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AT LEE

AlanTrevelyan Lee - Founder Member of the “Derby Wireless Club” 

By Dennis R Hill  (2013)

 

Introduction

I was 8 years old when, in 1942, I was evacuated from London and was billeted at Etwall. The house was called "Little Croft" on the right in Church Lane leading up to a cricket ground. The lady of the house - as my memory had it - was “Mrs Lee”. The man of the house, I remember being told, was away at war in the RAF. A model railway track ran around the garden of the house.
 
I returned to London in 1943. Since then I have always had a firm memory of an account, given to me by Mrs Lee, that “Wing Commander Trevelyan-Lee” had had some involvement in the Alcock and Brown attempt to make the first flight across the Atlantic”. I assumed that she was referring to her husband. But was my memory correct?
 

My Search for the Facts

Assuming that ‘Trevelyan-Lee’ was a hyphenated surname, a search on the internet was without success, as was ‘Trevelyan Lee’. Then I just tried ‘Lee’, but got so many ‘hits’ that I was about to give up. However, at that point, one ‘hit’ caught my eye, purely due to the fact that “Derby” appeared in the pre-amble. The site was that of the Derby and District Amateur Radio Society (DADARS). But it was not obvious why that had come up under a search for ‘Lee’. However, the date of its founding - 1911, spurred me on. So I decided to read the History Section. The following is what I found:
 
It is an established fact that the first Wireless Club in the country was formed in Derby during the year 1911." Our local model engineering enthusiasts were experimenting with the new science of wireless. In the Spring of 1911, Professor G. P. Bailey gave a lecture in the Derby Guildhall, entitled "Scientific Progress in Our Time" and demonstrated the ringing of bells and lighting of lamps with wireless waves. This prompted the local experimenters to form a group and, with the guidance of Mr. S. Grimwood - Taylor and Mr. Alan Trevelyan Lee, the Derby Wireless Club was founded.
 
It seemed that I may have found a reference to the person I sought. But ‘Alan’ as the first name did not chime. So I read on: 1913:  On May 7th there was a column in the "Daily News & Leader" devoted to the Derby Wireless Men's Club. In the July 9th issue of this same paper, under the heading "Aerial Music," reference was made to the Club and Mr. Lee's cigar box receiver. AT LEE 2
 
1914: During the war years, members put their knowledge to good use in one or other of the Services. 1921: This was the year of the transatlantic tests on the short waves, in which several members co-operated. Meetings were now being held alternately at the Technical College and Mr. A. T. Lee's residence at The Court, Alvaston, Derby.
 
1937: Visits during the summer months were most popular and included .... Mr. Lee's model railway at, Etwall. The mention of “Mr. Lee's model railway at Etwall” was proof positive that I had found the right person.
 
At this point, in July 2012, I made contact with the Derby and District Amateur Radio Society and Martin Shardlow kindly responded. He sent me a copy of a pass under the name “LEE Alan Trevelyan. Description: Flight Lieut. Unit: Royal Air Force. Height: 5'-4', Colour of Eyes: Blue, Colour of Hair: Grey”.
 
It not only showed his signature but carried a photograph of him in uniform with an Air Crew Observer Wing. Perhaps I had seen a photograph of him when staying at his home, but I do not recollect that. So it was a joy to see, at last, a photograph of him. The pass seems to be dated 9/7/41 and bore a note ‘107 M.U.’. From my RAF service days, I recognised “M U” as Maintenance Unit. Indeed No 107 Maintenance Unit was formed at RAF Kasfareet, Egypt, in the early days of the Second World War. This is where A T Lee seems to have been serving whilst I was resident in his home at Etwall. However, that was the last mention of Alan Lee in the history of the Society. There had been no reference to any involvement of his in an Atlantic crossing by air.
 

Attempts to cross the Atlantic by an Aeroplane 

The Daily Mail had offered a prize for the first flight across the Atlantic. But the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 put a stop to these plans. Following the Armistice on 11th November, 1918, the competition was re-opened. Thomas Sopwith, the head of the Sopwith Aviation Company, decided to build an aircraft to compete for the prize.
 

The First Attempt at an Aerial Crossing of the Atlantic

The first attempt was planned by the Sopwith Aviation Company, based at Kingston-upon-Thames. In February 1919 Major Morgan RNFS was in Newfoundland to select a place from which to take off. The New York Times article of 22nd March 1919, headed 'Plans Flight in April’, gave details of a Sopwith plane which would start from Newfoundland and mentioned:
March 1919, headed
 
“Major Morgan RNFS , in St Johns, Newfoundland in Feb 1919, to select place to fly from, returned to England in February and was due to be back in March with a machine - to fly in April. Captain Fenn, Sopwith Aviation Co representative, Kingston-on-Thames, in NF, has selected Mount Pearl, St Johns as the starting point. Harry Hawker, pilot, and Commander Mackenzie Grieve, navigator and a Sopwith machine, left England on Monday and will fly in mid April. There is reference to another plane flown by Hawker "installed with a powerful wireless apparatus”. The reference to wireless apparatus intrigued me, bearing in mind A T Lee’s expertise in that field.
 
The aircraft, named the Sopwith Atlantic, was completed early in 1919 and was dismantled and dispatched to Newfoundland aboard a ship, arriving on 28th March, 1919. The aircraft was soon re-assembled. However the weather was poor, with the chosen airstrip at St John's snowbound and, despite the fact that a competing Martinsyde aircraft had also arrived in Newfoundland, the Sopwith crew, Australian pilot Harry Hawker and navigator Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve, could not make the attempt for several weeks.
  AT Lee 3
They finally took off from St John's on 18th May 1919. During the night, however, the aircraft's engine started to overheat, possibly because of a blocked filter in the cooling system. After making several attempts to clear the blockage, with the engine still overheating and bad weather ahead, they turned south towards the shipping lanes and, on encountering the Danish steamer SS Mary, ditched in the Atlantic, They were rescued 750 miles from Ireland.

A Second Attempt

However, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown were to make a later attempt in a modified Vickers Vimy IV aircraft the same year. Alan Trevelyan Lee was born on the 3rd Quarter of 1892 in St Helens, Lancashire. In March 1919 he would have been of the age of 26. Could he have been involved with such an attempt?
 

So to Canadian Passengers Shipping Records

According to ‘Canadian Passengers Lists 1865-1935', aboard the 'Celtic', White Star Line, was a person by the name of Lee, Alan Trevelyan, travelling from Liverpool to St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. His age was given as 26, the country of birth England, and occupation Engineer. The date of arrival was 19th March,1919! This was shortly before the Sopwith aircraft arrived, which was expected to fly from St Johns.
 
From the same source, the Passenger List of the ship named ‘Corsica’, which had departed from ‘Liverpool’ on the 4th June 1919, gives among those who had 'Embarked’ at St John’s, Newfoundland a passenger by the name ‘A T Lee, single, aged 26, Country of Birth England, from Derby, Engineer. There is a mystery about this record. Should it have read ‘Disembarked at St John’s, Newfoundland”, not “Embarked”? The manifest also stated that Lee had been to Canada before. So Lee must have returned to England sometime between 19th March and 3rd of June 1919! This could have been soon after the failure of the Sopwith’s attempt to across the Atlantic on May 19th.
 
Also on the manifest are three other engineers: ‘Fenn, Montagu’, aged ‘31'; ‘Candler, S T’, aged 24; and ‘Mahl, John’. (A Captain Fenn had been mentioned in the New York Times article of 22nd March, 1919, and described as a Sopwith Aviation Company representative.)
                                                                                                                                                                      
However, according to the ‘UK Incoming Passenger Lists (1878-1960)’, on the “Empress of Britain”, arriving at Liverpool on 20th of June 1919, were “Fenn, Montagu Henry, Sopwith Aviation Co, Kingston-on-Tames, Engineer, aged 31"; “Candler, Stephen Thomas, 34 Alexandra Road, Kingston-on-Tames, Engineer, aged 24"; and “Lee, Alan Trevelyan”, address Sopwith Aviation Co, Kingston-on-Tames, Engineer, aged 26".
 
So Alan Trevelyan Lee was undoubtedly associated with the Sopwith’s unsuccessful attempt to be first across the Atlantic. Perhaps Alan Lee’s was involved with respect to the fitting of a radio in their aircraft. But my memory only had him involved with the Alcock and Brown attempt. But, this led to the question as to why did Lee and Fenn of Sopwith; and Candler (probably, by his home address, also of Sopwith) go to Newfoundland on June 4th?
  
Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown flew from St. John's to Clifden, Ireland in a modified Vickers Vimy IV aircraft. They had made the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic, taking off from Lester's Field, near St. Johns, Newfoundland on June 14th, 1919, and landing on June 15th, 1919, in Ireland. Designed originally as a heavy bomber to attack Germany and constructed mainly of wood covered by a layer of fabric, the aeroplane was powered by two Rolls Royce Eagle engines and propellers. The time for the crossing was sixteen hours, twenty-seven minutes.

Fenn, Candler and Alan Trevelyan Lee had left England for St Johns on the 4th of June and arrived back in England on 20th June. So they all appear to have also been involved in this attempt too, their presence in Canada spanning the date of the successful attempt. I have found no other evidence to confirm of what I was told when at Etwall. The above is as near to primary evidence that I can get. But, it is almost certain that Alan Trevelyan Lee was involved in the Alcock and Brown successful flight.
 
The pilot, Alcock (1892-1919) and navigator, Brown (1886-1948) were knighted by King George V on their return. It is surely time that DADARS recognises that one of its early members, namely Alan Trevelyan Lee, was a more illustrious person than even given in their historical record.
 

The Lee Family

The lady I knew at Etwall was, I now know, Mrs Edith Maria K Lee, Alan Trevelyan Lee’s mother. She died in 1959 at the age of 92. So, when I was living at her house in 1942, she was around 75 years old. The younger relative, who regularly visited, and stayed for a few days, must have been Alan’s sister, Erica. She is mentioned in the history of DADARS under the year 1922. In 1943 she would have been about 44 years old.
 
From a report in The Derby Evening Telegraph, dated 20th December, 1941, I recently learnt that Edith’s husband, George Trevelyan Lee, had died the day before, at the age of 75. So this was shortly before I was to live in their home. It was reported that he had been “the first to hold the Town Clerkship of Derby as a whole-time appointment” and that he was also “a recognised authority on railway assessment”. So was he the instigator of the model railway that Alan demonstrated to members of DADARS in 1937? In the 1940s, I was only able to look at the engines and trucks locked in the engine shed. At least I was able to operate the points and signals. 
 
A search of RAF records did not bring up a ‘Wing Commander’ A T Lee, so my memory on rank may be wrong there. After the war he qualified as a medical radiographer and became the Superintendent Radiographer at Derby Royal Infirmary. Alan Trevelyan Lee died on 11th June 1965 in Oulton Broad, Suffolk.
 

On a Personal Note

Strangely, my career followed almost the same course as Alan’s. Soon after the war, I was called up into the Royal Air Force and, after technical training on Radar, saw active service in the Malayan Campaign against communist terrorists. After my military service, I qualified as a Medical Physicist, specialising in medical imaging from 1956 to 1997. One of my roles was to teach student radiographers how X-ray systems worked. Thus our careers overlapped in both nature and time. I worked in many hospitals, but not in Derby. So my deepest regret is that I did not have cause to visit his hospital and, leaving Etwall in 1943, did not visit Little Croft again until after Alan had died.
 
DRH 2013