By Alice Millard, Research Assistant
The history of early aviation in Britain is synonymous with Shoreham, thanks to two pioneering aviators Cecil and Eric Pashley. These two brothers set up a flying club and training school for pilots in 1913, using the town’s airspace as a base. Today, you can find a permanent tribute to their contribution to aviation in Cecil Pashley Way, a road which skirts the parameter of Shoreham Airport.
In 2004, West Sussex Record Office purchased at auction, with aid from the West Sussex Archives Society and the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, a substantial portion of the Pashley brother’s papers. It includes various flying documents, letters, and photographs.
So, what does the Pashley archive contain? What does it reveal about the brothers, and the history of early aviation? Read on to find out.
The early years
The Pashley family lived in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, and all three brothers – Herbert (1890-1916), Cecil (1891-1969), and Eric (1892-1917) – were born there. Within a few years, their parents, Alexander and Cecilia, moved the young family to London where Alexander worked as a clerk. The Pashley family were relatively comfortably off and had enough income to employ a nurse to look after the three boys.
In his drafted memoir, Cecil recalls early memories of an interest in aeronautics, recounting an experience of hearing about the use of an observation balloon during the Boer War. He also described how he and Eric would make numerous models of aircraft; giving the brothers their first taste of mechanised flying. It seems that Herbert, perhaps being the eldest, did not quite match the enthusiasm of his two younger brothers in their new hobby.
The two brothers were, by this point, so enamoured with flying that they began to read extensively about the experimental flights by the Wright brothers and Sir Hiram Maxim, which fuelled their interest even more. By the time they reached their teenage years, they were moving away from an era of experimental flights and entering one of practical flying.
Cecil and Eric learned to fly in 1908, aged 17 and 16 respectively. Both learned by flying a biplane glider down a hill at Hockley in Essex and Cecil recalled his first successful glide as being “an undulating flight of about 300-400 feet.” Soon after they began, the brothers moved their activities to Brooklands racing circuit and aerospace near Weybridge in Surrey. Here, they encountered more like-minded aviators, and a fully equipped flying school was being developed.
In November 1909, the two brothers again took themselves to Brooklands to watch a special exhibition of powered flying by the French aviator, Louis Paulhan.
“It was a memorable day for my brother and I. My first impression was that I had stepped into another world, for Brooklands was a most unusual place, with its large, white, steeply banked motor track, in the centre of which the ground had been prepared to accommodate Paulhan’s biplane.”from Cecil Pashley’s unpublished memoir
Cecil claimed that Eric was more technically skilled and brought an essential understanding of aeronautical engineering to the pioneering duo. Yet, together, they tirelessly dedicated their early adulthoods to promoting practical flight.
The Pashley Bros. at Shoreham
Five years after Cecil and Eric learned to fly, they founded the Pashley Brothers Flying School in 1913, which was based at Shoreham Airport. Shoreham had already established an Aero Club which, similarly to the activities at Brooklands, attracted already qualified pilots but also nurtured future ones. This was therefore a prime spot for the brother’s new flying school. Over the years, they trained many pilots, including one particular student called Frederick George Miles with whom Cecil went on to establish the Gnat Aero Company and Southern Aero Club.
Prior to the flying school, Cecil and Eric had partaken in air races (Cecil had entered the first All-British Michelin Cup in 1910 but crashed in trials, and in 1911 his Bleriot monoplane failed to complete the course). But, in 1914, the brothers entered the inaugural Brighton Aerial Cup held at Shoreham, one of the first of the new air races taking place in their airspace. Despite scepticism about the ability of the Pashley biplane, they won the trophy and garnered publicity for Shoreham Airport.
After a year’s worth of flying at Shoreham, the airport was requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corps at the beginning of the First World War. The airport was instead used to train military pilots, and private flying left the area during 1914 to 1918.
Pashley brothers’ business cards, WSRO Ref AM 625/5/13.
The Royal Air Force years
It was not just Shoreham Airport which moved over to contributing to the war effort. All three brothers joined the military and offered their flying expertise; Cecil worked as a flying instructor at the Royal Naval Air Service training school, whilst Eric and Herbert joined the the Royal Flying Corps. Tragically, both Eric and Herbert died in 1917 and 1916 respectively.
Immediately after the end of the First World War, the Canadian Air Force kept a base at Shoreham between 1919 and 1921. After their departure, interest in private aviation declined and the airfield reverted to cattle grazing.
Cecil, saddened to hear of this decline in interest, joined forces with Frederick George Miles (once his student), and revived flying at Shoreham by forming a business called the Gnat Aero Company. The company relied heavily on running commercial flights for their income, but it successfully revitalised local interest in aviation. Over the next few years, between the First and Second World Wars, Cecil was kept extremely busy with his private and commercial aviation businesses.
However, after a period of aviation revival in peace time, Cecil was once again involved with military duties when the Second World War broke out in 1939. This time, Cecil joined the Royal Air Force, which had been established in 1919 after it was evident that the use of aviation in the military was indispensable. For his service, Cecil was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1944. Then, in 1947, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.). Cecil did not resign from the RAF until 1954.
Cecil Pashley died aged 78 in Shoreham, having clocked up 18,900 hours of flying time, and had taught an estimated 1600 people to fly.
To explore the catalogue of the Pashley archive, visit our Search Online page.