Paul De Lesseps
Collection of Jean Holloway, 1-19-05


by Nick Forder
Curator (Air & Space)
Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester
     Paul de Lesseps was born in Paris on 13 August 1880. He was one of thirteen children and his father, Ferdinand, was the famous Suez Canal engineer. Paul was not the first of the de Lesseps to become interested in aviation. His younger brother Jacques, born on 5 July 1886, gained Ticket number 27 on a Bleriot XI on 6 January 1910 and became the second man to successfully cross the English Channel by air on 21 May 1910. Possibly inspired by the feats of his younger brother Paul enrolled in the Somner School and received Ticket number 134 on 1 July 1910.
     At this time aviation in Britain was still in its infancy with the first organised flying meetings being held in 1909. France was regarded as being the nation leading European aviation with the pre-eminent Bleriot and Farman aircraft designs and the 50 hp Gnome rotary engine. Thus it should come as no surprise that French pilots were engaged to give displays at flying meetings in Britain. At the end of September 1910 two flying meetings were held. The first, at Folkestone in Kent, featured three pilots two of whom were British with the third being American. The other meeting, the second to be held at Doncaster, was attended by French pilots only. Among those pilots was Paul de Lesseps who was now flying a Bleriot XI.
     "The first of two pictures which were in my Grandparents possession. My Great Grandfather, James Arthur Walker (Jerry) is in the large group on the left, in the straw boater. He wore a "straw boater" on his head - it has the medal of his cycling club pinned on the ribbon at the front. These were worn in the summer and a "bowler" hat in the winter. Jerry was a record holding cyclist from Yorkshire who also was a timekeeper for the AAA, the "Amateur Athletics Association" .
     I believe, but have not yet confirmed it, but James Arthur Walker officiated at the London Olympics in 1904."

Photo & comment from Jean Holloway, 1-19-05
       Unfortunately the weather at Doncaster was very bad and no outstanding flights were achieved. At the end of the meeting all of the Frenchmen moved south to take part in a flying meeting at Burton-on-Trent. Burton is famous as a brewing town with one of the most notable companies being Bass. The flying meeting was held in Bass's Meadow on the banks of the River Trent. The meeting lasted five days, from 26 September to 1 October 1910.  
Welcoming De Lesseps after flying from Nottingham
     The second of the two photos which were in my Grandparents possession. I do not have any further information regarding the photographs, except what was written on the reverse - sent in the form of a postcard.
Collection of Jean Holloway, 1-19-05
       Some of Paul de Lesseps' flights were reported in the Nottingham Daily Express on 1 October :
     "M. de Lesseps, one of the aviators engaged at the Burton-on-Trent flying meeting missed his way when flying from Lichfield to Burton, and alighted yesterday afternoon at Colwick Park, Nottingham, after a 35 minutes' thrilling flight at over 60 miles an hour.
     The Frenchman is the first aviator to explore the heavens in the vicinity of Nottingham in an aeroplane, and his appearance from the skies shortly after five o'clock caused no little sensation in the city.
     Hundreds of people in the southern part of Nottingham saw the machine - a Bleriot monoplane - looking very small but very conspicuous at a great height, travelling from the direction of Beeston. It passed directly over Wilford Bridge, then over Trent Bridge, and as it passed West Bridgford the machine planed down from its great height to not more than 200 feet, and the whirring of the engine and the propeller was so loud as to bring residents hurrying into the streets to watch the flight of the strange visitor.
     Still sweeping downwards, the aviator appeared to be falling into the Trent close to the Colwick Park landing stage, but with an upward tilt he cleared the trees, and making a graceful turn, swooped down onto the racecourse. He landed quite gently and without the slightest injury to his machine, at a point between the racing tracks and about a hundred yards on the Colwick side of the roadway leading across the course to the Hall.
     Within a few moments the young man and his machine were the centre of an excited and nondescript throng. Everybody flocked from the Hall; even the bar was left untended. Farm hands forsook their tasks to rush across the Park; skipper, crew and passengers abandoned their pleasure steamer lying at the stage, and other pleasure seekers on the river hastened in their wake. From West Bridgford dozens of people hurried on foot and on cycles across the fields in the direction of the aeroplane, only to be stopped by the river from further progress.
     An Express representative found the flying man standing by his machine, the centre of an eager and excited crowd of admirers. Scraps of paper, pencils, and fountain pens were pressed upon him for his signature, and he complied with each request with an engaging smile and a courteous little bow. They plied him with questions, but to these he shook his head and answered in very good English, "I do not speak English". That, as a matter of fact, is about the extent of his acquaintance with our language.
     He had, however, been able to explain in his own tongue, his predicament to Mrs. Swann, the wife of the proprietor of Colwick Hall, and at his request, Mrs. Swann telephoned the Mayor of Burton-on-Trent to inform him and the officials of the flying meeting where he was.
     He explained that he was M. Paul de Lesseps, and that in attempting to fly from Lichfield to Burton-on-Trent he had missed his way, and landed at Nottingham by mistake.
     He said he was disappointed, but took his mishap quite philosophically, and leaving a guard on his machine, he walked to the Hall, drank a glass of port and relish, and ordered tea.
     M. de Lesseps said he left Lichfield at about a quarter to five o'clock. He descended at Colwick Park at 20 minutes past five, having covered nearly 40 miles in 35 minutes.
     "I had the wind at my back," he said, "and travelled over 60 miles an hour."
     On Thursday evening, it may be mentioned, M. de Lesseps left the Burton aerodrome to fly round Lichfield Cathedral and back. He reached Lichfield all right, but the people at Burton waited in vain for his return. Ultimately it was learned that he had descended about two miles out of Lichfield.
     When he started out, he explained yesterday, he saw his way clearly. He reached a height of 4 500 feet. His engine worked well, but after going some miles he lost himself. Circling twice, he saw Lichfield, and rounding the Cathedral tried to return to Burton, but the darkness grew so intense that he could only see the lights far beneath. Taking pot luck, he descended, and saw as he approached the earth that he was falling in a field, and alighted without injury. As a matter of fact he skimmed just over a farmhouse.
     "This afternoon," he continued, "I tried to complete my journey back to Burton. I also tried to get an altitude record and rose to a great height. I must have missed Burton altogether, for I saw no large town until I came over here and thought it was Burton. I followed the river all the way. When I came down I could not find the aerodrome, and dare not go any further."
     Though M. de Lesseps did not see Burton (which is not surprising considering the great height and the pace he was travelling), he was plainly visible to the thousands of people who were waiting for his arrival at the aerodrome. He appeared overhead at about five o'clock, quite 3 000 feet up, and a great cheer was given. Apparently it did not reach him, for without altering his course he swept over the district and quickly passed from sight. His disappearance caused the utmost speculation and sensation. Mamet, who flew up to meet him, returned alone, and much anxiety prevailed until the telephone message arrived telling of the missing airman's safe descent at Nottingham. Motor cars filled with a score of de Lesseps' friends immediately set out, and in an hour they covered the journey it had taken the flying man a third of the time to complete, and conveyed their comrade back to Burton. The aeroplane was covered up and left at Colwick Park.
     Before he left, M. de Lesseps declared that though he had to leave England for Paris tonight, he will travel back from Burton to Nottingham this morning, and, given favourable weather conditions, will make another attempt to fly to the aerodrome.
     It was of course, impossible for him to state any definite time for starting, but in all probability the attempt will be made between four and six o'clock. "Everything," he explained, with a characteristic shrug of the shoulders, "depends on the weather."
     M. de Lesseps is perhaps the best known of the fliers at the Burton meeting. He is a son of the great engineer who constructed the Suez Canal. He was the first man to fly over Paris and around the Eiffel Tower. His monoplane is a handsome machine - a brand new racer of a type which has been making tremendous speeds in open-country work in France. It has a seven cylinder Gnome engine, and a feature of the design is the flatness of the wings compared with the rounded ones of the ordinary Bleriot type."
     Two other eyewitness accounts have survived. Charles Shaw, photographer for The Nottingham Guardian who took the first photograph from an aeroplane in Great Britain when he photographed the Bass Meadow landing ground from M. Beau's Farman on 30 September 1910, recalled :
     "When he (de Lesseps) failed to return to the aerodrome, great anxiety was felt for his safety and I accompanied a number of officials who set out in motor cars in search of him. We eventually found him in a small paddock on the outskirts of Lichfield signing his name by match-light on odd bits of paper for a crowd of autograph hunters. His machine was slightly damaged in landing and could not be repaired until the next day.
     Then he started back to Burton, but was lost in the clouds, missing the town completely and finding his way to Nottingham, where he landed at Colwick Park. His appearance over Trent Bridge caused a tremendous sensation. He appeared, said an onlooker, to be falling into the Trent, but he just managed to clear the trees at Colwick Park and made a graceful landing.
     He was fortunate, however, that Mrs. C H Swann, the proprietress of the Colwick Hall Hotel, was able to converse with him in French. He ordered a glass of port, which he drank with gusto, and then partook of a substantial tea.
     He returned to Burton the following day, 1 October, and I was there when he landed to a great ovation from the crowd. When he took off from Colwick Park he flew over the Meadow Lane Football Ground, where Notts. County were playing Bristol City. It was a memorable occasion. Fifteen thousand spectators were present when de Lesseps passed over the ground. He caused such excitement that the game had to be stopped until he disappeared from view, even then the crowd continued to cheer him, and little interest was shown in the game for some time. Evidently the astonishing sight of a flying machine also upset the referee, the Reverend J W Marsh, a Lancashire man. He miscalculated the time and terminated the match four minutes too soon. His mistake was discovered and the players were fetched from the dressing rooms where they had begun to change, and play was resumed. The game ended in a win for the home team, their first victory on the new ground at Meadow Lane."
     The effect off de Lesseps flying over Meadow Lane is also recalled by a postcard held by the Brewhouse Yard Museum in Nottingham (ref NAS 1928):
     "There was some excitement at the match on Sat when De Lesseps crossed over the ground on his Aeroplane the referee had to stop the game until he had gone. Notts played a fine game again."
     It is believed that Paul de Lesseps did not return to Britain and was killed during the Great War.

via email from Dave Lam, 10-27-06
     The 14 Jan 1947 Time Magazine said about him that:

"Paul de Lesseps, 63-year-old son of the famed Suez Canal builder, was down with heart trouble and a sense of persecution in Fresnes Prison. The French Government said that Prisoner de Lesseps, who owned land in Turkey, had offered to sell it to the Germans, for bases from which to bomb Suez. De Lesseps' reply: the Government owed him five billion francs for land confiscated in World War I, now condemned him 'to avoid paying.' "

     I think this indicates that he did not die in WWI as you report.

Paul de Lesseps was killed during the Great War.
Personal communication from Nick Forder
Compare "Biographical Notes" above

Editor's Note:
If you have any more information on this pioneer aviator,
please contact me.
E-mail to Ralph Cooper

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