Colonel Cody

A 1965 Andover Advertiser profile of my maternal grandfather, Frederick Earnest, includes the following paragraph:  He has always retained his interest in flying and recalls as a young boy acting as a time observer for Colonel Cody’s flight between Farnborough, Andover and Newbury.

Cody was born Samuel Franklin Cowdery in 1867 in the state of Iowa but changed his surname and adopted the appearance of Buffalo Bill in order to enhance his career as an all American gun-toting, cattle-roping cowboy and showman.  At one stage he even toured Britain promoting himself and his wife Maud Lee as Captain Cody and Miss Cody: Buffalo Bill’s Son and Daughter; until Bill sued.  Maud then joined another circus, injured herself, returned to America, became addicted to morphine and ended her days in a home for the insane leaving the Colonel to take up with an entirely new Madame Cody, Lela King.  Whilst aspects of his personal history were pure invention, his life as one of the first aviators was entirely genuine and all his own.

His first aeronautical exploit involved a kite capable of lifting a man into the sky which he subsequently sold to the British Army as a reconnaissance device. After a brief foray into airships he became the unlikely designer, builder and flyer of the first aeroplanes in England.  This postcard, which belonged to my grandfather, is captioned Mr Cody at Lark Hill – Aug 1912:

Colonel Cody

Larkhill became the first army aerodrome in 1910 and in 1911 home to the first flying unit of the armed forces which by May 1912 had evolved into No. 3 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps.  The postcard coincides with the August 1912 British Military Aeroplane Competition held at Larkhill and won by Colonel Cody in his Cody V biplane.  He was to die a year later at the controls of his latest design, the Floatplane, when it broke up at 500 feet.

A distinctive and romantic figure, an Iowan cowboy admired by Edward VII and George V, he was given a magnificent funeral funded by the War Office; the first civilian to be buried at Aldershot Military Cemetery.  In front of his grave there is a memorial stone for his son, Samuel Franklin Leslie Cody 2nd Lieutenant, who, like my grandfather, joined the Royal Flying Corps.  The dear beloved youngest son of Samuel Franklin and Lela Marie Cody…..fell in action fighting four enemy machines in May 1917.

The BBC foreign correspondent, John Simpson, writes on the subject of Cody in his excellent autobiography, Days from a Different World, which provides an interesting and insightful family perspective to the story – his maternal great grandmother was Cody’s common law wife Lela – Madame Cody – “a bareback rider, a circus performer, a balloonist and (on 14th August 1909) the first woman to fly in an English-speaking country; indeed, she was only the second woman to fly in the entire world”.

Royal Flying Corps – Aboukir

In an earlier post I made reference to my maternal grandfather, Fred, being amongst young men in their prime having the time of their lives, securely distant from the horror of the trenches.  Whilst there must be an element of truth in this, life at the Royal Flying Corps Training School at Aboukir, Egypt was always close to the edge.  On the ground or in the air, this picture taken by Fred soon after the incident, conveys the ever present dangers of life at No3 SoMA (School of Military Aviation).

Historic aviation writer David Bruce ( describes this incident as follows:  An aircraft (looks like a D.H.9) ends up nose deep in the roof of a hangar. This is unlikely to have been a crash from height – the aircraft is too intact for that. It is more likely that a trainee pilot made a heavy landing, and by a mixture of throttle mismanagement and a lack of control managed to bounce his way towards the hangar.

Fred survived the war but as we know, his brother William did not.  His local release form from Aboukir is dated 19th January 1919 with a destination of Railway Station nearest home: Andover.  The sea journey back home would take him to No.1 Dispersal Unit Fovant where he was finally authorised to travel to Andover on 18th February 1919.  Did he know that William was gone or did that tragic news await him as he stepped down from the railway carriage that bleak winter’s Tuesday.

Life goes on.  On 21st October 1921 he would marry the pretty Florence May who would eventually turn into ‘Mrs Kipper’, my fearsome grandmother.  It is disconcerting how people can change both physically and mentally as life grinds them down from day to day.

In his obituary the Andover Advertiser newspaper describes Fred as a skilled fitter who was keen on motor-cycle and motor trials and with Mr Macklin built a car which was used for racing.  I am inclined to think this happened between 1919 and that fateful day in 1921 as I am not convinced Florence May would have countenanced such magnificent activity by men in their machines.  Not for the first time, I could be wrong about Mrs Kipper.  The family story is that the car, a Lea-Francis bolted together from two crashed halves, was raced at Brooklands so now I am in touch with their archive to see if this can be confirmed.  I am longing for this to be true.