When planes used to take to the skies - from a Huntingdon meadow

ONE hundred years ago this week St Neots was starting to come to terms with the new technology of the 20th century.

The St Neots Advertiser reported that on Wednesday, October 25, 1911, at about 4.25 in the afternoon, an aeroplane passed over the town. It had taken off from Hendon aerodrome near London and took an hour to fly to Huntingdon.

The headline over the report was “Getting quite common.” By 1911 aeroplanes weren’t as unusual as all that, especially around here. The pilot of the aircraft seen over St Neots, William Moorhouse, was trying to create his own little Huntingdonshire Heathrow.

Portholme, the big island meadow between Huntingdon and Godmanchester, was the site of Huntingdon Racecourse until 1896 when the course moved to its present site near Brampton. Portholme’s 300 acres with no hedges or ditches made it an ideal airfield.

Moorhouse and another pilot, James Radley, built an aircraft factory in St John’s Street in Huntingdon and flew their machines from Portholme. They also started a flying school – with the result that all their aircraft were damaged in crashes and the company was bought out by Handley Page in 1912. The St John’s Street factory switched to making bodywork for cars and that was the end of Huntingdon’s brief flirtation with civil aviation.

Moorhouse died a few years later in 1915, during the First World War. Bombing a railway junction in Belgium he was mortally wounded by small arms fire but flew his aircraft back to base and became the first airman to win the Victoria Cross, albeit posthumously.

Back in October 1911, another report in the same edition of the St Neots Advertiser was also a sign of the times. The day before Moorhouse’s flight over the town a St Neots resident was involved in a car accident.

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Mrs Whitehead, landlady of the Royal Oak Hotel, was the passenger in a car which braked suddenly to avoid some cows in the road, and she was thrown out of the vehicle. “She was pitched onto her head, but the fall was a good deal broken by a stiff hat she was wearing,” and she sustained no injuries.

No seat belts in those days, but being thrown out of a car and landing on your head could be serious. Luckily ladies’ hats in Edwardian England were quite something.