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”.