Airships and Invaders.
Background to a Social Panic.
Nigel Watson

Jan 4th 2009
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Originally published in Magonia 3, Spring 1980.

cover 03The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the invasion and spy scares which were prevalent in conjunction with the British 1909 and 1913 airship waves. There are indications that these scares were current throughout the period 1902 to 1914. My newspaper research was centred on the 1909 and 1913 periods, and therefore probably presents a biased picture of the whole situation. This could also be true of the airship waves themselves, and in future it would be useful for researchers to survey newspapers from 1900 to 1914 in order to eliminate this bias, and ascertain whether or not 1909 and 1913 were isolated waves. (On October 14th, 1912, a mysterious airship was seen at Sheerness, which suggests isolated cases, unrelated to any ‘wave’, waiting to be discovered)

Whether any of the spy or airship sightings had any basis in reality is subject to further research and speculation, but it is clear that they had a dramatic effect on the general public.

While researching this material, I was struck by just how little the world situation has changed. In the 1900′s, the balance of power was maintained by the deployment of troops and battleships; today nuclear weapons have taken over the role of the Dreadnoughts, though the same kind of military and political tensions exist. We have the same fears about the rise of science and technology, balanced by the rise of ‘irrational’ cults and the search for alternative doorways to Utopia.

The ambiguity and bizarre nature of some of the airship sightings, the fear of alien invasion, the existence of foreign spies and mad inventors, allied with secret government investigations, in the 1900′s, parallels the modern day UFO phenomenon, which also presents witnesses with strange encounters, the fear of alien (extraterrestrial) invasion, men in black, and secret government involvement.

The comparison of historical aerial and related phenomenon gives us the opportunity to seek out the mechanisms of such occurrences and their impact and effect on society. Since out knowledge of the current UFO situation is limited to a USA/European outlook, it would also be interesting to discover if culturally backward countries have different beliefs and ideas attached to the sighting of mysterious aerial vehicles. In particular, it would be interesting to discover if there were any invasion scare rumours circulating in Afghanistan, before the Russians moved in, or if the religious frenzy in Iran has created any variations on the UFO theme. The beauty of historical research is that we can put current sightings and theories into perspective, without the danger of exploring trouble-torn countries in search of comparative material!

In the years before the First World War, the social structure in Britain was subject to many new and terrifying changes. One symptom of these changes was the rise of new cults which threatened the dominance of the Church of England. The first of these cults to have any influence in England was the Theosophical Society, which was founded by Mme H. P. Blavatsky. Theosophy, Christian Science, and the Higher Thought Movement, were the three most influential of the new cults, according to Caroline E. Playne (1). She also notes that the H.T.M. branched out, and its doctrine was developed in the Higher Thought School, the Church of the New Age, the New Order of Meditation, and the New Civilization Church, subtitled the Higher Psychology and Mysticism.

Although Playne makes no mention of the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, or of Crowley’s Argenteum Astrum, she does point out that astrology became very popular, so there must have been a great interest in matters of an occult nature.

It is clear that the social climate in Britain reflected an awareness and a fear of dramatic change. The established church was unable to come to terms with these new problems, and people turned instead to the spirits of the dead, or to the stars, in order to divine their future.

The causes of these problems were probably due to the advances of science and technology. The rise of living standards and the availability of the printed word to the general public offered new possibilities which could not always be realised. Both Roger Sandell and John Fletcher (2,3) point out that the new mass-circulation newspapers and fictional writings of the period stirred up feelings of public discontent. This was reflected both in the new spiritual yearnings of the cults, and in the political yearnings of the suffragette movement, which had to resort to terrorism to express its frustration.

To maintain social cohesion in Britain the population was constantly reminded of the hordes of foreigners abroad who had covetous designs on our Empire. We therefore needed our powerful navy to protect the Empire against foreign intrusion. The biggest threat was the growing strength of the German Navy, which was a visible expression of the German desire for an empire of its own. Hence the popular fiction of the early 1900′s portrayed the Germans as the enemy. Such books as Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands, which appeared in 1903 (4), used this theme to good effect. Other authors, like the prolific William le Queux produced books like The Invasion of England (1905), and The Invasion of 1910, which was published in 1906, which were less sophisticated attempts at stirring up public feelings against the German nation.

It is reasonable to assume that the airship waves of 1909 and 1913 were representative of the invasion scares which spread throughout Britain. A less well known aspect of these waves were the attendant spy scares, and we shall now look at how these were treated in the press.

Caroline Playne (5) notes that in 1908 the press fanned the flames of hostility between Britain and Germany. The Times of the 13th July 1908 stated that the Secretary of War was to be asked about a rumoured Staff ride made through England by a foreign power. The same paper also asked whether the Chief Constables of the eastern counties knew of any foreign spy activity in England. According to The Observer, German officers were said to be active of the South-east coast of England, and similar stories were spread by other sections of the press.

In 1909 this trend was repeated, The Illustrated London News (6) even went as far as to publish a map of the United Kingdom showing the 54 invasions which had taken place since 1066.

The airship wave of 1909 started getting press attention on the 15th of May, and fizzled out in early June. The same can be said of the accompanying spy scare.

A scenario which reveals a combination of airship and spy elements was played out in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, when Mr Egerton S. Free, in the early part of May, saw a sausage shaped airship hovering near his home. It departed in the direction of Frinton on Sea, and throughout the sighting he saw no lights on the craft. The next day his wife discovered a 4 ft 6 ins india-rubber bag with the words ‘Muller Fabrik Bremen’ stamped on it, which was presumed to have been dropped from the airship. The navy took the bag away for examination. A few weeks later the identified it as part of a gunnery practice target. On the 16th of May, the day after Mr Free’s sighting became publicly known, two strangers investigated the vicinity of his home. They looked at the area where he had seen the airship, and Mr Free said: “The men hovered about my house persistently for five hours, that is until 7 o’clock in the evening. When the servant girl set out for church she heard them conversing in a foreign tongue. Finally they came up to her, one on each side, and one of the men spoke to her in a strange language. The girl … was so frightened that she ran back to my house, and would not again leave for church.” (7,8.9.10)

On the 19th of May, Sir J E Barlow asked in the House of Commons if the Secretary for War knew anything about the 66,000 trained German soldiers in England, or about the 50,300 stands of Mauser rifles and 7,500,000 Mauser cartridges stored in a cellar within a quarter mile of Charing Cross. Mr Haldane said that this story was ludicrous, and it lowered our reputation for common-sense abroad (11,12,13). Mr Haldane might not have wanted to say anything, but the Daily Telegraph did reveal that these arms were probably the 500,000 arms stored by the Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs, in a sub-basement of Lloyds Bank in the Strand (14).

Another story said that in the garrison town of Colchester the police had been receiving many reports of foreigners who were seen to be noting the whereabouts of crossroads and buildings throughout the neighbourhood. The police themselves noted several incidents of a similar nature (15, 16).

For some peculiar reason, Grimsby. Lincolnshire, was greatly affected by a bout of spy scares. Perhaps this was a compensation for the lack of airship activity in this locality during 1909. However it could not be disputed that Grimsby was located at a vulnerable point of the East Coast. If the Germans wanted to invade England, the town of Grimsby would offer them a strategic command of the Humber estuary. This factor no doubt hovered like an airship at the back of the minds of its citizens, as the thought of war loomed on the horizon.

The first citizen of Grimsby to become anxious about a possible invasion was the town’s Member of Parliament, Sir George Doughty. On Wednesday, 12th May, 1909, he asked Mr McKenna, the First Lord of the Admiralty, in the House of Commons, if he knew anything about the story that the German Army had suddenly commandeered two steamers at Hamburg, loaded them with soldiers before crossing the North Sea, then steamed up the Humber with them before returning to Hamburg. Mr McKenna replied that he had no information about this war exercise, and that he would be pleased to have any further information about the episode (17,17A).

The next day a rumour circulated in Grimsby which claimed that two foreign spies had been caught trying to steal Admiralty codebooks from the nearly completed Admiralty wireless telegraphic station in Humberstone Avenue. Official sources said that some men had been cleared out of the station by guard dogs. Another variation on the story was that a few weeks earlier, a servant was attacked by two men, who were thought to be tramps. (18)

The wildest report alleged that a servant girl had been captured by two mysterious men, who had been waiting for her in the station’s operations room (19).

These stories were put into perspective on the 19th May, 1909, when, in the House of Commons, Captain Faber asked the First Lord of the Admiralty if he was aware of the alleged attack on the Humberstone station. Mr McKenna replied:

“The Cleethorpes wireless telegraphic station, which is situated at Waltham, near Grimsby, was broken into by two men on the night of Sunday, March 28th. The two men are thought to have been employees of the contractor who had built the station. The station was not in working order at the time, and has only just been completed. The arrangements since made for guarding the station are considered satisfactory.” (20, 21)

No sooner had that scare been scuttled than a new one emerged. This started when three Germans visited a nautical instrument maker on Grimsby docks. One of them left a camera to be repaired, and supplied the foreman with a calling card indicating that he was a professor. Later a titled gentle-man, who had been in the diplomatic service learned of the Germans’ visit, and when they returned for their camera he spied on them. He recognised them as being diplomats who had responsible positions in German Government departments. Having confirmed his suspicions he informed the police of the matter. The police shadowed them, and had to prohibit them from taking photographs of Grimsby docks. Later they disappeared, though it was found they had been to see a new deep-water dock at Immingham, where they were turned away by contractors who were still working on it. This made their activities doubly suspicious, as the navy had considered using the dock for their shipping, including vessels of the Dreadnought class (22).

These Germans were later identified as businessmen who had been on a commercial visit to prospect for trawlers. It was said that they had stopped at the Royal Hotel, and like any other class of respectable citizens had “actually paid their bill!” (23)

Another story told how workmen at Killingholm, near Immingham, had encountered motorists who wanted to know if there had been any local airship sightings, and whether the Humber between Immingham and Spurn had been mined. But as a newspaper columnist reported: “this story, however, ends rather tamely with the intimation that the motorists finished by enquiring the way to the nearest refreshment house” (24)


orpington“Can you, Sir, imagine an Englishman not knowing a cock from a hen? Still, I am ashamed to say my suspicions were not yet aroused.”


One of the most intriguing spy stories came from a correspondent to the Grimsby News, who called himself ‘Patriot’. The length and intensity of his letter suggests he may have actually meant what he wrote.

The incident occurred on the 22nd May, when ‘Patriot’ was sitting in the garden of his home in Grimsby Road, Waltham. The heat of the sun had caused him to fall asleep but he was awaken by the guttural mutterings of a stranger who was intensely observing his Buff Orpington cockerel.

The man was dressed as a labourer, and was leaning against the garden fence, when he said to ‘Patriot’: “That’s a nish bird, mishter.”

“It is a tolerably good bird”, replied ‘Patriot’.

After a few moments thought, the man asked: “Shingk she lays a lot of eggs”, to which ‘Patriot’ comments in his letter, “Can you, Sir, imagine an Englishman not knowing a cock from a hen? Still, I am ashamed to say my suspicions were not yet aroused.”

During the conversation the man accidentally dropped a brightly coloured card onto the ground as he removed a handkerchief from his pocket. The card appeared to have been torn from a larger piece, but ‘Patriot’ clearly saw the word ‘Professor’ printed on it, along with the letters ‘PIL’, and in smaller print the words ‘cure’ and ‘universal’. The visitor picked the card up and disappeared in the direction of the church. ‘Patriot’ consulted his wife, who confirmed that the guttural speech of the man was no doubt due to his German tongue, which had difficulty in pronouncing English. This lead ‘Patriot’ to believe that the Germans were seeking out areas where the best provisions could be found: “I venture to suggest that the man who inspected my fowls last Saturday is a professor of poultry-breeding at one of the German universities when about his usual avocations”. Resignedly ‘Patriot’ believed his Buff Orpington would end up on the table of the German Commander-in-Chief. (25)

I doubt that ‘Patriot’ was taken very seriously, but it didn’t prevent yet another spy rumour coming into circulation. This centred on some nocturnal activities at the Fifth North Midland Brigade Royal Field Artillery Barracks, in Victoria Street, Grimsby. On the morning of the 28th May, Mrs Wright, the wife of Regimental Sergeant Major Wright was awoken at 1.00 am by the barking of a dog. Looking out of her bedroom window, she saw two men running away from the barracks. The police investigated the incident and found that the men had attempted to break into the rear entrance to the premises. A rumour soon circulated saying that spies had been caught breaking into the barracks, but the police said this was foolish, since at the time the Brigade was under canvass at Knott End, Fleetwood, on the other side of England, and the only thing of value to any spies were the regimental papers. The police thought the two men were tramps, seeking warmth and shelter, and attached no importance to the matter (26, 27).

After this incident things quietened down in Grimsby, but elsewhere there were other spies lurking in our countryside. The Nottingham Daily Express (28) was rather disappointed at not hearing of any airship sightings in its locality, but its reporters did discover a different type of scare-ship. A motor-launch with four German tourists on board attracted the attentions of the scaremongers as they cruised along the River Trent. It was said that they had entered the Trent from the Humber, and had not been noticed until they passed Newark.

Another newspaper (29) reported that in Hull foreigners were searching for information and photographs “that no pacifically minded foreigner should trouble about”, though I suspect that this was a reference to the Grimsby German ‘spies’ who had been foolish enough to own and use cameras on foreign territory.

During the 1913 airship wave which struck Britain in January and February, newspapers again emphasised the vulnerability of the English East Coast. One report noted a rumour that a small German cruiser had sailed up the Humber undetected under cover of darkness (32).

Due to the greater range and durability of the German’s Zeppelins, and the acceptance of the German threat, the 1913 airship sightings were given more importance than the 1909 sightings. Indeed, the War Office took an interest in the many airship sightings in Yorkshire. On the 25th February it was alleged that Mr Grahame White, a well known aviator, visited the Prime Minister in Downing Street. Mr Asquith had unexpectedly returned from Berkshire to attend the meeting. As a consequence of their conversation, Mr White left ‘indefinitely’ for the north, though nothing was known of his mission. The obvious conclusion to make is that he was sent to investigate the airship sightings. (33,34)

The observation of an airship by Capt. Lundie and his Second Officer of the Grand Central Mail Steamer ‘City of Leeds’, who saw it over Spurn Point on the 22nd of February, created a lot of press publicity is early March; when they reported their experience. Their sighting aroused such interest that on the 3rd of March the Admiralty sent an official to Grimsby, who had a long interview with the two men. (35)

The southern seaport of Portsmouth had a few airship sightings, and a spy trial involving naval secrets was held there (36) In an examination of the two airship waves, it will be interesting to note the incidence of airships seen in the vicinity of locations of military importance (37).

In Europe there were parallel worries about foreign intrusion. A Brussels ministerial source claimed that large numbers of German soldiers were manoeuvring on the south-eastern border. In Verviers, Belgium a number of postal officials were said to be searching the countryside on the orders of their superiors, looking for strategic and topographical information. A German newspaper in Triers advised that the town be fortified to withstand a French attack via neutral Luxembourg, as French officers had been known to have motored through the Grand Duchy with strategic aims. In reply, Luxembourg claimed that Germans had not only motored through their land, but surveyed it from the safety of airships. This controversy served to force the Belgium Clerical anti-militarists to amend their objections to a pending Army Bill.

The British public still demanded fictional and semi-fictional works on the threat of invasion, and their appetite was whetted by a flood of cheap books. The difficulties of invading Britain were outlined in A German Invasion (39), and in more detail in Invasion and Defence (40) The Secrets of the German War Office (41) was written by Dr Armgaard Karl Graves, a former spy for the German Government. In a good natured manner he describes how he observed the movements of warships in Scotland, and obtained information about their armament. British Intelligence (M05) knew of his activities almost as soon as he landed in British soil. Through a German clerical error an easy excuse was used to arrest him, and soon afterwards he was used as a double agent.

The professional scaremonger William Le Queux, produced several more books on the German threat, such as German Spies in England, which was written in his usual popular and sensationalist style, which avoided having to reveal anything more than personal anecdotal stories. (42)

Not long after the German High Seas Fleet had bombarded the ports of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby on the morning of the 16th February 1914 (43), Le Queux produced a book entitled. Berlin 70 (44) which contained the usual mixture of fact, rumour and fiction. In it he told a spy story about a German submarine cable which crossed the North Sea to Hull, whence a branch of the cable lead out to the obscure Lincolnshire village of Hogsthorpe St Mary. From these termini German secret agents sent back information of value to their war effort. Allegedly, this book had a profound effect of the Admiralty, who had to officially deny that Hull and Lincolnshire contained busy German spies.

In 1978, when a Mr and Mrs Meech took over the management of the 18th century Saracen’s Head pub in Hogthorpe, they discovered an old room which contained a great quantity of papers and books, along with some old mattresses. Apparently during the First World War troops had billeted at the pub, and the Oddfellows (a Freemason-like society) had held their meetings there. Another secret room was found in the attic, which contained two locked chests. (46, 47) Perhaps the activities at the Saracen’s Head had inspired Le Queux to write Berlin 70. Whatever the reason, this story does illustrate the ambiguous nature of spy stories in general.

To conclude, we can surmise that politicians and journalists were equally guilty of enhancing the public fear of invasion, in order to secure more funds for military invasion. The generation of rumours of war were turned into actuality by a process of self-suggestion. In this state of mind the European powers marched inexorably towards the most bloody and destructive war in the history of mankind. 

Notes and References 

  • 1. Playne, Caroline E. The Pre-War Mind in Britain, Allen & Unwin, 1928.
  • 2. Sandell, Roger. “The Airship and Other Panics”, MUFOB, n.s. 12
  • 3. Fletcher, John. “Lo, He Comes in Clouds Descending”. Magonia 1.
  • 4. Childers, Erskine. The Riddle of the Sands, 1903. (Rept. Penguin, 1978)
  • 5. Playne, ibid, pp 118-119 (she quotes from “England Under Edward VII”)
  • 6. Illustrated London News, 27 March 1909.
  • 7. Grove, Carl. “The Airship Wave of 1909″ FSR,16,6.
  • 8. Evening News, 15 May 1909
  • 9. East Anglian Daily Times, 18 May 1909
  • 10. Irish News, 17 May 1909
  • 11. Irish Times, 19 May 1909
  • 12. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 19 May 1909
  • 13. Grimsby News, 28 May 1909
  • 14. Bath Chronicle, 27 May 1909
  • 15. Irish News, 20 May 1909
  • 16. Irish News, 21 May 1909
  • 17. Retford, Worksop, Isle of Axholme and Gainsborough News, 14 May 1909.
  • 17a. Mention is made of other North Sea ‘activities’ and a rumour of an airship launching steamer in the Bristol Channel in: Screeton, Paul, ‘A Newspaper Looks at the Airship‘, MUFOB, new series 11.
  • 18. Grimsby News, 14 May 1909
  • 19. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 May 1909
  • 20. The Times, 20 May 1909
  • 21. Grimsby News, 21 May 1909
  • 22. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 19 May 1909
  • 23. Grimsby News, 21 May 1909
  • 24. Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser, 22 May 1909
  • 25. Grimsby News, 28 May 1909
  • 26. Grimsby News, 1 June 1909
  • 27 Stamford Mercury, 4 June 1909
  • 28. Nottingham Daily Express, 22 May 1909
  • 29. Retford, etc., Times, 21 May 1909
  • 32. Northern Daily Mail, 25 February 1913
  • 33. Northern Daily Mail, 25 February 1913
  • 34. Northern Daily Mail, 26 February 1911
  • 35. Northern Daily Mail, 5 March 1913
  • 36. Several spies were caught in Portsmouth between 1911 and 1913, but I have no newspaper accounts of them yet.
  • 37. A brief review of the 1913 wave in particular seems to support the view that the airships were indeed attempting to reconnoitre military locations. Conversely one could argue that people living in ‘strategic’ areas would be more sensitive to invasion scares.
  • 38. Saturday Westminster Gazette, 1 March
  • 39. ‘Fabiu‘, Invasion and Defence A. Treherne & Co., undated.
  • 40. Sewill, Henry, A German Invasion. P S King, 1914 (?)
  • 41. Graves, Dr Armgaard, Karl The Secrets of the German War Office.
  • 42. Le Queux, William German Spies in England. Stanley Paul, 1915
  • 43. According to the British official war history, a zeppelin reconnoitred the Humber on the 15th December 1914, but this is not confirmed by the airship war diaries which indicate that bad weather prevented them from even making local practice flights. Another phantom airship?
  • 44. this title is a reference to Kononergratzstraas 70, Berlin, the address of the German Admiralty.
  • 45. Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, 27th December, 1978
  • 46. Scunthorpre Evening Telegraph, 20th December 1978.

Credit for the supply of newsclippings is extended to John Hind, Granville Oldroyd and Dirk van der Werff


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