|FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #1 | FOOTNOTES Page | Obituary Page ||
Rocket That Was Meant For A Planet Explodes In Manchester
For the full archive of available newspaper cuttings see
The story first broke in the stop-press column of the Manchester Evening News on the Saturday it happened. After absorbing the vital stop-press information 68 min Manchester C 2 Bolton W 1, football fans discovered Herbert Snelson (14), Fourth Avenue, Clayton, taken Ancoats Hospital injured exploding rocket Manchester Interplanetary Society contest at Clayton Vale. Later editions carried the headline THREE HIT AT ROCKET CONTEST and ran a story filling nine column inches.
Next day the nationals took it up. Here's some of the Sunday Express story: "Two people were slightly injured today when a rocket, fired during a demonstration at Clayton Vale, Manchester, exploded. They were Robert Snelson... and M.G.E. Wade, secretary of the Manchester Interplanetary Society, which promoted the demonstration. A cine cameraman was struck but was uninjured. The police stopped the demonstration... Manchester Interplanetary Society is a recently formed body aiming at the evolution of new types of rockets. The average age of the society's sixteen members is 17. The society was started by 16-year-old president Eric Burgess. Today's demonstration was the first of its kind."
The Sunday Chronicle [28th March, 1937] carried a dramatic photograph of one rocket leaving its launching rack, over the headline MOON ROCKET STARTS BUT INJURES TWO. It told much the same story as the Express but went on to mention: "Prior to the display warning notices asked spectators to keep 300 feet away, but they were not observed..." and concluded, ominously: "Mr M.G.E. Wade, secretary of the society, stated last night that he had been requested to visit Inspector Smith of the Explosives Department at Manchester Town Hall on Monday".
The incident was still 'news' on Monday. The Daily Mail headline INTERPLANETARY SOCIETY - MEETING ABANDONED AFTER ROCKET BURST led into a story which quoted Eric Burgess as saying "if it causes people to take us more seriously—then it may have been a good thing". And a hopeful comment from Malcolm Wade: "I asked the detectives if we had broken any laws and they told us we had not".
The Daily Herald announced ROCKETEER SAYS THE 'RACKET' WILL GO ON, quoting Malcolm about the aims of the society: "to experiment in the use of rockets for commercial purposes—and not for war... We are not just playing with fireworks. We have definite plans in mind, and all our experiments are the result of careful study". With the benefit of hindsight, I guess we were a little too high-minded with that "not for war" bit. Wernher von Braun didn't share such scruples and look where it got him.
The Daily Express featured two contrasting pictures. The 'before' picture showed member Bill Heeley posing with his aluminium rocket and launching stand; the 'after' view was of onlooker schoolboy Herbert Snelson being helped off the field by plain-clothes policemen. While the Manchester Guardian's laconic report concluded: "The rocket which exploded was the sixth to be fired. The five others, although performing various capers, did not rise more than 20 feet from this planet".
Come Tuesday, the Daily Dispatch: ROCKETEERS TO CONTINUE TO TRY FOR THE MOON, telling how officials of the society had emerged from a meeting with Inspector Smith "jubilant and full of enthusiasm for the future of their society, which aims ultimately at sending a rocket to the moon. The Inspector was very decent to us, said Wade. Our rockets, we were told, come under the Explosives Act, and we have been advised not to give any more rocket displays from our Clayton Vale arena for a few weeks. We have agreed. He added that a search would be made for a more suitable rocket-launching ground... In future, too, the design of the rockets would be submitted to the friendly scrutiny of Inspector Smith".
And that, we all hoped, was the end of that.
We were a trifle worried at the way our modest experiments had been inflated, in the highest traditions of British journalism, into supposed attempts to reach the moon and planets. Of course, the Wells-Korda film Things to Come was going the rounds at the time, but few people took the idea of space flight seriously and its mention usually provoked amusement or ridicule or both.
During the rest of that week, members were frequent visitors to the city News Theatre, on Oxford Street, where the local newsreel included a brief footage covering the incident. The thing that impressed me after repeated viewings, was that all the folk who'd chatted to us on the day, and shown interest in the society (being duly noted as potential members) turned out to be plain-clothes detectives.
So it was not entirely a surprise, after the press had forgotten the matter, that most members actively involved received summonses to appear at the City Police Court on May 14. The charge against me was that "on or about the 27th day of March 1937 I unlawfully did manufacture a certain explosive you not being allowed by sections 4 and 39 of the Explosives Act 1875 to do so". And some of the others were also charged with "unlawfully manufacturing a firework".
We had legal help (and obviously needed it !) through a Daily Mail reporter who had joined the society. The police prosecution treated the affair in a ponderous routine way, content to rest their case on the obvious facts. What saved us, I suspect, was that the case provided the magistrate with some light relief from more serious crime. There was a wordy debate in the court about the definition of the word 'manufacture', touching on bows and arrows and home-made plum puddings in some zany way, and he showed a lively curiosity on the subject of rocket propulsion and space travel. The morning passed, the case was adjourned to an undefined date, and there we were, with the whole thing still hanging over our heads...
We'd been busy in the interim looking for a more private spot where we could continue to experiment. An isolated stone building out on the moors near Glossop seemed ideal. With Philip Cleator's book Rockets Through Space as our Bible, a few copies of American Rocket Society and British Interplanetary Society publications, awareness of the past experiments of Robert Goddard, of the work of the German Interplanetary Society, and imaginations filled with lots of science fiction, we were brim full of enthusiasm. Ambitiously, we planned to dig safety trenches, install proving and launching stands, establish an observatory and meteorological station, erect a wind rotor to drive a generator and supply our power needs... Minor details like lack of funds, resources and know-how, never seemed to distract us in those exciting days.
Then back we went to court. The magistrate was assured that we had no intention of making fireworks or giving pyrotechnic displays, and we foreswore the use of certain chemicals in future experiments. The case was dismissed, but our grandiose plans for the future received a distinct set back when the farmer offering to rent us the stone hut on the moors suddenly and mysteriously lost all interest in the venture...
And that's the way it was for us pioneers of space flight. ■
FOOTNOTES TO FANDOM #1...
|Sole © RFV&SDS, 2009.|