I’m a little late celebrating the centenary of the RAF. Still, here are three items from our collections. Two music sheets illustrating flying before the formation of the RAF, and another small volume published at the end of World War 2.

Lawrence Wright: The Great air race (publ. 1911)

Wright: The great air race
The front cover

The first thing that occurred to me was : What air race? 1911 is early in the history of aeroplanes. It was a competition to see who could fly a set circuit round the UK. The winner, a Frenchman, Jean Conneau, took something over 22 hours to complete the course (including various obligatory stops) at an average speed of 45 mph. Today, the idea of a plane flying at that speed seems frighteningly slow. Next, looking at the illustration of the plane, it appears to be built of thin wooden struts and canvas.

Close-up of the illustration
A real Bleriot XI plane (public domain image)

I thought perhaps the artist had taken some liberties with the illustration, but it’s actually an accurate depiction of a French-built Blériot XI, the plane that won the challenge. It must have taken quite some courage to go up in a machine like that. And getting back down onto firm ground would also have been pretty scary too, I think. Those wheels look fragile, and were probably designed for something else entirely.

As for the musical content, it’s unfortunately very ordinary. Despite its description as a “sensational, descriptive fantasia”, it’s a series of linked passages, each descriptive of one part of the race. The writing is banal, with the sense that it was written in a hurry to make a quick financial return on something that must have been quite an event. It also feels like something which could have been used with the early newsreels then being shown in cinemas.

The great air race - excerpt
An excerpt. Notice also, the advertising running on the bottom of each page.

Haydon Augarde: A Battle in mid-air (publ. 1914)

Augarde - A Battle in mid-air
The front cover

Haydon Augarde was one of many pseudonyms used by the composer Charles Arthur Rawlings (1858-1919). Evidently he made a living from writing character or descriptive pieces. Musically, it is perhaps a step or two up from Wright’s offering, being a little more imaginative. But it follows the same format of short, disparate sections, glued together to form a longer piece.

With this front cover, artistic licence is much more evident, particularly in the armaments. The picture is very busy compared with the serenity of the previous front cover. Of course, being published after the start of the war, it is also violent, showing the Allied forces victorious.  Interestingly, it was the French pilots who had the upper hand in the early days of the war.

Lawrence Wright (1888 – 1964)

The name connecting these two pieces, Lawrence Wright , is one worth spending a few minutes looking at. I know the name from music publishing, but he did much more than that. Before the age of twenty, he had opened his first music shop in Leicester. He later moved to Denmark Street in London. He was a prolific writer of songs (under the name Horatio Nicholls) including  Among My SouvenirsAre We Downhearted? No!, and Amy, Wonderful Amy. Wright also founded Melody Maker as an in-house journal to promote the music on his list. Of course, Melody Maker later became the hugely popular weekly music magazine.

C.H. Ward-Jackson: Airman’s Song Book  (publ. 1945)

With this book we move forward several decades. It’s not clear whether this volume was published after the end of the war (in the west), or not. The introduction was written before, if this excerpt is anything to go by:

It occurred to me that there would be some merit in bringing together a few … things for publication: it would serve, after the war, to remind ex-airmen of the lighter side of their service; and it would let it be known to the public that their air force, though youthful, had its own technique of dispelling through song its trials and tribulations.

This is a fascinating book, a real record of what are effectively the folk songs of the RAF. As you might expect, a lot of the songs exhibit the sort of black humour which get people through difficult times. Most of the songs date from World War 2, but the earliest one is about the same date as the two sheets we’ve been looking at. The only issue I have with the book is that too often the tunes aren’t reproduced. Instead the reader is told to sing the words to another tune which the author thought at the time to be well-known. Seventy-five years later, some are, some aren’t.

Anyway, I’ll finish by reproducing the first verse and chorus of The bold aviator, a song from 1912, to be sung to the tune of The tarpaulin jacket. Here’s the tune:


and the text:

Oh, the bold aviator was dying,
And as ‘neath the wreck-age he lay, he lay,
To the sobbing me-chanics about him
These last parting words he did say:

Two valve springs you’ll find in my stomach,
Three spark plugs are safe in my lung, my lung,
The prop is in splinters inside me,
To my fingers the joy-stick has clung.