Peoples memories

Account written by G.E. Hatfield

My Father, George Hatfield, was master of a Humber Conservancy Ship, an organisation to control the navigation on the Humber. On the evening of the Air Disaster, they were returning to dock for the night and were watching the Airship making for the river. There was a very loud report, the Airship broke in two & fell into the Humber.

His vessel was first on the scene & took two dead bodies on board. Other boats in the vicinity came to the wreck & got a few survivors, or further dead bodies.

The next day, my father had to visit the wreckage & then obtained a piece of metal & fabric as souvenirs which came in to my possession following my father’s death.

I was 13 years old & was playing football in the street and we all stopped to watch the Airship overhead & then heard the explosion.

It would have been a big disaster if the Airship had exploded and fallen on West Hull but the pilot obviously knew of the Airships difficulties and made for the river.

Signed by G.E.Hatfield

Memories from David Zuill

I was told by my mother that my grandfather who was a lighter man was on a lighter or barge vessel on the River Humber off the corporation pier when the accident occurred, and they were one of the first rescuers on the scene. II was told my grandfather Jack (John) Catley rescued the American pilot from the airship.

My grandfather was born in Barrow on Humber at the Six Bells pub in 1884. He lived in Huddersfield for a few years because of the trade from the cotton / woollen mills backward and forwards down the Humber and the Leeds Yorkshire canal.

John (Jack) Catley B 1884 D1957.

Son, Jack Catley worked for Wrights builders. Grandmother Peck, had one child.

John Piercy

A written record of an eye witness account from John Piercy age 19? A very descriptive account as he watched the event from 5.30 to around 8.30pm Also mentions his brother-in-law, James Ryan who dived from the tug he was on and rescued Ft.Lt Wann.

1902 – 1983

Regarding the episode of the R.38, I believe its other name was ZR2, at that time my family lived in Blue Bell entry, just around the corner from Blackfriargate. I was playing football between the old halfpenny bridge and little Humber St., when I saw the airship coming towards the harbour mouth.

When on the turn she split in two after I think two bangs she cracked, it was a most wonderful sight although so sad. In minutes the pier was full of bicycles not a space was spare. As near as I can recollect it was 5.30pm and within seconds I was on the shore opposite Sammy’s point and practically watching while it was burning.

I stayed on the pier till about 8.30pm and saw two members of the airship come ashore, Englishmen both in jerseys. My brother-in-law who was mate on a united towing tug his name James Ryan dived overboard to help save the airships Commander: Flight Lt. A H Wann, who came afterwards to his house, he lived in the same terrace as me, with his wife. To thank him for a deed not many hear about.

Years after in the second world war he appeared on “Shipmates Ashore” at a club in Liverpool on the radio with her that appeared in on the buses after he did another gallant act while on active service in the navy after being called up from the tugs.

Notes added by son Edwin Piercy *** James Ryan married Ada Lowthorpe in 1915, her sister Ellen Lowthorpe married Joseph Piercy in 1925, Joseph Piercy being the brother of John Edwin Piercy.

James Ryan was awarded the George medal for bravery, while serving as 1st mate aboard HM rescue tug seaman pennant no W44 on 10/1/1941 London gazette entry 4/2/1941 issue no 35056 page 687 James -Ryan, first mate. The ship was attacked by an enemy aircraft, which came upon her’ from astern, circled round and three times attacked her from ahead. Mr. Ryan, at his gun, held his fire until the last moment and brought down the aircraft. Meanwhile, the master, Captain Jones, out-manoeuvred the enemy and his good seamanship undoubtedly helped to save the ship.

Sheila Coates

My mother, Florence May Day, was born in 1916 and lived in the last terrace in Brighton Street, Hessle Road, Hull. She could remember running with her Mum to the end of the terrace to watch the R38 Airship sail by. She said that some of the local women were crying or carrying on, saying the Germans had come back. Hull had been bombed by Zepplins in WW1.

My Dad, Charles Edward Smith, lived in Eastbourne Street, Hessle Road, Hull and he saw the Airship break in two and crash into the Humber.

David Lane

David Lane tells of his father’s memories of his father :-

David Dunn (grandfather) was a fruit hawker with a horse and cart, he went with his father when he took his horse to the ‘Hoss wash’ at the pier when he was 9 years old.

His grandfather, David Dunn, recalls going to the pier the day after the R38 crash and getting some of the airship material to make sheeting to cover his dad’s cart when it was raining.

He says kids would go down to the pier at low tide and get the material which was clinging to the wooden structure of the pier and they would use it to make tents.

He says the woman would make dresses from the material, even a wedding dress.

David Lanes friend said once all the American bodies were found the search was called off.

The Wreck of the R38 Airship August 24th 1921

This account – possibly from an account by Charles Ayre – was in response to our request for information on Facebook, but a note of the sender wasn’t made and the signature is unfortunately unreadable. If you have any information regarding this, please do get in touch!

Little did I think as I took an afternoon stroll along the Humber River Front at Hull that I was about to witness one of the most awful disasters of the air.

I had read that the Airship R38 was taking her trials and that the Americans had renamed her ZR-2 but I did not expect her to come my way but here she was coming towards me from the eastwards at about 1000 feet her gigantic form glistening in the late sunlight, the noise of her six engines increasing to a crescendo as she passed over head.

I was particularly interested in the control cabin with its semi-circular glass observation windows which reminded me of the electric trams which were running at that time, and then it happened. A small crease or pucker occurred in the centre of the envelope and at the same time a flame emerged from the underside and quickly enveloped the entire front section which began to break away from the rear end and plunged earthwards engulfed in smoke and flame.

Suddenly I was seized with panic as I realised that this holocaust was coming towards me and ran as fast as my legs would carry me along with a few others who were in the vicinity. At the same time two terrific explosions rent the air the impact of which nearly took my head from my shoulders and all the windows about me came crashing down.

After a while I stopped and timidly looked back and there it was, this once beautiful creation burning in the river amid thousands of yards of flame and black smoke which made an ominous roaring sound, but still in the air was the rear half which obviously had not taken fire and it was on this section that the few survivors were clinging. I noticed two or three parachutes were coming down to disappear into the blazing mire.

Fortunately for the survivors the Humber was at low tide and much to their surprise they were able to stand waist deep in water until rescued by small boats.

My father’s launch was not afloat at this time but as soon as the tide would allow we put out to the stricken airship but nothing more could be done. As we returned to the Hull pier a tall distinguished looking officer in American Air Force uniform beckoned over and asked if we would assist in the recovery of the bodies. This person proved to be Commander Richard Byrd who later became Admiral Byrd the polar explorer and Atlantic flier. We agreed to help and went out with the American Air Crew and attached a rope on to the gas bag and hauled the launch close up to the wreck.

I did not feel very happy as the day wore on into darkness with us in our little 27ft boat secured practically underneath the enormous gas bag as it swayed and creaked and threatened to engulf us as the tide of the Humber rushed past. We kept a lonely vigil all that first night looking and looking.

The Americans had rigged a large searchlight which beamed into the water in order, as one American put it, ‘to spot any bodies coming away with the tide’.

The thoroughness of these men impressed me as nothing seemed to deter them from the job at hand.

The next day a large pontoon crane was brought into position and we in our launch were able to tow a grapple hook along the river bed and hook up pieces of the debris and carry it to the crane which would in turn heave the tangles of mess out and on to the dock. This procedure enables the Americans to recover the dead.

One day when the recovery activities were not going too well Commander Byrd exclaimed ‘The eyes of the whole world are upon this project, we must all have our dead’. We were engaged in this work for quite a while and I remember one particular day when the crane heaved a large section of Dural Framework out of the water. A body was noticed entangled in the web like structure.

A further observation revealed it to be a close friend of Commander Byrd and was identified solely by the gold ring on the finger and as we gently released the body and lowered it into the launch Commander Byrd took off his jacket and covered over his friend and with tears in his eyes stood holding it until we reached the pier.

This was the year 1921, my first as a Motor Boatman which occupation I continued to follow without a break until my retirement in 1973 but 1921 was the most memorable of all.

Signed ……….. 58 years on the river.

Tim Barker, son of Mrs Shakespeare.

 This is a piece of the fabric taken from the Humber from the wreckage of the R.38 which burst into flames and came down on Wednesday evening, August 24th, 1921. She left the East Riding airship base at Howden on a trial flight before crossing the Atlantic, but because of fog and other circumstances, had to spend the previous evening over the North Sea. I saw the tradgedy and she crumbled, broke in two and the parts floated slowly down. Only 5 men survived : 44 were killed. She was the biggest airship ever seen, 699 feet long, holding 2,700,000 cubic feet of hydrogen and she was sold to the United States and re-christened the ZR 2.

The catering staff at Sutton House. Emma Parker is marked with a cross.

Mrs Shakespeare’s mother in Law was ‘in service’ at Sutton House which catered for the crew and gave them their last meal before the last flight.

She watched the flight from the roof and went down to the pier the next day. She has a small piece of the airship material in a purse.

Tim Barker

There is a printed description of the material and where it came from in the frame, and Recollections from Tim’s mother, Mrs Shakespeare, on a continuation sheet — see below.

Recollections from Tim’s mother.

❝ Sydney Beetham Hainsworth, who was born in Farsley, West Yorkshire, fought in the 1st World War, then graduated from Leeds University with an Honours Degree in Textiles and was appointed Manager of the new J H Fenner & Co. Ltd, weaving department in early July 1921. The Fenner company was located in the small village of Marfleet which was set amongst green fields at the Eastern end of Hedon Road. Sydney Hainsworth lodged in a farmhouse in Ceylon Street. According to family folklore only a few weeks after arriving in the city Sydney was on Hedon Road on the warm summer evening when the Giant Airship R38 was completing trials over the Humber and joined the crowds on the road watching the disaster unfold. The small pieces of silver cloth from the airship rained down after the explosion and were collected by the crowds as mementoes. The entire event must have had a lasting affect on Sydney B Hainsworth as he had his relic of the event framed and kept it for the rest of his life.❞

We wonder if his knowledge and lifelong interest in Textiles (he went on to lead the production of eighteen million feet of military webbing and parachute harness during WW2 and introduce one of the first fireproof conveyor belts for the National Coal Board) made him fascinated with the fabric the airship was made of.

The letter reads:

 In 1921 my late Mother-in-law then Emma Parter aged 15 yrs, was in service at Sutton House, Sutton near Hull. The house belonged to tha Robson family who were part of Moore’s and Robson Brewery in Hull. She and other members of staff served the crew of the R.38 a meal before be they embarked on what was to be their final journey.

Enclosed is a small photo of her and other members of the staff. She is the one with a cross on her apron. After the news was announced that the R.38 had crashed, she went to Victoria Pier and like many others found a small plece of the airship. This has written on the back ‘August 1921, wrecked airship.’

When she and Father-in-Law were married on December 4th 1926, they were presented with a painting of Sr. Jame’s church in Sutton. This was painted by one of the Robson’s daughters. It now hangs on my wall.

J. B. Shakespeare (Mrs)