From the Archives: 'Flying Fr Vaughan'

POST BY RSomerset

Black and white photograph of Fr Bernard Vaughan wearing a long coat and top hat

100 years ago in April 1915 Fr Bernard Vaughan SJ spent several days at Farnborough with Lord Kitchener’s new army at the conclusion of which he ascended in a military biplane. Letters and Notices reported on this event in July 1915 (L&N,33,189-191), extracts of which are included here:

..It would be difficult to express the fine impression Fr Vaughan’s visit has created among the men, Protestant as well as Catholics. They were proud to see him flying like an airman and riding like a cavalryman, and talking to them like one who not only knew soldiers, but loved them….

Fr Vaughan said [of ascending in a biplane], "What is good enough for our gallant airmen is good enough for me-or any other man. I wanted to know something of what our fliers experience, and as the machines are made now there is not much danger. If you went through the aircraft factory and saw the scrupulously careful manner in which every little bit of the machine is made and fitted together, and how thoroughly all the parts are tested, you would not be afraid to make a voyage in any of the military aeroplanes…Except in the first few minutes of the ascent, when all my attention was devoted to holding on like grim death, I was very comfortable…It was a biplane that carried us, and I sat in front of the pilot, well protected from the cold-and it was cold-by a leather jacket….It was so clear (panorama) that every object on the earth could be distinctly made out, and I felt that I could drop a bomb on any spot below to an inch. As we travelled sometimes at the rate of seventy-five miles an hour, that might have been, perhaps, rather difficult….There is, I found, a curious fascination about flying-a feeling of freedom and exhilaration-and when I reached the ground I wanted to go up again at once."

Among Vaughan’s personal papers there is a volume of press cuttings for 1909-1916 (99/8/14), and there is a clipping from The Advocate in 1915 with an article entitled ‘Flying Fr Vaughan’, in which is written:

…On Saturday morning, Fr Vaughan celebrated Mass at Aldershot, and afterwards ascended in a military biplane to a height of 4000 feet thus achieving a record as the first priest to go on an aerial excursion. He thus described his sensations while whirling through the air to a journalistic interviewer:- “Not bad for an old man of sixty-nine,” he said, “ to risk a journey to the clouds! It was my first flight towards heaven, but (with a twinkle in the eye) I am hoping it won’t be the last.”

Another remarkable clipping in this volume (99/8/14) of particular interest during the centenary anniversary of WWI is taken from The Daily Telegraph dated 29 June 1914 and relates the tribute paid by Vaughan to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie after their assassination the previous day. The clipping reads:

Father Bernard Vaughan SJ who was preaching yesterday evening at the Westminster Cathedral, was informed by a Press representative of the tragedy, after he had left the pulpit. Referring to the late Archduke and his wife, the eminent Jesuit said: ‘I remember that when last they were on a visit to England how I was struck with their extraordinary goodness and piety. On the morning after they had been at Windsor attending a function late at night, they were up early and attended mass and received Holy Communion at Farm-Street.