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The Lure of the Skies

For some of Hong Kong’s more mechanically-minded policemen, the war presented an opportunity to work with that newest of technologies, the flying machine. The first powered flight in Hong Kong had taken place just a few years earlier, in March 1911. (For more on this, see The Industrial History of Hong Kong Group's excellent website.)

Constable brothers James and Robert Edwards and Lance Sergeant Frederick James Singleton left Hong Kong with the second Police contingent in November 1915, intent on joining the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor of the RAF. A few months later they were joined by PC Peter Boyd Gardner, who, being home on leave, had enlisted in Edinburgh, stating his desire to serve in the RFC. The Edwards and Singleton had all joined the Met Police before transferring to Hong Kong. Robert, then an electrician’s assistant, had signed up for the London force in September 1912, persuading his older brother, engineer fitter James, to join him a month later. However, James stayed only a few weeks before resigning. Robert heard of the Hong Kong opening for policemen at the end of 1913 and made a successful application to join. Somehow he persuaded both his brother to apply and the authorities to permit the application, and Robert and James sailed for the colony in December 1913. After a short period in the Middlesex Regiment, Frederick Singleton had followed his constable father in to the Met. He, too, saw the ‘Hong Kong call’ posted up in his police station in Marylebone, central London. He sailed just four days after the taking of the 1911 census. On Census Night he had been at home, in the Old Kent Road, London, with his parents. Their only surviving child, his father had now retired from the police. One can imagine the pride with which Joseph filled in the form, recording his son’s occupation as ‘Police Constable, Hong Kong’ and his employer as the ‘Colonial Government’.

At the beginning of 1916 the RFC was in a parlous state, with a command that reckoned that the answer to the vastly superior machines of the German air fleet was to send out ever greater numbers of Britain’s obsolete and clumsy planes. Aircraft and crew were lost every day. Meanwhile, the range of missions they undertook expanded to include ground support, reconnaissance, attack and strategic bombing as Germany launched its aerial assault on England. It was not until mid-1917 that planes such as the Bristol Fighter and the Sopwith Camel could turn the tide of losses and give the airmen a fighting chance.

Armstrong Whitworth FK3

Peter Gardner was a man with a plan. The son of a Midlothian policeman, he had done well at school and gained a bursary that enabled him to study engineering at Heriot Watt College and Edinburgh University during his apprenticeship at a colliery. This completed in 1911, he felt that ten years or so in the Hong Kong Police would stand him in good stead. There he had made use of his skills as an engine driver in the Fire Brigade (then a department of the Police) as well as enjoying athletic success on the football field. His ambition was to fly, and when on his first leave he enlisted and joined the RFC in May 1916. Five months later he had been appointed as 1st class Air Mechanic to the 59th Squadron based near Swaffham, Norfolk, where his skill with the fragile craft was soon recognised by his colleagues. On 4th December he was flying with pilot 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Donnell in an Armstrong Whitworth FK3, a training two-seater biplane, returning to base from sorting out a damaged aircraft.They crashed on landing back at Swaffham. The pilot died instantly and Peter was extensively injured and taken to hospital, where he died two days later. An enquiry failed to establish the cause of the crash, but it was assumed that “it was due to the pilot stalling the machine on landing with engine trouble.”

James Edwards has eluded discovery in the war records: he survived the conflict and returned to Hong Kong. But his heart was in machines and mechanics, not in policing, so he finished his five year term and resumed civilian engineering life in the early 1920s. Rather more is known about his brother. Both men joined at Farnborough, where they had plenty of aeroplanes to work on, alongside completing their basic training. Soon Robert was promoted to 1st airman and then made up to a full corporal on 1st July 1916 and appointed to 48th squadron.

On 30th April, Corporal 17812 Edwards was flying, as a gunner/observer, on an operation that was likely part of the Battle of Arras, when he was shot down and killed. Any more detailed information, however, has been lost.

Operation record books exist for many of the WW1 Squadrons and I was pleased to find some for the 48th. However, those for the first half of 1917 were absent. A note attached to one explained that, in 1989, various of these records were missing. An investigation led to the prosecution of a National Archives reader, who was sentenced with theft an criminal damage. Unfortunately not all the records stolen were recovered. It is rare in researches that one finds a gap so explained.

Frederick Singleton wrote to his friends in Hong Kong a month after arriving at Farnborough, telling how they (the brothers Edwards and himself) had been promoted to corporals and how the air station was a hive of activity. It was not uncommon, he said, to see 20 or 30 machines in the air at any one time. The Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough was still being used as the Acceptance Station, receiving all the new machines as they came from their various manufacturers. Here they had to be put together, checked and flight tested before being delivered to the various squadrons.

Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough in 1915, (IWM, non-copyright)

Frederick was promoted again to Sergeant Mechanic at the beginning of 1917 and had also qualified as a driver. He was still at Farnborough when he married Maud Boulton on 23rd March that year, but the couple were soon posted north. The volume of work at the Hampshire base now exceeded its capacity, and various Aircraft Acceptance Parks were opened throughout the country. Frederick and Maud moved to Renfrew, (the site now occupied by Glasgow Airport) where he worked at No. 6 AAP. Having come through the war years without injury, fate played a cruel trick on Frederick. The Spanish flu was taking hold throughout Britain, and nine days before the Armistice, Sgt Singleton died in No. 3 Scottish General (Military) Hospital in Glasgow.


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