The first British aeroplane was built and flown on Walthamstow Marsh. Much has been written about this event. But until now nobody has told the tragic story of what happened beneath the second arch on the Hackney side of the Lea Navigation…
ARCH ONE: Walthamstow Marsh, July 13, 1909.
Alliot Verdon Roe pushes his Roe 1 triplane from beneath a railway arch, where it’s been months under construction.
A small crowd has gathered. Women brace their tiny umbrellas against the sun. Gents smoke. The summer air tastes metallic.
Roe’s a doctor’s son from Salford A restless wanderer. He’s lived in Canada. He’s worked the rails. He’s sailed the high seas. He’s marvelled at the birds swooping over the ship’s deck. And now he’s an Edwardian Icarus, out to better the beasts.
Here in Hackney he’s built a flying machine out of wood and paper. His ambition is to become the first British man to fly a British-built areoplane over British soil.
The Daily Mail gave him £75 to build his first effort. Second prize in their model aeroplane competition. A few years later, after many hops and hiccups, he’s on Walthamstow marsh preparing for it, the big one.
The 9 hp JAP engine rasps into life. The triplane bumps and rattles down the canalside. There’s a gasp as it lifts off the ground. The plane swerves out and low over the wild grass like a giant wasp. They’ve not nicknamed it The Yellow Terror for nothing.
Almost as soon as it’s up, it’s down, clattering across the gravel. But the flight’s long enough to make it official.
By jove. He did it. What ho. Clapping.
Roe steps down from the plane a hero. He’s no longer standing on marshland. It’s the future at his feet. He sees a vision of himself blazing through time’s skies. He sees the foundation of the AVRO aeronautical company. The construction of Lancaster bombers. London burning. Germany screaming. His own sons perishing. Oswold Mosely. Millions of planes in the sky. Knighthood. An elderly man cycling backwards on handlebars for his grandchildren, laughing.
ARCH TWO Walthamstow Marsh, July 13, 1909.
Lester Finkley stares at the jubilant scene from beneath a railway arch on the Hackney side of the Lea Canal. He’s been there for many months, hammering away at his own aeronautical invention. Nobody is there to help him. Nobody ever comes to admire his efforts. He’s alone.
As Roe lands the plane, Finkley grimaces. The breeze coming off the canal is bitter. He retreats into his workshop, an enclave between the arch and the backside of a grimy warehouse.
Lester’s a baker’s son from Clapton. He’s never been anywhere much outside of Hackney. But he can read well enough. He’s followed the story of the Wright Brothers from the beginning. There’s a newspaper cutting about their first flight above his bed. There are plenty of cuttings about Roe as well. About Roe’s first attempts to fly in Brookfields. About him coming here, to the marshes.
Finkley’s a big fan. He’s written to Roe. Several times. Every day. Sent him design after design of his own plane, The Finkley Lightning Bolt. The full sketches and everything. All the measurements. Even calculations. Not a word.
He’d also tried – several times, and most insistently – to get into Roe’s workshop. But things had turned nasty. A cuff to the ears and the most unreasonable levels of rebuke from Roe’s cronies. What the hell did those hangers-on know about making planes?
Finkley’s only recourse was to show Roe he was a contender. He would thwart Roe’s attempt to be the first British man to fly a British plane in the only way he knew – to build, to build an aeroplane greater than anything Roe could imagine… and then to fly it across the marsh in triumph!
Now that Roe has succeeded right before his eyes, Finkley knows he’s run out of time. It’s now or never. He hurriedly wheels out The Lightning Bolt.
Finkley has stapled together two beams of wood to create the framework of the machine. Its wings are three ladders coated in used newspaper. The pilot’s seat is a milking stool with horse reins attached. A unicycle has been bolted underneath.
It’s crude, but it’ll do.
Finkley begins to pedal and The Lightning Bolt creaks out from under the arch.
“ROE!” he shouts across the canal. “ALLIOT – VERDON – ROE”.
They don’t appear to hear him, across the water. Men are slapping Roe’s back. He’s lighting a pipe. Women are laughing at a joke. Nobody’s looking.
Finkley, wobbling on the path, now screams at the top of his lungs “Mr Roe, I can fly! I ruddy well fly.”
There’s a loud crack. At that moment, Finkley is no longer falling towards the canal, he’s falling into his future. The splash has he hits the water. The mud. The disintegration of the plane. Humiliation. The shivering walk home. Days spent staring at his cuttings, weeping. Influenza. Death.
Time flies and, for two inglorious seconds, so did Lester Finkley. R.I.P.
Below is Lester’s initial draft sketch of The Finkley Lightning Bolt.
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