Hargrave and James Swaine experimenting with four man-lifting kites. RAeS (NAL)


During the years after 1866 the Society’s finances were in a very unstable position; sometimes there was a small balance in hand but, as often as not, the balance was on the wrong side of the ledger. All this time Brearey had continued to be Honorary Secretary, carrying on all the Society’s work from his home in Blackheath and paying money out of his pocket when required. At a Council Meeting in May 1890 Brearey was voted a sum of £20 13s 8d to defray expenses since 1880, or rather to help to defray his expenses, for this was all the money which could be afforded. In 1876 the membership had reached 100 but, over the next 20 years, it declined until, in 1897, there were only about 40.

Despite the smallness of the membership its standing was such that men like Baden-Powell, Sir Hiram Maxim, Lawrence Hargrave in Australia, Horatio Phillips and Percy Pilcher; Octave Chanute, Graham Bell and Samuel Langley, active in America, and Alphonse Penaud in France, became members.

Membership was being drawn from both Europe and America. This situation has not changed.

Soon after Maxim joined in 1891 he described his experiments to the members and two years later Brearey reported on the apparatus of Horatio Phillips. After Brearey’s report, James Glaisher, in the chair, spoke of renewed hope, concluding with the remark that he would leave with less disappointment than he had done on many previous occasions. This was the same Glaisher who had been present at Argyll Lodge at the founding of the Society.

In 1893 Brearey wrote in the Annual Report: “This little Society, which at no time numbered more than 100 members and which for some years has barely numbered 30, may be congratulated upon the influence which it has extended to all parts of the world where the subject is studied, and where during 28 years its reports have circulated.”

These Annual Reports, published each year from 1866 until 1893, are important. Not only did they contain a selection of the papers read before the Society and submitted to it but a final section, ‘Concluding Remarks’, presented a ‘state of the art’ picture each year. Indeed, for the first 25 years or so of its existence, perhaps the most important outcome of the Society’s activities was the publication of these Annual Reports which constituted the first continuous records of aeronautical endeavours in the UK. One thousand copies of the first Annual Report, 1866, were published and the cost of printing, noted in the Council Minutes in 1867, was £36 19s 6d.

In 1896 Brearey died after 30 years as Secretary. Both the Duke of Argyll and the Duke of Sutherland resigned, and the funds of the Aeronautical Society stood at five guineas.

F W Brearey was not an engineer, in fact he had no claim to any scientific background, but he was an enthusiastic believer in a future for heavier-than-air machines. He travelled widely, talking and lecturing, witnessing experiments and demonstrations and was tireless in his correspondence. He worked hard and caused others to work hard, coaxing and cajoling.

Major Baden-Powell, left, and Wilbur Wright after the flight at Camp d'Auvours on 8 October 1908. RAeS (NAL)


Captain (later Major) B F S Baden-Powell, a younger brother of the founder of the Boy Scout movement, succeeded Brearey as Honorary Secretary and, at the meeting of the Council on 19 December 1896, made two courageous decisions; first to issue a quarterly journal and, second, to build up a library by buying books. These decisions were made on a balance of five guineas.

It was soon apparent that the money available had to be increased and Baden-Powell offered to put up the money to start the journal. So, in January 1897, the first issue of The Aeronautical Journal was published and the subsidy by Baden-Powell continued for the next three years. The first issue contained a brief obituary on Brearey, an account of the death of Lilienthal, who had been making glides of several hundred feet in Germany and who had inspired Pilcher in the UK, and a list of articles on aeronautics culled from contemporary publications. It was sold at 2s a copy.

So began a journal, now in its 120th volume which, with the Annual Reports that preceded it, has provided a continuous record of aeronautical achievements. January 2016 also marks a new chapter for the Journal with the beginning of a co-publishing arrangement with the Cambridge University Press and the digitisation of the back catalogue.

Percy Pilcher with the Hawk. RAeS (NAL)


Both Pilcher and Hargrave were doing important work about this time (1897) and the new Journal began to be used as a medium for their papers. Some by Hargrave on his box kites and rotary engine were reprints of work which had been described in New South Wales, Australia, where Hargrave, an Englishman by birth, lived.

Following Hargrave’s death in 1915 his widow presented his papers to the Society in 1920. The Society’s library has in its care Hargrave’s original letters, lantern slides and photograph albums. Hargrave’s notebooks were returned to Australia in 1963 where they are now housed in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

Hargrave had corresponded frequently with members of the Society and, in May 1899, delivered a lecture to the Society on his box kites and soaring machines. The chair at that meeting was taken by Pilcher, who had been elected to the Council soon after he had joined the Society. He had begun his experiments in soaring flight in 1894 but soon after Hargrave’s lecture he died as a result of an accident – in September 1899 – in his glider on the Braye estate, Stanford Park, Market Harborough, after what the Journal described as, “from a scientific point of view, one of the most successful flights ever made by man. The fact of rising up from the level ground many feet into the air, solely by the aid of being towed by a very light line, is a triumph, proving that if the small amount of pull had been derived from a screw propeller such as Mr Pilcher had actually made, though never tried, it would have gone equally well. But there is an important moral to be learnt from this abrupt descent. Such an apparatus must be so constructed that if one little portion breaks, the balance of the machine will not be wholly destroyed thereby.”

This was possibly one of the first references to safety in the air, an aspect still exercising the minds of all concerned with aviation.

Pilcher was the first Briton to lose his life in the service of aviation and by his death the Society lost a member who had begun to demonstrate that flight was very near. His glider was presented to the Society and currently is in storage at the National Museum of Flight, East Lothian. Born in Bath, Pilcher had served an engineering apprenticeship in Glasgow and made his first gliding experiments on the banks of the River Clyde.

James Glaisher, meteorologist, balloonist and a founder member of the Society. RAeS (NAL)


On the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 Baden-Powell with his regiment, the Scots Guards, went overseas. It was later recorded that his man-lifting kites had been used in wireless experiments in Africa. Serving abroad he could not carry on as Honorary Secretary but he was immediately elected President, the second one in the history of the Society.

The first three Honorary Secretaries, Brearey, Baden-Powell and E S Bruce, carried out the work of the Society at their own homes, for finances permitted neither the rental of offices nor paid clerical assistance until 1902 when, with the membership at 100 and a balance of £204, modest accommodation at 53 Victoria Street, London, was obtained at a rental of £20 a year.

Later that year Baden-Powell gave his Presidential address, which is worth quoting in part:

“In America, Mr Wilbur Wright and his brother have been making wonderful progress with gliding machines and Professor Langley has been hard at work constructing a large machine ... What we see then, looming in the future, more or less near, according to the energies of and the encouragement we give to those pushing the matter forward, is the introduction of a new invention forming an invaluable and all-powerful weapon of war, an important aid to science and the practical knowledge of our globe, and a speedy, economical and pleasant mode of getting from place to place, such as will probably completely revolutionise our present methods of travel.”

Those words were spoken on 4 December 1902 – the beginning of the fulfilment of dreams and speculation was only a year away – and Baden-Powell has been proved right in his assessment of the future.

James Glaisher died in 1903, less than 12 months before the Wright brothers made their flights on 17 December. James Butler was the only founding member to live to meet the Wright brothers during their visit to London in May 1909.

9 February 2016