Charles Rolls

Rolls prepares to start the 1910 flight (postcard)


IT WAS about 6pm that Charles Rolls arrived at Broadlees Down, popularly known today as Swingate, where his French-built version of the Wright biplane was standing on its launching rail. Perhaps to avoid disappointment should conditions prevent him attempting his planned crossing of the Straits of Dover, Rolls told the large crowd that had gathered he would only try to make a trial flight.

Warmly clad in overalls, padded coat, cap and goggles, plus a cork life jacket, he climbed between the struts and wires of his aircraft. The temperamental engine was started and ran so sweetly, Rolls signalled for the release of the large weight at the top of a timber derrick to launch the plane along the rail and into the air. At 6.30 he was airborne, circled the field and headed towards the coast and Cap Gris Nez.
Out in the Channel the Dover Harbour Board tug, Lady Curzon, steamed steadily in the same direction, a pennant flying to signify all was well. About an hour later the tug was spotted steaming back towards Dover, but of Rolls there was no sign. By 7.40 many spectators had abandoned hope of seeing Rolls return, but suddenly a speck appeared in the sky and a rush of people – estimated at several thousand – headed for the cliff edge and had to be checked by waiting soldiers of the Royal Garrison Artillery.
Rolls crossed the recently completed Admiralty Harbour to the accompaniment of ship’s sirens and whistles and circled above the town and Broadleas before landing outside his workshop, near Bere Farm, Swingate. Once again soldiers came to the rescue to control the big crowd in case of damage to the frail aircraft.
The flight was a complete success. Rolls, having crossed the French coast near Sandgatte flew a third of a mile inland to drop a letter to the French Aero Club with the message: “Greetings to the President of the Aero Club of France. Dropped from a Wright aeroplane crossing from England to France. Charles S. Rolls, Viv l’Entente.”
Rolls, third son of the first Baron Llangattock, of Monmouthshire, is better known for his association with engineer Henry Royce (who once lived at St Margaret’s) and the firm which perpetuates their names. Charles Rolls was one of the very first aviators and balloonists. His first association with flying was during student days at Cambridge when, with J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, he experimented with model gliders, going on later, to make many full-size glider flights.
Preparations for the attempt on the Channel were not without incident. Rolls had a hangar built at Swingate and it was completed by May 20. Speculation as to its purpose was settled the next day when a flying machine marked “Hon C.S. Rolls” was delivered and four mechanics began to assemble it in great haste. Rolls was staying with Capt Moore at the governor’s house at the former prison on Langdon cliffs overlooking the channel. By May 24 the plane was ready but strong winds prevented test flying.

After lunch, schoolboys from the Duke of York’s RM School across the Deal road, inspected the plane, attached to the lower wing of which were seven large flotation bags. At 5pm the machine was wheeled out of the hangar and a lot of time spent trying to get the motor to run smoothly. At 7pm the plane was drawn by two horses to a specially-laid starting rail fixed to the ground and, with spectators gathered behind the machine for safety, Rolls got into his seat and, the engine having started, took off. He flew eight circuits above the Swingate Downs for about 20 minutes and then landed outside the hangar.
On Wednesday another trial flight followed with adjustments to plane and engine, but high winds prevented flying until Friday afternoon. Then Rolls took off but engine trouble forced a hurried descent from 120ft. In landing a landing skid of the plane was damaged in avoiding the crowd and more problems dogged trials, as a water pump sprung a leak.
On the day of the flight there were more setbacks… fog, a badly running engine – and it became windy. Then the Admiralty revoked consent for Royal Navy torpedo boats to act as picket boats for the flight and Rolls resorted to aid from harbour building contractors Pearson & Son. The national press had a field day criticising officialdom, but eventually the tugs Lady Curzon and The Gnat were positioned at points 7 miles and 14 miles along the flight route.
Captain Moore, the official timekeeper, recorded that Rolls took off at 6.30pm, crossed the coast four minutes later, returned over the French coast at 7.15 (UK time) and landed in Dover at six minutes past 8. A few days later the Dover Express published a letter from Rolls thanking farmers Mr Spanton, of Lenacre Court and Mr Eastes, for use of fields at Swingate, and others, including the military, for their assistance. There was no monetary reward for the flier, but Flight magazine, for June 18, announced he would be presented with the Aero Club Gold Medal, and King George V and Queen Mary sent congratulatory telegrams.
Sadly, Rolls never came to Dover again. On July 12, 1910 he entered a Bournemouth flying meeting, having fitted his plane with a tail section, as used on Wright Brothers’ aircraft in France but not approved in the UK. It improved control but, when Rolls made a steep turn, followed by an attempt to climb during a spot landing competition, there was a violent cracking noise and the tail broke. The plane dived, plunged 70ft and pitched the airman to the ground and he was fatally injured -- becoming the first Briton to die in a powered aircraft crash.



Rolls Statue in Monmouth

(photo: Bob Hollingsbee)





In April 1912 the Duke of Argyle unveiled a memorial to Charles Rolls on Dover Promenade, watched by the sculptor Mrs Scott, wife of Polar explorer Capt Scott, together with Charles Rolls’ parents Lord and Lady Llangattock. (Sadly, unbeknown to anyone present, Captain Scott had perished after reaching the North Pole, the news taking months to reach the UK.)Another memorial to Rolls is a stained glass window commemorating his life and also that of Cecil Grace, another early casualty of flying. This is at Eastchurch and was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was reported in the Dover Times newspaper, of August 1, 1912 (page 8, column 2.) Some years ago my wife Kathleen and I saw a large, impressive memorial statue – a standing figure of Rolls holding a model of his aircraft – in Monmouth. Lord Robert Cecil before 1865 and Viscount Cranborne from June 1865 until April 1868, was a British Conservative statesman and thrice Prime Minister, serving for a total of over 13 years.