Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes


Edward William Wakefield

Captain Edward Wakefield (1862-1941) was one of Britain's most important aviation pioneers. It was his aeroplane, Waterbird, which on 25 November 1911 made the first successful flight from water in the UK at Windermere.

Born into a prosperous Lakeland family, Edward Wakefield trained as a banker and lawyer. But from an early age his restless disposition, combined with a strong sense of religious duty and Victorian patriotism, drove him to wider pastures. He was active in charity work, mainly with children in need, in London in the 1890s and again in the early 1900s. On the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, he joined the Carlisle-based Border Regiment and saw two years active service in South Africa.

Attending a flying meeting in 1909, he was told that casualties were inevitable when flying from land. He decided that flying from water would be much safer. Helped by considerable wealth and self-confidence, he set out to prove it. He built hangars at Windermere. He bought and tested one of the earliest Avro aeroplanes, which he named Waterbird, for experimentation and adaption. National publicity followed. A strong protest campaign led by Beatrix Potter and Canon Rawnsley was foiled with government help. Soon his Hill of Oaks base became a centre for Admiralty testing and, by WW1, for the large-scale training of naval pilots whose graduates fought, and all too often died, on the Western and Mediterranean fronts.

In 1914, despite advancing age (he was then 52) Wakefield re-joined the army, spent three years training troops, commanded a Labour Battalion on the Western front, served in Italy and ended the War as Chief Church Army Commissioner for France and Belgium. His health badly damaged, he spent the rest of his life in Kendal, active as Mayor, Chair of Magistrates, local landowner and supporter of good causes. He died in 1941. His wife Mary pre-deceased him in 1921. He had one child, Marion, who many years later fondly reminisced of helping sew fabric for Waterbird's wings and foiling pre-WW1 German spies. His grandson, James Gordon (1913-1998), was also a distinguished figure in aviation history - pioneering air-sea rescue dinghies and revolutionary wood epoxy construction techniques for Mosquito aircraft and Horsa gliders in WW2.

John Gordon
Great Grandson

'Every boy worth his salt builds castles in the air. Only sometimes his wings (opportunities) have not enough area to carry the load. And sometimes his engine (force of character) is a bit short of power. So grey hairs come and the castles fade. But I was lucky. My castle was to fly and it materialised after five and thirty years. It is however not yet four years since I decided to concentrate on waterplanes which at that date were ridiculed as impossible just as a year or two before then the idea of any machine really flying was laughed out of court.'