Unlike Chard which calls itself “ The Home of Powered Flight “ pioneering aviation has passed Taunton by. Nevertheless a few episodes of early aviation have touched the town in decades gone by.
The image shows James Beach’s Pioneer Aeroplane Works which was situated in his motor car garage in St. James Steet. The Aeroplane Works were only listed in a directory dating to 1911 so the venture soon ceased. The aeroplane is powered by a version of the Gnome rotary engine introduced in 1908 which revolutionized the development of powered flight. The initial problem being lack of power to weight ratio. The image came from a collection of Beach family photos I was allowed to copy after the death of Eddie Beach and his wife. Jame’s son Eddie Beach was a well known local figure madly keen on motorbikes and on occasion likely to cycle around Taunton on a penny farthing bicycle. In later years the Beach company had a garage in Greenway Road which was taken over by Edwards and Sons in 1927.
On the 29th May 1912 the French aviator Henri Selmet landed his machine near the Quaker burial ground at Halcon Corner. He was on route from South Wales to Chard during The Daily Mail Air Race. Several photos of the landing were taken by the Taunton photographer Henry Montague Cooper. This caused a huge crowd to assemble to witness the event and Salmet, being rather a showman ,delighted the crowd by taking off again and circling a few times before landing again. Recently I acquired a signed postcard of Salmet in his cockpit which was given out at Taunton. No doubt he carried an ample supply in his aircraft. The Somerset County Gazette covered the event stating that “ shepherds neglected their sheep and stonebreakers sat with their hammers to gaze up into the sky “. In 1914 Selmet returned to Somerset but was forced to ditch in the sea off Minehead carrying the son of Henry Van Trump the owner of the St Augustine Street works and sometime mayor of Taunton. Happily, neither Salmet or his passenger were injured.
B.C. “ Benny” Hucks ( the first Englishman to loop the loop ) also landed at Minehead in 1914 in his Blackburn “ Mercury “ aircraft powered by a 50hp Gnome rotary engine. Hucks astounded passengers near Dunster station by racing his plane close to the train. The plane easily outpaced the train. Hucks and the plane reached Taunton at the end of his Minehead visit ironically by train as the weather was too bad for flying. During the First World War things quietened down and the next exciting visit to West Somerset were by three Avro 504 biplanes swooping low over the Dunster marshes on their way to the districts first air pageant. Sir Alan Cobham’s flying circus also appeared in the area two years later.
Taunton remained relatively quiet. There were some pleasure flights from a field off the Hamilton Road. The Taunton and West Somerset Gliding Club established itself in Galmington Fields ( now the Parkfield Road area ) giving flights to the public in 1934. Members included Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton Gault MP and local solicitor C.M.B. Kite. The club had one- seater and two- seater machines and they were towed by a car until they became airborne. The club is now at Dunkeswell where your brave correspondent made his one and only passenger gliding flight and accomplished a solo parachute jump from a powered aircraft from 2,000 ft. Neither are likely to be repeated. The site at Musgrove was earmarked for Taunton’s airport but like many things in the town events overtook the the ideas.
The Second World War saw the odd stray German bomb being dropped in rural areas but one direct hit demolishing a house in Eastleigh Road.
By Nick Chipchase