History: When the spectacle of air mail came to East Anglia
- Credit: Neil Haverson
On September 9, 1911, the world’s first scheduled airmail delivery took place between Hendon in north London and the Postmaster General’s office in Windsor. It was launched to celebrate the coronation of King George V. But planes were not robust, and the service lasted only a month before bad weather forced it to cease.
Thirty years later, in January 1948, British European Airways (BEA) ran an experimental mail delivery service using helicopters. The dummy run in a Sikosrsky S-51s travelled a 115-mile route from Dorset to Somerset. It took just under two hours including stops. The Post Office demanded strict timekeeping and the trials managed the deliveries within five minutes of their target.
As a result of this success, BEA choose Norfolk and north Suffolk to run the first helicopter-operated public mail service in the UK. On June 1, 1948, Captain John Theilman, a former Battle of Britain airman, carrying 140lbs of mail, flew an S-51 on the 170-mile journey from Peterborough to King’s Lynn, Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Norwich, Thetford, Diss, Harleston and Great Yarmouth. On the return journey, mail was collected from Lowestoft, Beccles, Norwich and Dereham before returning to Peterborough.
There had been a slight delay at the start of the flight. The helicopter was 6ft off the ground when officials waved the pilot down having spotted that a door at the back of the fuselage had been left open. Despite this the helicopter arrived on time at its first drop of two mail bags at King’s Lynn.
Crowds turned out at each stop to watch. At Thetford large numbers of children were allowed out of school to witness the inaugural flight. While at Diss a toast was proposed by Mr Eric Pursehouse, chairman of the Urban District Council.
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Arriving at Caister for the Yarmouth delivery 60 seconds ahead of schedule, the Mayoress, Mrs F H Stone, presented the pilot with a box of bloaters.
For the Harleston drop the helicopter landed in a five-acre field at Wilderness Farm where farmer, George Spratt, usually grazed his cows. In addition to his farm, George owned a butcher’s shop in the town.
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He was also my grandfather.
My older brother witnessed the event, but he was too young to remember anything other than the helicopter landing and taking off. As a memento he was given a photograph of it hovering over the field.
Our grandfather died in 1957. While I can remember him, I was not old enough to have been aware of events in his life such as this. However, many years later when the last of the Harleston line of the family died, I inherited some of his personal papers and artefacts. Among them, I found a number of items relating to that historic helicopter trip. The Eastern Daily Press reported on each stage of the flight and Grandfather had kept a cutting from The News Chronicle of June 2, 1948 which focussed its coverage on the Harleston delivery.
On landing at Harleston, pilot Johnnie Theilman said: “Here’s your bag,” before glancing at the nearby Cherry Tree Inn and adding: “We’re bang on, I could do with a pint.”
However, his schedule allowed him just one minute on the ground so he handed over the 10lb sack containing 100 letters, specially franked “Experimental helicopter flight, Peterborough – Harleston, June 1, 1948”, to Postman Jonah Whalebelly. For the occasion, Jonah was wearing a new uniform and equipped with a brand-new Post-Office bike.
The helicopter was on the ground for just 34 seconds before taking off for Yarmouth.
Harleston Parish Council chairman, Eric Cowell, reckoned it was: “The most important happening here since the first mail coach rolled into the market square of our town and changed horses in the yard of the 16th century Swan Inn.”
But flights only continued until September 25, 1948. A review stated that the maximum weight lift was 700lbs, and the machines could not operate with a cloud base of less than 500ft. Helicopters were not, therefore, regarded as an economical proposition for the carriage of mail.
Also, it took its toll on the pilots. They were said to be: “Very nearly if not completely fagged out.”
Most mail needed to be moved at night so an overnight service between Peterborough and Norwich was trialled in October 1949. These flights were the first time in the world when a helicopter was approved for instrument flight. But with few ground lights visible in the early hours of the morning, the challenge of “blind” flying at night reduced punctuality. The service ceased in March 1950.
In researching Grandfather’s part in the experiment, I cannot find why his field was chosen. Did he offer it or did British European Airways approach him? But his artefacts indicate BEA was grateful to him for allowing his field to be used as a landing site. They sent him two Helicopter Mail Service covers as a memento of the inaugural flight and in September that year, he and my grandmother were given a ride in the helicopter.
Wilderness Farm is now mostly housing. But whenever I drive past, I can’t help glancing skywards and imagining the helicopter coming into land that Tuesday in June 73 years ago, and the excitement my ancestors must have felt at being part of British postal history.