Witness accounts and survivors stories shared to shed new new light on catastrophic Hull Airship Crash which killed 44

It was one of the worst disasters in Hull's aviation history, as an airship exploded and crashed into the Humber in front of thousands of witnesses, killing almost all on board.

Survivors from Airship R.38/ZR-2. From right, Flt Lt A.H.Wann, H Bateman and Cpl W.Potter, pictured at dedication of memorial at Hull Western Cemetery.
Survivors from Airship R.38/ZR-2. From right, Flt Lt A.H.Wann, H Bateman and Cpl W.Potter, pictured at dedication of memorial at Hull Western Cemetery.

Now, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Hull Airship Disaster on Tuesday, photographs and memories have been brought together to shed new light on the tragedy that unfolded.

Touching stories and personal documents have been shared, from families of survivors and those that witnessed the crash, to form an online archive alongside items salvaged from the wreckage.

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Now is the opportunity to reunite those last few threads that remain, researchers have said, before these memories and mementos are lost forever.

Airship R.38/ZR-2 ready for flight at Howden. Image copyright of D.Howlett.

"This was a really significant event in Hull's history," said Antony Firth of heritage consultancy Fjordr, whose own grandfather witnessed the crash and who was commissioned by Historic England for the crowdsourcing project that has unearthed new recollections and artefacts.

"It would have been spectacular to see the airship fly by, then to have this catastrophe, with the whole city watching, would have been incredibly traumatic.

"Even in official collections there is material but it's a few items scattered around the country. These personal items and memories give us a great sense of the past. The story they tell, together, is very more than the story they tell individually."

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Airship R.38/ZR-2 in flight. Image copyright of Hull Museums.

It was August 24, 1921, that airship R.38/ZR-2 took a final test flight to Howden before being sold to the US Navy, but simulations assessing the stresses of bad weather caused it to break apart, resulting in catastrophe.

Some 44 of the 49-strong British and American crew were killed in the explosion or in its wake as the airship crashed into the Humber, while thousands of stunned eye witnesses watched on.

Following a call out in May from Historic England, dozens of contributions have been catalogued by volunteers from Hull's Carnegie Heritage Centre, including the stories of those who made it to safety, such as Walter Potter, as told by his granddaughter Sonia Potts.

Mr Potter was one of only five men to survive the crash, and his family had pleaded with him to leave the forces after his narrow escape, she said, but he went on to crew another airship, the R.101, and was later killed in a crash in France in 1930.

The crashed stern of airship R.38/ZR-2 in the Humber. Image copyright of D.Howlett

One victim who is remembered is Richard Withington who, having parachuted from the falling airship, drowned in the Humber as he was unable to swim. His great-nephew Ian Simpson has shared personal documents, including the telegram informing Mr Withington's parents of his death, and the order of service from his memorial.

Witness accounts

Others have recalled family stories about the crash, such as of John Percy, who died in 1983, who had been playing football when saw the airship split in two and, like many others, had run down to the Victoria Pier where he saw two of the survivors come ashore.

In a similar tale, Valerie Wise shared a handwritten note from her father, GE Hatfield, who had been aged 13 at the time. He too had been playing football in the street when he stopped to watch.

A small wheel from the wreckage of airship R.38/ZR-2, handed down to his grandson Rob Woods by William Woods, who had lived in the Hessle Road area of Hull. Image copyright Rob Woods.

Mr Firth said while this was not the only disaster in Hull's history, it was one that resonated having been witnessed by so many people.

"My grandfather saw the crash when he was a boy aged seven, he saw it fly by and he saw the explosion," he said. " He told me the story when I was a boy, and I knew I wouldn't be the only one to have that story passed down.

"Now there are no witnesses any more, these mementos and memories have become dispersed. This is the point to draw them back together, and highlight it for the future."

Souvenirs scavenged

Among items uncovered are extraordinary souvenirs from the crash, including a pair of aluminium cast candlesticks and steering controls salvaged from the wreckage, and passed down through the generations.

Rob Woods, from Kent, inherited a small wheel bracket, mounted on a block of wood, which is thought to have formed part of the navigation controls.

His grandfather William Woods had lived in the Hessle Road area of Hull all his life, he said, and he hopes ultimately to return the memento to its "rightful home" in the city.

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.”

Anniversary

Ahead of Tuesday's anniversary of the August 24, 1921 crash, Carnegie Heritage Centre will feature a selection of stories and documents on its website at www.carnegiehull.co.uk, before the creation of an online collection.

Liz Shepherd, chair of the Carnegie Heritage Centre, said volunteers had been really encouraged by the response: "It has been gratifying to hear from relatives of the crew who are grateful that the centenary of the R.38 disaster is being recognised and that the story will be archived for future reference.”

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