Two die in 1912 aeroplane crash at Wolvercote
10 January 2023
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 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.
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.
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.
- Oxford Inscriptions: Airmen’s Bridge, Wolvercote (oxfordhistory.org.uk)
- Oxford paid tribute to airmen who died at Wolvercote (Oxford Mail)
- First World War airfield at Port Meadow in Oxford is rediscovered (Oxford Mail)
- Wolvercote WW1 Aerodrome Memorial Facebook group
- History of Port Meadow Aerodrome (greatwar.history.ox.ac.uk - PDF)