Header overlay
Trevor Fishlock on Winifred Loraine, Robert Loraine, Soldier, Actor, Airman

High Flyer

Share this

Robert Loraine was a magnificent man in a flying machine. I first encountered his story in an Anglesey meadow where he had two of his many crashes. Soon afterwards I chanced on a biography of him in a second-hand bookshop. Robert Loraine, Soldier, Actor, Airman was as wrecked as one of his flimsy aircraft. A restorer made it shelfworthy so that from time to time I can marvel at Loraine’s reckless courage. As a distinguished actor he had played d’Artagnan on the London stage and he seemed to stay in character when he swapped sword for joystick. ‘He had the soul of a poet,’ Jules Védrines, his French mechanic, observed, ‘and a poet does not make a reliable pilot.’

George Bernard Shaw considered Loraine ideal for Shavian roles. He admired the vitality of his acting and also his action-man relish for adventure: Loraine had once quit the stage to fight in the Boer War. Shaw and Loraine shared a balloon basket in a flight over Wandsworth in 1906. During a Fabian summer school at Harlech two years later they swam together every day and one morning came very close to drowning.

By then Loraine was caught up in the new romance of flight. In July 1909 he was at Sangatte, near Calais, with Louis Blériot. The French pilot had burned his feet in an accident and hobbled to his plane on crutches, handing these to Loraine before lurching into the air and becoming the first to fly the Channel.

Loraine financed his own dream of flying through his earnings in Shaw’s Man and Superman and in 1910 went to France for lessons at Blériot’s school. He broke the rules by attempting a take-off too early and crashed. ‘It was not surprising that the Blériot school declined to provide me with another machine,’ Loraine admitted. He bought a Farman Racer biplane from Henry Farman at Mourmelon and learnt to fly it the hard way. Jules Védrines recalled: ‘After he crashes, and he crashes every day, he walks back humming a tune.’

Jules wa

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Robert Loraine was a magnificent man in a flying machine. I first encountered his story in an Anglesey meadow where he had two of his many crashes. Soon afterwards I chanced on a biography of him in a second-hand bookshop. Robert Loraine, Soldier, Actor, Airman was as wrecked as one of his flimsy aircraft. A restorer made it shelfworthy so that from time to time I can marvel at Loraine’s reckless courage. As a distinguished actor he had played d’Artagnan on the London stage and he seemed to stay in character when he swapped sword for joystick. ‘He had the soul of a poet,’ Jules Védrines, his French mechanic, observed, ‘and a poet does not make a reliable pilot.’

George Bernard Shaw considered Loraine ideal for Shavian roles. He admired the vitality of his acting and also his action-man relish for adventure: Loraine had once quit the stage to fight in the Boer War. Shaw and Loraine shared a balloon basket in a flight over Wandsworth in 1906. During a Fabian summer school at Harlech two years later they swam together every day and one morning came very close to drowning. By then Loraine was caught up in the new romance of flight. In July 1909 he was at Sangatte, near Calais, with Louis Blériot. The French pilot had burned his feet in an accident and hobbled to his plane on crutches, handing these to Loraine before lurching into the air and becoming the first to fly the Channel. Loraine financed his own dream of flying through his earnings in Shaw’s Man and Superman and in 1910 went to France for lessons at Blériot’s school. He broke the rules by attempting a take-off too early and crashed. ‘It was not surprising that the Blériot school declined to provide me with another machine,’ Loraine admitted. He bought a Farman Racer biplane from Henry Farman at Mourmelon and learnt to fly it the hard way. Jules Védrines recalled: ‘After he crashes, and he crashes every day, he walks back humming a tune.’ Jules was the indispensable genius in Loraine’s aviation drama and the biography gives him a stage-Frenchman role, the ‘fiery little Gascon’, ever ejaculating ‘Dieu de mes pères’ and ‘Parbleu’ and ‘Oh, ces Anglais’. He thought Loraine ‘a lunatic hero’ but admired his courage. In June 1910 Loraine flew two figures of eight and made three landings to earn his licence. He packed up his plane, hired Jules, took on his friend George Smart as flight manager, and in July set off for the Bournemouth air show. To put clear blue sky between actor and airman he flew under the nom de vol of Robert Jones. The Bournemouth show was marred by the first British aviation fatality, the death of Charles Rolls, business partner of Royce. Having seen Rolls in his wrecked aircraft, his face showing ‘nothing but calm content’, Loraine railed at ‘the blind fools who condemn aviation as an idle break-neck hobby, and fail to see . . . the highway of the future’. To demonstrate to such critics that planes were not toys Loraine decided impulsively on a grand gesture. Ignoring other pilots and his mechanic who begged him not to fly, Loraine took off into a thunderstorm and vanished from view. Some time later he landed on a cliff-top golf course, not knowing where he was. A reporter told him he was the first aviator to land in the Isle of Wight, adding that he was near the Lord Tennyson memorial. As if responding to a cue, Loraine promptly quoted lines about ‘pilots of the purple twilight’ from Tennyson’s Locksley Hall. Jules arrived, twirling his moustaches, snapping ‘Imbécile’ at spectators who tried to touch the biplane and delighting them all with his Gallic temper. Hundreds cheered as Loraine lifted off. Rather than take the safer course and pass over Hampshire (‘Hug the coast, mon patron’) he opted to fly over the sea all the way to Bournemouth. ‘Ah, le beau geste,’ remarked Jules. ‘He always pulled the long nose at fear.’ That August Loraine and his team were at the Blackpool aviation carnival, Loraine bursting with ambition to be first to fly across the Irish Sea. The plane, in its packing cases, was lost on the railway but eventually retrieved. Loraine, alias Jones, flew down to the north Wales coast with his ground team following in a car with petrol and spare parts. He landed at Rhos-on-Sea where, he joked, ‘the poetic Welsh temperament’ led women to bring their children to touch him. He took off for Anglesey, lost his way in the sunset haze, and found himself heading for the Isle of Man. Seeing the Calf of Man he realized his mistake, turned south and at last saw Anglesey. A mile from the shore he ran  out of fuel and glided to a farm at Llanfair-yng-Nghornwy. He secured the Farman and eventually reached Holyhead in a cart. At the farm next day Jules, now joined by his brother Emil, prepared a bucket of dope to paint the wing fabric and make it taut. A pig not only drank all the dope but also used the tailplane as a scratching post and smashed it. After repairs Loraine took off and crashed. He leapt clear and calmly stood and lit his pipe. The Védrines brothers dismembered the broken plane to start repairs at which point the farmer presented a bill for £56 5s 0d for damage to his field and hayricks. George Smart noted: ‘I will have to handle this Methodist farmer carefully.’ The aviator’s skies darkened further when two women ‘in high heels’ were seen near the makeshift repair hangar on the farm. ‘Them’s the Frenchies’ Modoms,’ Smart was told. ‘Jules fetched ’em over that time he went to Paris. And a bit of orl right they are . . .’ They were apparently the Védrines brothers’ wives, but to assert authority Loraine and Smart decided to sack Emil. ‘If my brother goes,’ said Jules loftily, ‘I go.’ Luckily, the brothers quarrelled that evening and were brandishing knives at each other when the farmer separated them. Next day Jules declared fidelity to Loraine. ‘L’avion,’ he said, ‘avant tout.’ He repaired the plane and Loraine made ready to take off. As he opened the throttle the undercarriage stuck in the mud and was torn off. Wagons took the pieces to Penrhos near Holyhead and Jules rebuilt the plane for the third time. Bulky in two sweaters, a reindeer-hair jacket and a cork lifebelt, Loraine took off for Dublin and a place in flying history. He almost made it. Engine trouble forced him into the sea at Howth Head and he swam 50 yards to the shore. Two days later he was on the stage in London, opening in The Man from the Sea. He concentrated on the theatre after that, but in August 1914, aged 38, he joined the Royal Flying Corps at Farnborough. His first two flights ended in crashes so he was sent to France to fly as an observer rather than as a pilot. Observers, seated beneath their pilots, threw steel darts or bombs the size of champagne bottles at the Germans. They also fired rifles. Loraine was wounded in November and Shaw, whom he had nominated as his next-of-kin, wrote to him on the importance of being kept in the lowest spirits as laughing was not good for shrapnel in the lung. Loraine returned to action in 1915 as a pilot and captain and won the Military Cross after shooting down a German aircraft. In 1917, a lieutenant-colonel with a DSO, he was undermined by stress and the pain of writing so many letters of condolence to pilots’ families, a bottle of whisky beside him. He became known as a martinet. In the summer of 1918 he was again wounded in action, his left kneecap shattered. Shaw wrote: ‘If the worst comes to the worst I suppose one can play Hamlet with a property leg . . . If you are lame it means a lifetime of Richard III.’ As for aerial combat, Shaw said, ‘the more of you that is artificial the better’. In spite of his wounds Loraine plunged into a triumphant postwar run as Cyrano de Bergerac, although he needed the support of whisky. He married Winifred Strangman in 1921. Shaw signed the marriage register. Loraine never regained his old success and was troubled by heavy drinking and dashed hopes. He was reading for a part when he died in 1935 aged 59. Winifred wrote his biography. Of his money troubles she commented: ‘The overdraft won.’ Loraine left a typescript in which he recalled the wonder of flight, of seeing the Alps beneath his feet, of ‘the battle-line from Arras to Dunkirk flashing with 10,000 guns’; above all of the joy of severing the cord ‘that binds man to his mother-earth’ and soaring ‘into the aerial ocean’. It echoed the words he wrote about his first flight: ‘At last I was flying! I, myself, alone. I looked at the ground and felt like a conqueror. I looked at the sky and wanted more.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Trevor Fishlock 2010


About the contributor

Trevor Fishlock first flew as a boy in a Dragon Rapide biplane and swears the pilot was Biggles.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.