An appeal for information ahead of the 100th anniversary of an airship disaster that claimed dozens of lives has unearthed a range of “touching” stories and artefacts from the families of casualties, survivors and witnesses.
The R.38/ZR-2 exploded mid-flight and crashed into the Humber in front of thousands of onlookers in Hull on August 24 1921, leaving 44 of the aircraft’s 49-strong British and American crew dead.
A crowdsourcing project to create an online archive of materials relating to the disaster has led to a number of people coming forward with documents, photographs and stories that will provide a “long-lasting public legacy”, Historic England said.
The R.38/ZR-2 was built at Cardington, in Bedfordshire, but was based at Howden, East Yorkshire, for its last test flights before being sold to the United States Navy.
While returning to Howden along the Humber on August 24 1921, a final test of extreme movements to the airship’s steering to simulate the stresses of bad weather caused the light structure to break apart, resulting in the catastrophe.
Among the stories of the century-old tragedy, which was a major event in the 20th century history of Hull, is that of Richard Withington, who parachuted from the falling airship but drowned in the Humber as he could not swim.
His great-nephew Ian Simpson contacted the Carnegie Heritage Centre, where volunteers are cataloguing the contributions, with a telegram about Mr Withington’s death, the order of service from a memorial held a week after the crash and invitations to the unveiling of the R.38 Memorial at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London in June 1925.
Sonia Potts, the granddaughter of Walter Potter, told the project that her grandfather’s family had wanted him to leave the forces after he was one of only five men to survive the crash, but he went on to crew the R.101 and was killed when that airship crashed in France in October 1930.
Witnesses included John Piercy, who was playing football when he saw the airship split in two and ran to Victoria Pier, where he saw two of the survivors come ashore, and 13-year-old GE Hatfield, who was also playing football in the street when he saw the airship overhead and heard the explosion.
His father, George Hatfield, was master of a Humber Conservancy vessel, which was first on the scene and took the bodies of two casualties aboard.
Souvenirs shared with the project include a pair of candlesticks cast from aluminium salvaged from the airship and a small wheel in a bracket that is thought to have formed part of the controls used to navigate the ship.
The Historic England-funded project, which is led by heritage consultancy Fjordr, will create a virtual collection of materials about the crash and its victims.
Keith Emerick, from Historic England, said: “These contributions have helped to shed light on the human stories behind this century-old tragedy and reveal how family stories are passed on and kept alive through the generations.
“Thanks to the contributors, these illuminating documents, photos and stories will provide a long-lasting public legacy.”
Antony Firth, director of Fjordr, added: “The range of stories and items that people have brought to our attention is fantastic and often very touching.
“These personal connections underline the impact on the families of the crew, the spectacle that the airship presented over Hull, and the profound shock of the crash to those that witnessed it.”
A selection of stories and documents from the project will be available ahead of the anniversary at www.carnegiehull.co.uk.