Admiralty House exhibit celebrates historic transatlantic crossing
By Mark Squibb | Vol 7 No. 11 (June 6, 2019)
In a day and age where we can hop on a plane and travel around the world in a matter of hours, and planes travel overhead at all hours of the day and night, and, according to St. John’s International Airport, over 80 flights depart and arrive daily from the province’s largest airport, flight might not seem like that big of a deal to us.
But one hundred years ago, the world was a different place.
When four teams flocked to Newfoundland to compete in a contest issued by Lord Northcliffe, owner of Britain’s Daily Mail, who offered 10,000 pounds to the team that could complete the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, the people of this province certainly took notice.
“There were a lot of very curious local spectators— and how could you not be, it was 1919, there were no airfields before in Newfoundland, for a lot of people this was probably their first time seeing a plane,” explained Sara Wade, Admiralty House Communications Museum Manager.
Admiralty House recently launched the temporary exhibit ‘Field to Fight,’ which celebrates the centennial of the first ever transatlantic flight, which was accomplished when John Brown and Arthur Alcock departed from St. John’s on June 14 and landed, 17 hours later, in Ireland.
One of those ‘curious local spectators’ was Margaret Carter, a St. John’s woman whose grandfather was former premier Sir Frederick Carter
“She had access to a car and a camera,” said Wade by way of explanation.
Many of the photographs that exist today are courtesy of Carter’s camera.
“She went around hanging out with the pilots and becoming friends with them, and documented, and created a scrapbook. So we’re telling her story, about her friendship with theses gentlemen who were here for the race and we have her personal artifacts on display.”
Carter herself was resplendent in her luxurious, mink fur coat, which she wore when visiting with the pilots.
That very coat is currently on display at the museum, on loan from the Carter family, as well as the scrapbook, on loan from Archives and Special Collections, Memorial Libraries.
“At our exhibit opening, we actually had people going around in fur coats, in true Margaret Carter fashion,” Wade added.
Carter had a certain influence and celebrity status amongst crowds— and the pilots.
“Alcock and Brown talk about how curious people were about the planes that there was going to be damage done, so they put up a little fence around the plane,” explained Wade.
But Margaret was allowed beyond that fence.
‘She was hanging out with the pilots. She was having fun with them, and had that access. She just wasn’t anyone, she was VIP.
“She was to Alcock and Brown what Drake is to the Raptors,” Wade summarized with a laugh.
One of the more unusual items on display is an old silk cloth of Carter’s, on loan from Archives and Special Collections, Memorial Libraries.
“The silk cloth once wrapped up a sandwich Margaret had made that she gave to Alcock and Brown before their flight on June 14,” explained Wade.
After successfully arriving in Ireland, on June 15, they signed and dated the silk cloth and sent it back to Margaret by ship.
“I like to think as a sign of their friendship,” concluded Wade.
Apart from the successful journey by Alcock and Brown, and the involvement of locals such as Carter, Wade said that the exhibit highlights the other men who dared the journey, noting that sometimes, the lesser known stories are the most fascinating ones.
“Sometimes it’s not always about the winners. Sometimes its about the people who came second and were resilient and were making that attempt to compete in the race. Anyone, to get into a plane and fly across the Atlantic in 1919, deserved a gold medal,” said Wade.
“One of the stories I’m most excited about is the Sopwith team. It was flown by Harry Hawker and Lt. Commander Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve, who was the navigator.
“They took off on May 18, so they were the first to make this attempt, and their plane crashed into the Atlantic ocean, and they lived to tell the tale,” said Wade.
The men were rescued by the Danish ship Mary, after forcing a crash landing due to mechanical troubles.
“The unfortunate thing is, at the time, the Mary didn’t have communications. So they had no way to let anybody know that this team had been rescued. So for almost a week, everybody thought they were dead.”
Once the men made it back to land and revealed that they were, in fact, still alive, a parade was held in their honour, and they received a consolation prize of 5,000 pounds.
The supposed deaths of the men did little to deter any of the other teams from making the attempt.
A virtual reality video game, ACE Academy Flight Experience on loan from the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, in which players use their bodies to navigate a plane, is a hit at the exhibit, especially with younger audiences.
Younger audiences are also drawn to the story of a pair of passengers Alcock and Brown took with them aboard the Vimy, proving that history is not without its quirks.
“Alcock and Brown on their plane, the Vimy, took passengers; they were two plush cats, Tinkletoes and Lucky Jim.”
An upcoming needlework activity at the exhibit where participants will make their own plush cats is one example of the exhibits many partnerships with community partners.
Another includes a partnership with Landwash Brewery, who created a special ‘Field to Flight’ beer, which is on tap at the brewery.
The beer, a ‘transatlantic’ pale ale, created with malt from PEI and hops from the UK, debuted at the exhibit’s opening night on May 13.
Field to Flight will remain on display until August 31, with admission costing $4 for an adult, $3 for children, and no cost for children five and under.
Currently, the exhibit is open Tuesday to Friday, from 10 am to 4 pm , but once summer hours start up, in July, the exhibit will be open seven days a week.