Memorial obelisk unveiled 1912, commemorating the deaths in a flying accident of Captain Hamilton and Lieutenant Wyness Stuart.
Reasons for Designation
The Hamilton and Wyness Stuart Memorial Obelisk, which stands to the east side of the Wymondley Road, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as an eloquent witness to the impact of technological development in a military context, and the repercussions at home of maintaining an effective military force;
* as an early example of a public monument to individual servicemen engaged in operations, standing at the crash site that it commemorates.
* a simple yet poignant granite memorial obelisk, in the Classical style.
The First World War was the first conflict in which aviation played a major role for all the combatant nations involved. Prior to the Wright brothers’ achievement of controlled aircraft flight in America in 1903, the military services of various nations had used balloons and airships at war: for example, tethered observation balloons were deployed during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In Britain, the Royal Engineers became responsible for the Army’s ballooning capability in the 1860s. Despite the sceptical views of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the First Sea Lord expressed in 1910, an Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed in 1911 and on 13 April 1912 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was established, formed of a Military Wing and a Naval Wing.
The Military Wing comprised three squadrons, a fourth being formed in August 1912. In September 1912, 3 Squadron (formed as an aircraft unit at Larkhill on 13 May 1912) was playing a role in a war game involving some 75,000 troops across East Anglia. Part of General Griegson’s “Blue Force” tasked with defending London, 3 Squadron’s role was to provide reconnaissance intelligence: thus demonstrating the capabilities of aircraft to a still-sceptical cadre of senior War Office personnel.
The Squadron had been formed from 2 (Aeroplane) Company of the Air Battalion Royal Engineers. It was the first independent military unit to fly heavier-than-air machines and included Captain Patrick Hamilton and Lieutenant Athole Wyness Stuart. Hamilton (b1882), Worcestershire Regiment, learnt to fly at Hendon, gaining his Royal Aero Club certificate (number 194) on 12 March 1912 having spent a spell flying in America. Wyness Stuart (b1882), Royal Field Artillery, was awarded his certificate (number 141) on 26 September 1911 having learnt to fly at Brooklands.
On 6 September 1912 they were flying a Deperdussin monoplane powered by a 100hp Gnome aero-engine, modified to take the Observer (Wyness Stuart) in a wicker seat inserted in front of the pilot’s flying position. Hamilton took off from Wallingford aerodrome at around 6am. They headed for a landing ground at Willian, an hour’s flying away. On the descent towards the prepared fields the engine failed. Part of the engine casing broke through the bracing wires of one wing and both men died on impact in the ensuing crash; in sight of the hundreds of local residents who had turned out for a rare glimpse of an aircraft.
Their funeral service, with full military honours and including a specially-composed hymn, was conducted at St Saviour’s Church in Hitchin. The two coffins were transported on gun carriages to the train station: Hamilton was buried in St Leonard’s churchyard, Hythe (Kent), whilst Wyness Stuart was buried at St Mary’s, Great Elm (Somerset). The crash and ensuing funeral attracted national newspaper coverage. Combined with another crash a few days later also during the military exercises, resulting in the deaths of Lt Bettington and Lt Hotchkiss (commemorated by a plaque on the Grade II-listed Toll Bridge at Wolvercote), the War Office stopped the use of monoplanes in favour of biplanes, which were understood to be more stable aircraft: this policy affected British aircraft development for a number of years.
Marking the location of the crash, one of the very earliest in the history of the Royal Flying Corps, a memorial obelisk was raised by public subscription. The memorial was dedicated by Reverend Gainsford and unveiled by Major Brooke Popham, who commanded 3 Squadron, on 27 November 1912. The men’s uniforms are reputed to be buried under the obelisk. According to Flight magazine, some 7,000 people attended the ceremony. Although their deaths post-dated those of the first RFC fatalities (Captain Loraine and Staff Sergeant Wilson who died in an air crash on Salisbury Plain on 5 July 1912) the obelisk thus pre-dates the erection near Stonehenge of Airmen’s Cross (Grade II-listed) and is thought to be the first British public monument to individual servicemen who died whilst under orders.
The memorial stands at the roadside, between Willian and Great Wymondley. It comprises a polished grey granite obelisk on a tapering pedestal, square on plan. The pedestal stands on a two-stage base, the upper stage in granite and the lower in a different material. The inscription to the front face of the pedestal reads IN MEMORY OF/ CAPTAIN HAMILTON/ AND/ LIEUT WYNESS STUART/ OF THE ROYAL FLYING CORPS/ WHO LOST THEIR LIVES WHILST/ SERVING THEIR COUNTRY/ AS AVIATORS SEP 6TH 1912. The inscription to the front face of the upper base stage reads ERECTED BY LOCAL SUBSCRIPTION.