Reduced circumstances

J.E.B. (Jack) Seeley, soldier, politician and industrialist, claimed in his book For Ever England (1932) that the English class system was not as rigid as it used to be. Social divisions, he believed, were narrowing and he offered this as evidence –

Before the World War the landowner, whether squire or nobleman, although he grumbled about agricultural depression, was rich and powerful. In my boyhood I remember him with a stable of six or eight carriage-horses, and later with three or four motor-cars. If he lived in a well-known hunting county, he or his sons would have eight or ten hunters [horses], in less fashionable hunting districts four or five. A butler, four footmen, and ten or twelve maid-servants was a very usual household. In my youth there were shooting parties, lasting for a week or more, of the same guests; later, before the War, and much more expensive, perpetual week-end parties. I am not describing the famous houses in London and the provinces, but the average of the countryside in rural England.

To-day, although much property has changed hands, the same families are living in the same districts, some in part of the big houses, others more fortunate in smaller houses on the same estate, doing the same county duties and rendering the same service to the community in which they live.

The carriage-horses, of course, are gone – they would have gone in any case; but instead of four big motor-cars there is one Austin or Morris. The shooting parties have come to an end; the week-end parties take the form of occasional visits from a very few real friends. The butlers, the footmen, and the ten maid-servants are replaced by possibly four maids and often one faithful butler at a reduced wage. The house in London has been sold. The boys, instead of a hunter apiece, think themselves lucky if in their short leave they can afford to hire a hunter for a week. The girls are going through courses of shorthand, typing, or cooking in London or the county town, or following commercial pursuits for a salary.

For Ever England, J.E.B. Seeley, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1932.
This must have been a great consolation to working class families living in squalid overcrowded slums throughout Britain at that time. After all, life must be terribly beastly when one is down to one’s last butler (on a reduced wage) and one’s children have to find gainful employment – and let us not speak of the Austin!

The French Connection

In 1918 Britain was the strongest Power in the air. That position was not won easily or quickly. We had a rough road to travel. In August, 1914, our air strength was less than that of France or of Germany. The four squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps which took the field in August, 1914, were a patchwork body. Two of them were equipped with British machines – B.E.2’s. The others had to depend in whole or in part upon French machines – Bleriots and Henri Farmans. Moreover, not a single one of them all had a British engine. Every machine in our squadrons had a French engine installed in it, mainly the Gnome rotary of 80 horse power. The British aircraft industry was almost non-existent. It was wholly unable to meet even the modest needs of the tiny expeditionary force of the air which left these shores in the first month of the last war.

A reproduction WW1 B.E.2c biplane by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.

A reproduction B.E.2c

Steadily we built up a mighty structure of air strength. We owed much to France in the early days. Indeed, for a substantial part of the war we relied upon France for aero-engines and to a less extent for airframes also. Many thousands of French engines had to be obtained for installation in our machines during 1915 and 1916. Aircraft, too, were supplied in considerable quantities from the same source. The Nieuport fighters helped us out of a tight corner more than once. Our total purchases of foreign aircraft, however, amounted to only a little more than 3,000 machines in the four years of the war, as compared with 17,000 engines purchased abroad. It was only in the last year or so of the war that we became wholly independent of France for aeronautical equipment. Seeing how we started in 1914, one can only feel amazement that we should have ended the war with the magnificently equipped air force which we then possessed, predominant in quality as well as in quantity. It was a wonderful effort when all is said and done.

Nieuport 11

A replica Nieuport 11 in Italian livery

When the war began we had on charge in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service 218 land aeroplanes, 52 seaplanes and 7 airships, but less than 100 of the aeroplanes were in a condition to take the air. There were 276 officers and 1,797 other ranks in the two Services.
The Sky’s the Limit, J.M. Spaight, Hodder and Stoughton, 1940.

The aircraft illustrated above are owned and operated by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.

The Society of the Chagres

There are two societies on the Isthmus which tell of the effects of homesickness of the Americans in the employ of the Canal Commission – the Incas, and the Society of the Chagres. The Incas are a group of men who meet annually on May 4th for a dinner. The one requirement for membership in this dining club is service on the canal from the beginning of the American occupation. In 1913 about 60 men were left on the Isthmus of all those Americans who were there at the time of the transfer of the canal property to the United States in 1904.
The Society of the Chagres was organized in the fall of 1911. It is made up of American white employees who have worked six years continuously on the canal.


When President Roosevelt visited the Isthmus in the late fall of 1906 he declared that he intended to provide some memorial or badge which would always distinguish the man who for a certain space of time had done his work well on the Isthmus, just as the button of the Grand Army distinguishes the man who did his work well in the Civil War. Two years later a ton of copper, bronze, and tin was taken from old French locomotives and excavators and shipped to Philadelphia, where it was made into medals by the United States Mint. These medals are about the size of a dollar and each person who has served two years is entitled to one. It is estimated that by the time the last work is done on the canal, about 6,000 of these medals will have been distributed. For each additional two years a man worked, the Canal Commission gave a bar of the same material.
The Society of the Chagres, therefore, is made up of men who have served at least six years, and who have won their medals and two service bars.

The Panama Canal, Frederick J. Haskin, Doubleday, Page & Company. 1914


May 31st, 1897. Captain Joshua Slocum, on his epic single-handed voyage around the world, called at Cooktown, on the Queensland coast of Australia, only to find that some of the locals had a less than perfect knowledge of the man for whom their town was named.

j-slocumTacking inside of all the craft in port, I moored [the Spray] at sunset nearly abreast of the Captain Cook monument, and next morning went ashore to feast my eyes on the very stones the great navigator had seen, for I was now on a seaman’s consecrated ground. But there seemed a question in Cooktown’s mind as to the exact spot where his ship, the Endeavour, hove down for repairs on her memorable voyage around the world. Some said it was not at all at the place where the monument now stood. A discussion of the subject was going on one morning where I happened to be, and a young lady present, turning to me as one of some authority in nautical matters, very flatteringly asked my opinion. Well, I could see no reason why Captain Cook, if he made up his mind to repair his ship inland, couldn’t have dredged out a channel to the place where the monument now stood, if he had a dredging-machine with him, and afterwards fill it up again; for Captain Cook could do ‘most anything, and nobody ever said that he hadn’t a dredger along. The young lady seemed to lean to my way of thinking, and following up the story of the historical voyage, asked if I had visited the point farther down the harbour where the great circumnavigator was murdered. This took my breath, but a bright school-boy coming along relieved my embarrassment, for, like all boys, seeing that information was wanted, he volunteered to supply it. Said he: “Captain Cook wasn’t murdered ‘ere at all, ma’am; ‘e was killed in Hafrica: a lion et ‘im.”

Sailing Alone Around The World, Captain Joshua Slocum, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1948.
Original publication 1900.


The Spray

An amphibious vehicle

G.L. Meredith writes home to his family in Tasmania from New Zealand’s North Island in the late 1870s –

I witnessed a novel crossing of the Akitio River by a bullock-dray loaded with fencing posts. I had ridden across the bar at the mouth of the river and was coming along the sandy bank to regain the inland bridle track, when a team of eight bullocks came into sight.


The dray to which they were attached was loaded with totara posts to a height of five feet above the bed. Totara is a light timber of the pine species, and floats very readily. To my astonishment, the bullocky headed his team straight for the river where it was about eighty yards across and quite unfordable. The bullocks took the water like ducks, making straight for the opposite shore. As the dray left the bank, the bullocky scrambled on top of the load, and balanced himself there cracking his whip. The opposite bank was shelving, and the bullocks gradually emerged; the bullocky jumped down and continued on as if it were an every-day occurrence. Of course, the weight of the wheels and axle acted as ballast and kept the dray right side up. I pulled up for lunch at a friend’s station near by, and was told that it was a common practice of the bullocky to swim his team over the river in this way.

Adventuring in Maoriland in the Seventies. G.L. Meredith. Angus & Robertson Ltd., Sydney. 1935.