 
Mr. Alexander Visits Sheffield
 
Patrick’s biography charts his comings and goings around the world but oddly fails to mention his return to Sheffield in the early summer of 1910. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported that Patrick Alexander was in Sheffield for “business” but it is not clear exactly why he returned to the town. What is known though is that he attended a meeting of the Sheffield and District Aero Club.
 
This was a newsworthy event. The Telegraph reported club members to be in a state of “high glee” following Alexander’s visit. Indeed they had good reason to celebrate. Patrick had offered them a ready built glider; to be sent from London as soon as the club could find somewhere to fly it. He also offered to instruct in its use.
 
Again it is difficult to convey the novelty of this. There were very few gliders in the U.K. in 1910. There were no manufacturers and no plans to work from should you wish to build one. Virtually every glider constructed then was a ‘one off’. Few people in the world had experience of being in one, or even seen one, and the arrival of the glider was certainly a first for Sheffield.
 
The enthusiasm of the club’s members must have been obvious to the attending journalist. He asked: “And who is to make use of the glider?” Apparently a dozen voices answered at once and the Chairman added that the; “… whole club was boiling to go up.”
 
Whether they all did is not known but what is recorded is that the first to fly was the club Chairman, Mr A. V. Kavanagh who, according to the Aero claimed; “…to be the most elderly exponent of the new method of locomotion-aged 69.” This claim, almost certainly made in good humour, remains uncommented upon to this day and possibly may be true. 
 
There are no published photographs of this particular flight but we probably have one of the
‘pilot’ with his feet firmly on the ground. Some months after his ventures into the air Mr Kavanagh acted as a judge at the Conisbrough club’s model flying competitions. As Tony Greathead suggests in the heritage website article he may well be the gentleman in the bowler hat on the left of photo 2.




















Other photographs of the glider flying in Sheffield do exist however. It was flown at Tinsley and the ‘flying ground’ was provided by Earl Fitzwilliam, industrialist, Mayor of Sheffield and President of the club. Photo 3 was taken there.

The word ‘glider’ though has connotations for us that were not those of 1910. Today we may imagine a pilot, in full control of an aircraft as it moves freely and silently through the air. The pilot can direct the glider to turn, dive, or roll. Glance at the photographs of the Conisbrough glider though and you will see no controls at all. There was no seat for the pilot and every photograph shows the glider being towed by ropes. As a contemporary glider pilot said to me: if you flew in the Conisbrough glider you were a passenger rather than a pilot. Anyone onboard may have been able to have small effects on the craft by moving their body but that was all.

In fact the glider was almost certainly incapable of free flight. It only flew when dragged into the wind and towed by an enthusiastic crew of club members who kept it level by use of ropes attached to the end of the wings. If the word ‘kite’ has occurred to you as a better description for this craft then that is not surprising because in effect; that is what the Conisbrough glider was.

Given the above it is tempting to think that Patrick Alexander was nothing more than one of the many unsuccessful inventors of flying machines around at the time; and there were many. It is hard to imagine though that, given his contacts Patrick was not aware of the many successful experiments to add controls to free flying gliders. It is probable though there was never any intention at all of this craft flying under the control of a pilot. 

It is almost certain instead, that this was a serious attempt to develop a training device that would help people become used to the very unusual experience of simply being airborne. At the time in fact the reporter in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph recognised the craft was controlled by ropes, and “flown on the simple principle of the kite”. It was, as they said; for the “tutorial days” of flying.

The glider was put to good use at Tinsley and the club described many successful glides (towed flights) through to the winter of 1910. In February 1911 the club reported that the glider was to be repaired in preparation for flying in the spring but by June the Sheffield club had, for unknown reasons, disbanded.


























The Glider Moves to Conisbrough
 
The glider was then moved to Conisbrough and mysteriously reduced in size to 24ft. in wingspan. It is this modified version that features in photo 1 with Conisbrough club members. Then, in June a post by the club, in Flight states that on: “…Whit Monday a small passenger was taken to a height of about 20ft.There was not sufficient wind to carry the heavier members.” If Tony’s recollections on the website article are correct it looks very likely that this ‘small passenger’ was one Benjamin Bonar Clarkson, apparently sat to the left at the front of Photo 4.






















The glider flew at least once more over summer. In November the club secretary reported in The Aeroplane that the club possessed two gliders, one of which was called; the “Patrick Alexander Glider”. It is the last mention I can find of this unlikely craft, and its fate is unknown. As mentioned, the other Conisbrough glider probably never flew.
 
There is another twist to this tale though. In 1910 the Sheffield Daily Telegraph carried a picture of the glider Alexander promised to the Sheffield club before it was sent. This photograph (photo5) had already appeared in the Aero and is actually of a glider flying at the Hampshire Aero Club in April 1910. It had been constructed at ‘The United Services College’, Windsor where Alexander had financed a workshop with the aim of introducing boys to the study of airmanship. Here he built a tethered and captive glider which was blown into the air by a large powered propeller. According to Cullingham this glider was partly dismantled, placed on a trailer, and towed behind a motor car to a field in Gosport. Here it was towed into the air.




























This suggests, but doesn’t prove that the ‘Alexander glider’ in Conisbrough began its life in Windsor. It is of course possible that Alexander had another exact copy of the Windsor glider built: but if that was the case there appears to be no record of its existence. We shall probably never know if it is the same glider. Sadly the time has passed when eye witnesses could be contacted and those written records that exist are few and fragmentary.
 
Despite the enthusiasm voiced about this glider at the time it is hard to imagine it was of great value, even given the limited role I have argued for it. Certainly few gliders of similar design were ever made and none were long-lived. Indeed Goodall and Tagg suggest gliding in this manner was dangerous and soon discontinued. Perhaps Mr Kavanagh and Benjamin Bonar Clarkson were lucky not just to be among the first people to fly in the south of Yorkshire; but also lucky enough to live to tell the tale. Flying though, did turn out to be as hazardous to Benjamin Bonar Clarkson as sailing was to Patrick Alexander. According to Tony Greathead, Benjamin flew as a pilot in WW1.but crashed and injured his leg: “For the rest of his life he walked with the aid of a stick carved from the remains of the propeller from his wrecked plane”.
 
Sources and Acknowledgements.
 
This story has been put together using several sources including local newspapers of the time and 3 national flying papers: The Aero, The Aeroplane’ and Flight. There is only one book on Patrick Alexander: his biography, written by Gordon Cullingham and it has been used extensively. The classic book:  ‘British Aircraft before the Great War’ by M. Goodall and A. Tagg was also invaluable. The untitled article on the Conisbrough & Denaby Main heritage website was very useful. Sadly there is no named author but it includes the valuable verbatim recollections of Tony Greathead:  (http://www.conisbroughheritage.com/ ) Photos 1, 2 and 4 are reproduced from the Conisbrough Heritage Website.  Photo 3 is from the Aero and Photo 5 is originally from the Aero and appears in The Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
 
© Neil Carver Sheffield 2018
























​Photo 3 (with original caption)

​Photo 5