The Hotel Cecil

I thought I would share this old postcard of London’s Embankment featuring the Hotel Cecil because, as you may be aware, the Royal Air Force had its first headquarters there when it was formed, by combining the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, on 1st April 1918.

Image from a 1920s postcard of the Embankment with Hotel Cecil and the Savoy.

The Hotel Cecil (left) in the 1920s. The Savoy is next door.

Why did the Air Force set up shop in a hotel? Because the building had been requisitioned by the government who needed office space for all the extra administrators required to organise a world war.

The Hotel Cecil was one of those late-Victorian buildings associated with the Liberator Building Society scandal and the fraudster Jabez Balfour, but that subject is literally a book in itself. If you want to know more, I suggest you follow the link and read a review.

Searching for the hotel’s subsequent history can lead to confusion. Various sources will tell you it was built between the Embankment and The Strand in 1886 – or (majority opinion) from 1890-1896. It was one of the biggest and most luxurious hotels in the world at the time with 600, “more than 800”, or 1000 rooms. The Liberator Society built it as a hotel – or as offices, and another company finished it as a hotel when Liberator collapsed. Facts and “alternative facts”. You choose.

The Shell-Mex oil consortium bought the building in 1930, demolished the river frontage and replaced it with Shell-Mex House, a structure from the monolithic school of Art Deco architecture. The Strand entrance was retained even though it was completely at odds with the new block.

Embankment_Shell

The Embankment in the 1930s.

In 1937, Arthur Mee wrote, “This remarkable block of offices has a noble entrance from the Strand, and its courtyard is one of the sights of London by night. It has ten floors with a total floor space of 380,000 square feet, and any one of its 16 lifts runs up to the roof, from which are splendid views of South London to the Kent and Surrey hills, North London to Harrow and Hampshire, and the panorama of the East”.

Modern specifications say Mee was two floors short (at least). These were added after WWII when height restrictions were relaxed. Mee’s “noble entrance from the Strand” is “not of special interest” to Historic England today but Shell-Mex House gets a Grade II listing. And just to add more confusion, the entire complex is now commonly known as 80 The Strand.

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Parachute training

parachuteParachutes are to the airman what lifeboats are to the sailor; the service pilot of to-day has one for use in emergency. More than 100 lives have been saved since they were introduced into the R.A.F. ten years ago. Training in their use is given to all pilots in the Service, and a mass descent demonstration has been a feature of the annual display at Hendon for several years past. We show a cheerful parachutist on the wing of an aeroplane, waiting to pull the ripcord which will release his parachute and draw him backwards into space.
Cigarette card, Ardath Tobacco Co., 1936.

If this caption is accurate, parachutes were first issued to R.A.F. pilots in 1926, so they took their own sweet time in handing out the “lifeboats”. You can read more about the Service’s shameful attitude to parachutes here.

Pulling the ripcord before jumping sounds like a good way to get the canopy wrapped around the aircraft’s tail, but we have to assume they knew what they were doing. Don’t we?

You can see a British Pathé newsreel of the 1937 Hendon air display on Youtube.

Boats and ‘Planes

This photograph came to me in an auction lot of miscellaneous images labelled “ships”.

Competing seaplanes in the 1929 Schneider Trophy air race.

Granted, there is a large motor yacht in the middle of the shot (flying an R.A.F. flag at the stern) but the real interest in the picture is the group of five streamlined seaplanes in the foreground. It didn’t take long to realize that these are the competitors in the Schneider Trophy air race held on the South coast of England in 1929. The two farthest from the camera are British Supermarine aircraft and the trio in the foreground make up the Italian team of Macchis. It’s a pity the photograph isn’t in colour, the Italian machines were painted bright red.

The Schneider Trophy.The trophy had been presented to the Aero Club of France by Jacques Schneider in 1912 for a competition open to all types of seaplane over a course determined in advance. This could be either in a straight line, a broken line, or over a circuit of not less than 150 nautical miles. A competitor winning three times out of five consecutive contests would keep the trophy permanently. The first race in 1913, won by France at just over 45 miles per hour, was a fairly low key affair but the contest soon attracted world wide attention and became the symbol of advanced technology and speed in the air. Soaring development costs eventually demanded government sponsorship and winning the trophy became a matter of national prestige. The Royal Air Force formed a special team, the High Speed Flight led by Squadron Leader Orlebar, to achieve that goal.

Britain had won in 1927 against an Italian team and, with the withdrawal of America, Germany and France in 1929, the stage was set for a rematch. The winner was aircraft number 2 in the picture, a Supermarine S.6 flown by Flight Lieutenant Richard Waghorn, followed by the Macchi M.52R of Warrant Officer Tommaso Dal Molin (number 4), and, in third place, the Supermarine S.5 (number 5) of Flight Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) D’Arcy Greig. David Masters described the scene in his book ‘On the Wing’ (1934).
“There must have been 1,000,000 people watching all round the course on September 7, 1929, which luckily turned out to be an ideal day. …..
One of the most thrilling moments was when Waghorn, seeing Dal Molin just ahead on a turn, sped after him and overtook him…… It was Waghorn’s race, with an average speed of 328.63 miles an hour, but he himself did not at first realize it. He was under the impression that he had another lap to go, so he went roaring on like a destroying demon”.

The ‘demon’ ran out of fuel and was forced to land short of his imagined finish line. When his support crew reached him – “He was cursing like anything over what he thought was his hard luck – “swearing like a trooper” is the way Orlebar described his language – and his relief can be guessed when he learned he had tried to do an extra lap”.

Tragically, 26 year old Waghorn and 28 year old Dal Molin would both die flight-testing aircraft before the next trophy race in 1931, which Britain won by default. France and Italy were unable to get their machines ready in time for the start so it was left to Flight Lieutenant John Boothman to fly the course on his own in a Supermarine S.6b, pushing the record to 340 m.p.h. and winning the trophy outright.

British Supermarine S6B racing floatplane. Winner of the 1931 Schneider Trophy.

Supermarine S.6b. “There really is very little sensation of speed even when flying low, because one cannot see vertically downwards even if one wanted to, owing to the bulge of the fuselage”. (Squadron Leader Augustus Orlebar).