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Airmen's Bridge, Wolvercote

Airmen's Bridge, Wolvercote

Two die in 1912 aeroplane crash at Wolvercote

10 January 2023 (Updated 3 January 2024)

At plaque on a bridge between Wolvercote and Godstow commemorates two members of the Royal Flying Corps who lost their lives in 1912 while attempting to land their monoplane at nearby Port Meadow airfield.

On 10 September 1912, Second-Lieutenant Edward Hotchkiss and Lieutenant Claude Bettington were flying their Bristol Coanda monoplane from Larkshill, Wiltshire to Cambridge when a bracing wire came loose and tore a hole in the planes wing.

The pair were forced to attempt an emergency landing at Oxford's Port Meadow airfield, but the attempt ended in tragedy when the plane crashed near what was at the time known as Toll Bridge, Wolvercote. Both men lost their lives.

A Bristol Coanda monoplane circa 1912

A Bristol Coanda monoplane, circa 1912. Credit: Image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A city in mourning

The tragic death of these two young men provoked an outpouring of sympathy within Oxford. The pair were given a huge military funeral and thousands of Oxford citizens lined the streets to watch the funeral procession pass through the city centre.

A collection was made and over 2000 people donated so that the memorial plaque could be installed on Toll Bridge, which was renamed Airmen's Bridge in their honour. According to oxfordhistory.org.uk, over 10,000 people came out to see the plaque being unveiled in June 1913.

Plaque on Airmen's Bridge, Wolvercote

The memorial plaque on Airmen's Bridge, Wolvercote. Credit: "UK Oxon Wolvercote Airmens bridge.jpg" by Steve G Roberts is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Later deaths at Port Meadow airfield

The massive outpouring of grief and sympathy for the two young pilots may seem out of proportion given the huge loss of life that took place only a few years later during the First World War. However, it is important to remember that in 1912 aeronautical flight was still in its infancy and an air crash on Oxford's doorstep was a complete novelty.

Sadly, the 1912 tragedy was not the only fatal air crash at Port Meadow over the next seven years. Because plane cockpits were small and cramped at the time, and planes had to be light, parachutes were not provided for pilots or passengers, making learning to fly an extremely dangerous occupation.

During the First World War, 17 airmen were killed while training at Port Meadow airfield. A hundred years later in May 2018 a memorial was unveiled in honour of these men.

A map showing the Godstow/Wolvercote area circa 1944

A map circa 1944 showing the 'Toll bridge' that was renamed Airmen's Bridge, and the the open area to the south on Port Meadow where the aerodrome was once located.

Oxford's lost aerodrome

Today, all that remains of the airfield that once existed on Port Meadow is a small concrete hut, but at its peak in 1918, over 800 people and 70 aircraft were stationed here.

The airfield was fairly new at the time of Hotchkiss and Bettington's tragic crash, the first hangers having been built at the Wolvercote end of Port Meadow the year before in 1911. The airfield was initially created for the use of civilian and hobbyist pilots, but during the First World War it was taken over by the Royal Flying Corp who used it primarily as a flight school for new pilots.

After the conclusion of the war, the airfields military use ended and the aerodrome at Port Meadow closed in 1919. The site was still used sporadically for civilian flights and air displays during the following decades.