A BRAVE BOLTONIAN AND THE R34 AIRSHIP
A blog written by Margaret Koppen from Bolton History Centre.
John Stanley Mort was born on the 12th November 1892 in Bolton the only son of Robert Lawson Mort and Eliza Ann (nee Hodkinson) who had married at St. Georges’ Church, Bolton on the 4th February, 1892. In 1901 John is living with his Aunt and Uncle at 39 Beverley Road, Halliwell, Bolton while his father was living and working in Russia.
He was educated at Bolton School and on leaving he served an apprenticeship with Dobson and Barlow Limited of Bolton, possibly the same firm on whose behalf his father worked in Russia.
John’s mother died in May 1900 on the Fylde and her body was brought back to Bolton to be buried at Tonge Cemetery. In 1911 at the age of 18 John is living with his maternal grandmother at 74 Hereford Road, Bolton and is described on the census return as Apprentice Fitter, Textile Machinery. It was about this time that his father died in St Petersburg, Russia.
John enlisted into the air section of the Royal Navy on the 14th September 1917 (No. 237927) giving his occupation as a Fitter and Turner and his uncle, Fred Hodkinson of 29 New Hall Lane, Bolton as his next of kin. His first ship was HMS President II. He transferred into the Royal Air Force (RAF) previously known as the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) on the 1st April 1918 attaining the rank of Air Mechanic 1 and was discharged on 27th September 1919 into Class G RAF Reserve.
Whilst serving with the RAF John was stationed in Cornwall and at the Crystal Palace and it was while in Cornwall that he gained a record for high-flying and mainly on account of his prowess at this he was sent to join the crew of the R34 Airship. He had several trial trips in the R34 ranging from four hours in length to 21 hours, but the most exciting trip was to come when on the 2nd July 1919, ‘gassed to the limit’, the R34 left East Fortune on the Firth of Forth, Scotland to fly to the United States of America under the command of Major G.H. Scott.
The R34 was built between December 1917 and December 1918 at a cost of £350,000 by William Beardmore of Inchinnan, Glasgow and when completed was 643 feet long, maximum diameter 79 feet and overall height 92 feet. It had five Sunbeam-Coatalen V12 ‘Maori’ 250 hp petrol engines and carried 4,900 gallons of petrol. The framework braced and linked to a central axis contained the gasbags, fuel, water ballast, control mechanism and crew accommodation and was covered by high quality Irish linen. The gasbags were made from rubberised fabric lined with goldbeater’s skin, (the outside membrane of an ox intestine) to prevent loss of gas by seepage. It was reported that 600,000 such skins were used on the R34.
It was an eventful journey with violent storms which buffeted the airship, and turbulence causing it to fall several hundred feet. During the journey the riggers had to periodically walk along the top girder from bow to stern, outside! whilst holding on to a rope, checking the state of the fabric. John Mort and his fellow engineers also took turns to keep a close watch over the Sunbeam-Coatalen engines, their eardrums taking a battering with the noise. Whilst flying over the Atlantic a stowaway was discovered and when found was not very well due to the fumes from the gas and petrol. He was crew member W Ballantyne, who, along with others was left behind due to limiting the number of crew to 30; he had also brought with him the crew’s mascot, a small tabby kitten called ‘Whoopsie’. He was told that had they been over land he would have been ‘dropped off’, but as they were over the ocean that wasn’t possible. When he had recovered he was made, as all stowaways are, to work his passage by cooking for the crew and the kitten did his bit by keeping the crew amused with his antics.
The journey to America took 108 hours 12 minutes and they arrived at Mineola, Long Island with hardly any fuel left. The landing party on the ground had no experience of handling large airships so just before landing a member of the R34 crew, Major Pritchard, parachuted down and became the first person to reach American soil by air from Europe. This was the first East-West crossing of the Atlantic and was only weeks after the first transatlantic aeroplane flight.
After four days of celebrations in New York, the R34 left for the return journey on the 10th July, flying over the centre of New York and clearing the 790ft high Woolworth skyscraper by 500 ft. and set a course for home. They arrived at Pulham, Norfolk on the 13th July after 75 hours to a ‘tepid’ reception from a hastily assembled RAF band and few spectators.
Whilst flying over the North Sea in January 1920 on a training flight, the R34 was forced to return to Howden, Yorkshire with navigation problems in a violent storm. They managed to land safely and secured the airship to concrete blocks, however the storm increased and the vessel was damaged beyond repair. Three days later workmen came to cut it up for sale as scrap metal.
John Stanley Mort must have been very proud to be one of the crew on board the R34 Airship when it made that first transatlantic journey.
The Airship Heritage Trust http://www.airshipsonline.com/airships/r34/index.html
The late Denis O’Connor’s papers
Bolton Journal & Guardian 11.07.1919
Find My Past
Image of R34 airship shown by kind permission of Shortstown Heritage http://www.shortstownheritage.co.uk/#/the-r34-airship/4569068294