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Piffard and Shoreham Airport

On the morning of Saturday 18th September 1999, O.L. Day, a helicopter from Shoreham Airport re-enacted the first manned flight that had taken place there in September 1910. Harold Hume Piffard OL (School House 1877-83) built and piloted the very first aeroplane to fly from Shoreham, spurred on by the offer of a crate of champagne from Alfred Evans of the Sussex Pad Inn. 

After the memorial flight, which followed Piffard’s route and timing exactly, the helicopter landed at the Pad, where landlord Wally Pack presented the pilot, Ian MacGregor, with a gift of champagne. An illustrated framed memorial inscription was then unveiled in the Sussex Pad by Ian Elliott, resident of Shoreham and Chairman of West Sussex County Council. Tim Webb OL, (Sandersons 1944-47) co-author of Shoreham Airport, Sussex (2nd edn., 1999), together with Janet Pennington, College archivist, and Sylvia Adams, aviation historian, had spent some 18 months organising the event, which was attended by OLs, Shoreham Airport staff and other interested parties. The inscription was designed and produced by David and Nancy Ouchida-Howells, local calligraphers. Wally Pack has kindly agreed to ensure its future care.

Aviator and artist Harold Hume Piffard was born in India in 1867 and came as a pupil to Lancing College at the age of ten, entering School House in 1877. Known as ‘Piff’ to his friends, he was something of a joker. On Sunday afternoons, a train passed over the railway bridge near Beeding Cement Works, when Piffard apparently often took the opportunity to ‘execute a war dance – in puris naturalibus – in front of the engine, and then drop into the river through a hole in the track.’ Keen on dramatics, (obviously) at the age of 12 he absented himself from Lancing one winter Sunday afternoon and walked to London, arriving on the Tuesday. He tried all the theatres and music halls, unsuccessfully seeking employment. He slept on the Embankment for several nights before returning to face the wrath of the Head Master, the Revd. R. E. Sanderson. 

On leaving Lancing in 1883, Piffard returned to India and was employed on a Darjeeling tea plantation for a while. He returned to England and endeavoured to pursue a theatrical career and also joined an acrobatic troop. He became a successful portrait painter, going back again to India in 1889. Later, he entered the Royal Academy of Arts as a student, and also studied in Paris. A note in the LCM April 1899 congratulates him and another OL, P.A. Robson, on their exhibits at the R.A. Piffard’s two paintings had displayed ‘…a power of detail…’. Some of his best paintings were of military subjects and he exhibited at the R.A. from 1895-99. 

Later, at his studio in Chiswick where he taught art, he became interested in designing and constructing model aeroplanes, with his friend Barbara O’Manning, one of his students. His painting ‘The Sleeping Model’ a ‘…lightly draped Victorian nude…’ looks rather like her. The Wright brothers had no doubt helped to inspire his aeronautical hobby and he won a bronze medal for one of his flying models in March 1909 but decided he would build and learn to fly a full-size aeroplane. He built it at his studio and brought it in sections to Hanger Hill, North Ealing. Sadly, after flying just a short distance, it was destroyed on the ground during a storm.

 Later that year, Piffard joined solicitor George Wingfield and established The Aviators’ Finance Co. Ltd., and leased land adjoining New Salts Farm, Shoreham, hoping to create a permanent flying ground. A ‘shed’ was constructed in the south east corner of the field by the railway bridge and, by May 1910, he had completed his boxkite bi-plane, christened ‘Humming Bird’ and powered by a 40 hp engine driving a 7 foot diameter pusher propeller, mounted at the rear of the pilot. Piffard managed some short straight flights and the LCM May 1910 reports that Piffard was ‘…the first aviator to have made use of the Shoreham Aerodrome and we have been much interested in watching his ‘wheeling’ flights round the field. He lunched in Hall on May 8th …Rumour suggests that he will alight on Upper Quad and demand a ‘half’ ere long.’ The latter was no doubt a hoped-for half day holiday rather than a half pint of beer. LCM June 1910 notes that ‘Piffard…came sadly to grief towards the end of May…none of the aviator’s bones were broken and we understand that his courage is still unshaken.’

Alfred Evans of the Sussex Pad Inn had noticed all this activity, and no doubt Piffard had called in for refreshment from time to time. Evans offered him a crate of champagne if he could manage to fly the Humming Bird over to collect it, which would mean a more complicated flight, including a turn which Piffard had so far been unable to achieve. He accomplished the flight and won the wager in September 1910, flying ¾ of a mile 30/40 feet from the ground. It took him 40 seconds, though an hour and a half was needed to return to his ‘shed’ (hangar) ‘…as there was no suitable ground to get a proper run…and there was the champagne too, which did not assist matters…’ though whether he was referring to the extra weight or the after-effects of drinking it is unclear. Head Master the Revd. H. T. Bowlby invited the former pupil, now aged 43, for a special dinner at the College in honour of his achievement.

Sadly, in October 1910, Piffard crashed Humming Bird again, this time beyond repair. His next design was a forerunner of the seaplane but it failed to take off from the sea at Shoreham beach in the summer of 1911 and Piffard abandoned flying, resuming his artistic career. He died in 1938 at the age of 72. The Science Museum in South Kensington houses Humming Bird’s engine and propeller.

Janet Pennington

this article was written by Janet Pennington, the Lancing College Archivist, and published in the Lancing College Magazine, vol 80, no 603 (Summer-Advent 1999)

SOURCES

[Full references supplied on request] 

Lancing College Archives, The Woodard Correspondence; Basil Handford, Lancing College: History and Memoirs (1986); Lancing College Magazines; Lancing College Register (3rd edition); West Sussex Record Office, Chichester; Shoreham Airport Archives; H. Piffard, ‘The Pleasures and Pains of Aeroplane Experiments’. The Aero (25.1.1911); The Dictionary of Victorian Painters (2nd edition); The Dictionary of British Artists 1880-1940; The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators & Caricaturists, 1800-1914; The Independent (29.10.1994); West Sussex Gazette (9.4.1998); T.M.A. Webb & D.L. Bird, Shoreham Airport, Sussex (2nd edition 1999); Miss Sylvia Adams of Hove; Mr W. Pack, the Sussex Pad Hotel; Oxford English Dictionary (Compact edition); M. Waugh, Smuggling in Kent & Sussex 1700-1840 (1998 edition).

 

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