I became aware of The Aeroplane (6d weekly) in the early 1930s and was soon a regular reader. It was edited by the controversial and outspoken Charles Grey Grey from 1911 to 1939, and was entertaining to a degree not approached by other technical journals. I became such an enthusiastic follower of CGG’s writings that when I began to write for Motor Sport from 1935 onwards, and became its full-time editor in 1945, I tried to emulate, ineffectually perhaps, the style Grey had made his hallmark in The Aeroplane.
C G G, as the great aeronautical writer signed all his articles, was born in 1875 in one of those Nash Terrace houses by Regents Park in London. His father had lived at Dilston Hall in Northumberland: the Field of Flodden was owned by the family and the young Grey was the nephew of the famous Josaphine Butler. His father, in the Irish Land Commission, used to ride to his business appointment on horseback, a pair of pistols in the saddle holsters. Before he was 18 the son was an active member of the Irish Road Club, winning bicycle races, one of 120 miles in the record time of 8hr 20min. He was educated at the Eramus Smith School, Dublin, and at the Crystal Palace School of Engineering. He qualifed in civil engineering in 1894 while still having time to win a cycle race lasting 12 hours…
CGG then worked at the Swift Cycle Co in Coventry and at the Coventry Machinists Co as a draughtsman, before becoming manager, at the age of 23, of Attenborough & Underwood, the steel manufacturers. The following year he married Beartrice Thornebe, who had shared a tandem with him. The Bowden Wire Company was another cycling link, but Grey left to become a writer on Walter Staner’s The Cycle & Motor Trades Review, Staner being then Editor of The Autocar. Grey’s first brush with the world of aviation came in 1908, when Staner needed someone to cover the Paris Aero Show. He wrote a report for The Autocar, probably the first ever in an English technical journal of an aero show. Even then CGG was critical of the celebrated Wright biplane, saying that it was not the machine of the future! This work led to him being appointed joint Editor with the artist Wilfred Aston, of lliffe’s new penny weekly The Aero, which came out in May 1909, four months after Spooner had started Flight. The Aero died in 1911. CGG was then asked by EV (later Sir) Victor Sassoon, whether it could not be replaced, the outcome being that he put up £1000, a large sum then, and Grey started The Aeroplane in June 1911. For 28 years thereafter, even when he broke a hip-joint in 1927, never did he fail to write the leading article. This, and his many other contributions, were invariably pithy, causing much comment and sometimes as much offence.
That is how it began. By the time I knew it The Aeroplane was a highly respected magazine, perhaps not always quite so accurate as Flight but infinitely more entertaining. CGG saw to that! The contents of The Aeroplane were notably instructive — I recall an Indian Army Officer telling me he was greatly helped by reading it when it came to passing his entrance exam. The point being that Grey realised that whereas even intellectual young men might have little time for political papers, they could be induced to take in such matters if the information was mingled with that about aeroplanes. In that respect Grey might be termed a right-wing Liberal. He was an astute historian and observer of International affairs. He warned, before most politicians, that Germany was re-arming, had no use for Baldwin’s appeasement, yet he admired German advancement, flew with Mussolini, and most certainly could not abide fools and Government obstructionists. “When I read of people resting on their laurels,” he wrote, “I wish there could be some holly mixed with the laurel”. It was Grey’s opinions in “Matters of Moment” (now you know from where I cribbed that!), and the blend of politics with aviation that made the paper so influential. And I dare say that other young men besides myself regarded it as good to be seen with when sitting next to a girl in ‘bus or tube…
CGG had practical experience of flying before the new paper was planned. He had gone with the Iliffes (later Lord and Lady Iliffe) in their Daimler to the 1909 Reims Aviation Meeting (taken because he mended the punctures?) and he survived a crash-landing in 1910 in Capt B Dickson, RA,’s Farman at Lanark. For many years the appearance of The Aeroplane could be called dismal, with few pictures and poor paper. All the more credit that its contents, steered by the fearless and scholarly editor, kept it very much alive. Grey ran powerful pieces on “The Truce of the Bear”, warning of Russia’s likely re-emergence. In the 1920s he had beaten the newspapers in telling of the Middle East petrol pipe-line and had forecast in 1924 that Japan would one day strike America in the Phillipines. He fought hard for better fighting aeroplanes in 1914-17 and thereafter, and admired greatly the leadership of Lord “Boom” Trenchard, Marshall of the RAF, as later he did that of Sir Winston Churchill.
Tall, manacled, always correctly dressed, CGG was prominent at the important air shows, races and aviation dinners, etc. But he liked to say he flew on only one day a year so that he could spend the other 364 proclaiming how dangerous flying was! He fought a long campaign for safer aeroplanes, but said flying would never become truly acceptable until people became used to being killed in aeroplanes. He coined the saying “mails may be lost but never delayed, passengers may be delayed but never lost”. In fact CGG had a theory that a phrase would be remembered long after facts were forgotten. Hence, in a leader on safety and the value of wing-flaps, “Aeroplanes should land slowly and not burn up”. Having gone down to the RAE at Farnborough and been refused admission, Grey fought a lifelong battle against what he saw as Government boffins holding up progress.
When Russia claimed to have broken the World Duration Record CGG set his staff to work with slide-rules, maps and their knowledge of aeroplanes — Grey himself edited Janes’s All The World’s Aircraft, — until they had proved the claim false. The Aeroplane‘s editorial that week showed that the machine used could not in any way fly the distance without landing to refuel. That was massive stuff, and upset the Royal Aero Club which had accepted the FAI’s homologation of the ANT 25/I’s 6305 miles in 62hr 17min non-stop, from Moscow to San Jacinto, USA, in 1934. Grey sent his then Technical Editor Mr (now Sir) Peter Masefield to the RAeC to look at the Russian Government’s claim but refused to accept it, labelling it a fake, and concluding his reasons with the final comment “We await information of the ‘liquidation’ of the crew, so that further evidence may be destroyed”. Powerful stuff!
CGG went to America in 1924 and was impressed by its progressive aviation industry. His comparison with British products and emphasis on how the Curtiss DJ 2 engine had made the 160 mph Fairey Fox two-seater day-bomber 50 mph faster than any other and faster, indeed, than the RAF’s fighters, in 1925, lost The Aeroplane all its main advertisers. But by leaving their pages blank and saying why this was so, they soon returned… (In its formative days Handley Page had been allowed free space, as a sound Company that would soon be able to pay). Later, when American papers were claiming that USA air-liners were superior to ours, Grey refuted the allegations in his usual fighting style.
The Aeroplane may have been controversial, but it was essentially patriotic. Full pages and regal portraits would be devoted to Royal Coronations and funerals. But when it was announced that the Royal Family were to make greater use of aeroplanes, Grey, ever the advocate of safer flying, ignored the great enthusiasm with which the news was greeted by the newspapers and the other aviation magazines, pointing out that he was not happy with the development, because an aeroplane was the only vehicle unable to stand still in the element which supported it so all he could say was: GOD SAVE THE QUEEN…
He was not keen on newspapers; he once awarded the Daily Express the Blue Riband for Nonsense after it had got its facts wrong about aeroplanes colliding on the ground like motor cars, a comment on the sad fatality to Campbell Black. Grey objected to “If you stunt on the road you can only do so by driving fast”, saying that a bad driver could be a menace at 10 mph and if you drove out of a blind side-turning into a main road at 15 mph, you would be definitely dangerous, although not driving fast. “Daily newspapers”, he wrote, “necessarily have to publish a certain amount of nonsense. Many of them are produced for people who cannot think and most of the illustrated ones for those who cannot read. Most of them are a verbal cocktail, titillating but without substance”. As true in 1995 as in 1936?
Of his early days. CGG said about the only clever thing he did was to take offices at 175, Piccadilly, because sooner or later most people who came to London walked down St James’s Street and turned into Piccadilly. So anyone in aviation with news to impart was likely to visit The Aeroplane and if they had any secret could pretend they had gone to see the Royal Aero Club, in the flat below. By the time I was a regular reader the paper had been taken over by Temple Press, who badly needed a foil to Iliffe’s Flight, to the benefit of format, status and circulation. Thurstan James, educated at Rugby, and from Short’s and Beardmore’s, was Technical Editor (his predecessor Bill Sayers having gone to Boulton & Paul’s after a furious row with Grey), W F Bradbrooke looked after Club flying and tested those aeroplanes offered to him, Charles Sims was the highly skilled photographer, and the RAF side was covered by Mrs McAlery, who looked rather like a Victorian school-marm but who knew more about the Air Force than many senior officers and who would get kitted-out in overalls and helmet and watch the pre-war training Air Exercises from the reargunner’s cockpit of the latest bomber… It was rumoured that Temple feared Grey’s caustic pen might incur libel damages and that they attempted to confine his more dangerous remarks to a limited number of lines per page, but that only Mrs McAlery could control him. (Temple Press might have been even more fearful had they known that during WWI, GCC’s friends were so worried that his attacks on the Government and its aeroplanes “that killed more of our pilots than the Germans” would result in his arrest, that they organised a secret hiding place for him!)
Untroubled himself, Grey poured out his views, on world affairs, the political situation and the latest aeronautical news and scandals, some rather extreme, For instance, in his obituary for actor/pilot Lt Col Robert Loraine, DSO. MC, who in 1910 was the first pilot to almost fly from England to Ireland in his Farman (“at least he landed in Irish water, swimming the last few yards”), CGG said that he had never been able to persuade himself that playacting was a man’s job. But he made an exception of Loraine, who had won honours in the South African war, was a pioneer pilot and a fine driver of sporting cars (one an 80 mph Austro-Daimler) “in the days when that was a man’s job”. After which Grey wrote a scholarily appaisal of Loraine’s plays, just as he was fully capable of writing about the work of Bernard Shaw, and Kipling etc. and quoting from the Bible.
I rather liked it when A E Clouston, with a Mrs Kirby-Green, had broken the Croydon-Cape Town-Croydon record in a DH Comet and of course the newspapers were making a great thing of the lady who helped the male pilot; CGG simply commented “and Mrs Kirby-Green went along to rattle the money-box” (sponsorship being required for air-records as for motor-racing). On the educational aspect, Grey’s abrasive articles had much to say about war in Europe, complete with maps; his assumption that “If and when the time comes, either for an ambitious Russian Dicator to start a campaign of expansion or for a Russian Soviet Government to go to war as a means of keeping its hold over a starving and rebellious people, the obvious line of attack is through Rumania”, written in January 1924, surely has a topical ring to it?
A fast driver, CGG was not averse to fighting motorists’ battles in his aviation paper. When Belisha Beacons and low speed-limits appeared, he referred to Mr Hore Belisha as “Horeb Elisha” because “the prophet Elijah had ascended to Heaven in a chariot of fire (the true Height Record) and although Horeb Elisha was not responsible for seeing off Elijah, he seemed to be seeing off road-users”. The Aeroplane was cautious about what CGG called “popbottles”, underpowered little machines which were forecast as “Everyman’s motorcar of the skies”. Like Tom Threlfall, Grey liked quotations, which headed his leading articles. Long official papers would be published with his comments within square-brackets, as when he was against the Government’s disinterest in Lord Nuffield’s offer to build Wolseley aero-engine for the war effort, and he had an amusing habit, when a picture of celebrities had been marred because outsiders had rubbernecked into it, for naming the VIPs but also the others, as “me-too” and “must-be-seen”, or suchlike. As for libel, I think there were few cases, all but one settled out of Court; I believe the exception may have involved a flying display from a dangerously small field, intended to benefit a hospital, Grey concluding that piece “…fortunately the hospital isn’t far away”, which was alleged to have ruined the attendence!
Although I did not know CGG well, he did me several kindnesses, such as a Croydon tarmac-pass, and an introductory letter when he got me to cover the Bristol Control of the 1936 King’s Cup race (won by Charles Gardner’s Percival Vega Gull, at 164.5 mph). That resulted in the offer of VIP parking, breakfast, lunch and top Press facilities (I concealed the fact that I had driven down through the night, in a borrowed Austin 7), such was Grey’s status; yet when I ventured to ask him for a “Cars I Have Owned” article for Motor Sport, fearing a curt refusal or a demand for a high fee, he was immediately enthusiastic, sending me his longhand mss and photographs, never expecting a penny. (Photocopy of this from our offices, if anyone is interested). I did a few jobs for the paper, which took me into the great man’s office. Once, while being briefed for a terribly boring assignment for a supplement to a Trade Special issue, there was a knock on his door. The artist who did those wonderfully detailed huge cut-away aeroplane drawings opened it, apologised, but was told to enter and hold up his work, which must have taken weeks. Grey looked at it for a moment, said “That’s not a Sunderland”, and dismissed the luckless chap. And I remember Gray coming down in the opencage lift at Piccadilly as the typists were leaving. Opening the door he called “catch” and threw out a net-bag containing a large number of Dictaphone wax-cylinders representing his day’s work. “Sort it out between yourselves which of you is going to type it”, he said, “I shall be back around 10pm to check it”. That when the Assistant Editor had started at £5 a week…
CGG liked a battle and could, I suppose, have been called predudiced. He fought long with the Air League of the British Empire, which I am sure he enjoyed, and poked fun at Naval procedures, knowing that aeroplanes could sink battleships. When the CAG was formed just before the war, to train pilots for the coming conflict, he warned his readers not to respond, “and become unpaid chauffeurs of the State”, as I recall. So I didn’t. (Had I done so I might not be here now). Later CGG capitulated, but by then the lists were full. In those later 1930s Grey was flown to Germany, met its high-ranking military personnel and admired the gliding schools and the Hitler youth. He became rather too convinced, which may be why he was politely given six-months’ notice in March 1939. Four days before Britain declared war on Germany CGG ended his leading article with the words, “In my opinion, Britain will never go to war with Germany”. Edwin Colston Shepherd, BA, become the The Aeroplane‘s new editor. But after the words on the cover “Edited by C G Grey” ceased to appear, it never seemed quite the same…
CGG was divorced and in 1929 he remarried; I had a charming letter from his second wife after I had written about him in the late-lamented Blackwood’s Magazine — whose editor had raced a 30/98 at Brooklands. CGG lived at Coombe Bury Cottage, Kingston Hill, and continued to write many articles and books, posting each envelope personally. He posted his last (to The Aeroplane, now edited by Thurstan James, with Grey’s name on the masthead as Founder Editor) having been asked to do a special contribution for the issue celebrating 50 years of powered flight and went off to a party at the Admiralty. Taking off his coat, he collapsed into the arms of Grp Capt Dundas — as Thurstan James said in his paper about CGG for the Royal Aeronautical Society (to which I am indebted), how fitting that he should die in the arms of the RAF under the Royal Navy’s roof. Grey was 78 and had edited his paper for 28 years.
The Aeroplane continues today as a highly respected historical monthly, edited by Richard T Riding, priced at £2.30.