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Paul Sparkes: Rescued from a scrapyard

Alcock and Brown: their lives were supported by two 560-HP Rolls-Royce engines. (Photo Google Images).
Alcock and Brown: their lives were supported by two 560-HP Rolls-Royce engines. (Photo Google Images). - Submitted

Late last month, a brass plaque cast in 1920 to celebrate the two Rolls-Royce engines that powered Alcock and Brown across the Atlantic was sold online by auction. The plaque had been a fixture in one of the engine manufacturer’s factories for some years and was subsequently lost from its place of display and lost from memory. In 2002 the plaque reappeared, having been rescued from a dump in England.

Now, some 16 years beyond that, the plaque has attracted someone willing to pay 3,600 pounds sterling for it (Canadian approximate equivalent $6,390.) at auction. Without a doubt it will be treasured henceforward.

In a Rolls-Royce factory in the United Kingdom, a brass plaque celebrated the ingenuity that built two powerful and dependable aeroplane engines. (Photo TimeLine auction online).
In a Rolls-Royce factory in the United Kingdom, a brass plaque celebrated the ingenuity that built two powerful and dependable aeroplane engines. (Photo TimeLine auction online).

TimeLine Auctions, in promoting the piece, provided an interesting story. Of course, here in eastern Newfoundland we are quite familiar with the A-and-B story. And to celebrate the two fearless men we have a nondescript block of a monument across  from the front of St. Clare’s and even a tiny side-street ridiculously named “Albro.” Not only a corny name, but one of the shortest streets in all of Canada pegged to honour a trip noted for its vast distance. Let’s do something wonderful in time for next year’s 100th anniversary!

R-R care and skill

Cast one brief year after the famed flight, the large bronze commemorative cast plaque depicts two nude standing winged male figures each extending an arm towards the other above a panel with raised text. Here is the auctioneer’s (edited) description:

“The first direct flight across the Atlantic was made June 14/15, 1919 in a Vickers-Vimy Aeroplane fitted with two Rolls-Royce engines of 560 HP each. Pilot was Captain John Alcock and Navigator was Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown: ‘This tablet is erected by Rolls-Royce Limited in appreciation of the care and skill displayed by F. Henry Royce, the Engineer-in-Chief, and his assistants in the design of the engines and of the experimental staff and of all workers at Derby in connection with their construction.’ The plaque was sculpted on commission from Rolls-Royce by William Reid Dick (1879-1961). An eagle-on-globe originally surmounted the plaque, but is now lost. It was the property of a Hertfordshire gentleman when brought to auction, having been rescued from a scrapyard in Bishop’s Stortford, Essex.

After the flight

“John Alcock (1892-1919) and Arthur Brown (1886-1948) made aviation history by making the first non-stop flight, taking some sixteen hours flying time, across the Atlantic Ocean, only a few months after the end of World War I. After flying from St John’s to Clifden, Connemara, Ireland, taking some sixteen hours to complete, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for Air, presented them with the Daily Mail prize (first offered in 1913) having achieved the flight in less than the seventy-two hours stipulated. Shortly afterwards the flyers were invested with the KBE by King George V.

“Both men had been aviators during World War I and both had been prisoners of war. Alcock was held after engine failure over Turkey and Brown was shot down over Germany. Alcock died in an airplane crash at Rouen, France while test flying a new Vickers Viking plane in the same year as he made the Atlantic flight and Brown died naturally in October 1948.

“The Vickers Vimy airplane in which their pioneering flight was made is preserved today in the Science Museum, South Kensington, London. There are several monuments to their achievement existing today - three in Newfoundland, one at the landing spot in Ireland, with others at Heathrow Airport, London and Manchester Airport (a few miles from the birthplace of Alcock). A Royal Mail postage stamp was issued in 1969 to mark the 50th anniversary of the flight.”

As it went to auction, this description was appended to the above story: “Condition Report: Fine condition. An important piece of aviation history and a work by a renowned sculptor.”


A Bishop in retirement

Last Christmas I gave a member of the family a copy of Robert P.T. Coffin’s 1925 “Book of Crowns and Cottages”. In it, the New England-born author describes his search for lodgings while attending Oxford University, and how he found a house in Iffley, Oxfordshire. He refers to a humble cottage “done over” into a place “perfect (as a) memorial to the men and youths in the late War who have gone westward forever to a place sweeter even than Iffley.” He then turns to“Rivermead” which is “Elizabethan and rambling ... unexpected levels dropping or rising one room to the next, carven griffins on the doors, a stairway down from the street into the main rooms that run over into the gardens, and the gardens that invade the rooms. And the river alone at the foot of it all.

“In the house, a retired bishop enjoys his valedictory days, after the ragged clouds and mists of Newfoundland years. Death can come sweetly to him here, and when ears fail there are roses, and when eyes, the feel of them and the smell of their fallen petals.”

As he was a poet, Coffin has a convoluted, but picturesque way of describing the houses, cottages, club, pubs and/or inns at Iffley. But somewhere in all that old infrastructure one of Newfoundland’s bishops allegedly lived to breathe his last. Just out of curiosity I tracked down the “dying place” of each Roman Catholic and Church of England bishop (prior to 1925, of course). Not one of them succumbed at Oxfordshire. Perhaps this is Coffin’s poetic license.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:

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