Alcock and Brown – the Swansea connection

Family History with Charles Wilson-Watkins

I would like to congratulate Lesley and Simon on reaching the 100th edition of the Bay Magazine. I tried to tie in a centenary anniversary for this issue, but all the major anniversaries have all passed – or have they?

The answer lies with a past resident of Belgrave Court, Uplands. This resident was Scottish born, Arthur Whitten Brown, who along with John Alcock made the first non-stop transatlantic flight during 14-15 June 1919.

What do we know of Brown at the time of the flight? He was born in 1886, in Glasgow, the only son of American parents, Arthur G. and Emma W. Brown. He took both his mother’s maiden name, along with his father’s surname. His father an engineer, came to Scotland to establish a factory in Clydeside, the family then moved to Lancashire. At the time of the First World War, Brown, served with the Manchester Regiment, he was then seconded to the Royal Flying Corps. During 1915, he was shot down over France, and was a POW, only to be repatriated in September 1917.

After the war, Brown was employed in the Ministry of Munitions; whilst there, he married Marguerite Kathleen Kennedy. He was approach-ed by the firm Vickers, who asked him if he would be navigator of a proposed transatlantic flight, the chosen pilot was John Alcock.

Back in 1913, the Daily Mail, offered a prize for £10,000 to “the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours”

During the First World War, this reward was suspended and reopened in 1918. By 1919, several teams had entered the competition, including the Handley Page team, who were in the final stages of testing when Alcock and Brown arrived at St. John’s, Newfound-land. On the 14th June, the Vickers team assembled their plane, a modified Vickers Vimy bomber powered by two 360hp Rolls-Royce engines, and took off at around 1.45pm.

The flight was not an easy one; at 5.00pm they entered dense fog, where Brown wasn’t able to navigate and use his sextant. At 5.20pm their electrical generator failed. On 15 June at 12.15am Brown glimpsed the stars and used his sextant to put them back on course. Finally, they flew into a large snowstorm at 3.00am, causing the instruments to ice up. The plane crash-landed at Derrygilmlagh Bog, near Clifden, County Galway, Ireland – the flight had taken 16 hours 12 minutes.

This flight was the first time that any letters had been posted and travelled via airmail. After the flight, both men were treated as heroes, not only winning the £10,000 (£558,417 in 2019), they received 2,000 guineas from the Ardath Tobacco Company, and £1,000 from Lawrence R. Phillips for being the first British subjects to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Both men were knighted by King George V. Sadly John Alcock was killed during December 1919, whilst performing at the Paris Air show.

Brown was later employed by Metropolitan-Vickers, and by 1923 he was appointed as chief representative in the Swansea area; this is where the Swansea connection lies.

During the Second World War, Brown now Lieutenant-Colonel served with the Home Guard but resigned his commission and re-joined the Royal Air Force as a Pilot Officer working in the RAF Training Command, dealing with navigation. During the course of the conflict, Brown’s only son, Flight-Lieutenant Arthur, who served in the 605 RAF Squadron, was killed on the night of 5/6 June 1944. He is buried along with 3 other men at Hoorn General Cemetery, Netherlands.

Brown’s health deteriorated during latter years of the war, his duties after the war at Metropolitan-Vickers at the Wind Street office were restricted. Sadly, in October 1948, Brown aged 62 died in his sleep from an accidental overdose of the barbiturate Veronal, Brown was buried at Tylers Green, Buckinghamshire.

1920, Brown wrote a book entitled “Flying the Atlantic in Sixteen Hours”. 1954 saw the erection of the memorial statue of both men at Heathrow Airport. The Vickers Vimy was rebuilt by Vickers and is now housed at the Science Museum, London. There is a commemorative plaque at his Swansea residency at Belgrave Court in Uplands.

In 1968, the Royal Mail produced stamps to immortalise Alcock and Brown.

I should like to point out, that our Arthur Brown isn’t the same as the Canadian Arthur Brown, who shot down Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”.

This July marks the 50th anniversary of Swansea being granted its city status, but also during that year, Swansea born Mair Leonard, swam the English Channel in 19 hours 45 minutes. Her other achievements include swimming Lake Windermere. Bay was contacted by Mr Philip Thomas, who is trying to find and locate the missing plaque to Mair Leonard, which was located at Swansea Swimming Baths, St. Helens.

Can you help?



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