Samuel Franklin Cody
1867 - 1931
By Jean Roberts
On the afternoon of the 11th August 1913 a funeral procession began its slow journey from the Surrey village of Ash Vale to the nearby Aldershot Military Cemetery. For the first time, a civilian was being buried alongside the officers and soldiers of the British Army. The procession, over a mile in length, was led by the Band and Pipers of the Black Watch Highland Regiment. Behind then came a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery, drawn by six coal-black horses, carrying a coffin draped with the Union Jack. Over one thousand representatives of the British Army, Navy and Royal Flying Corps followed the coffin. There had been no order to do so but each of the military units had chosen to attend to pay their final respects. Many hundreds of floral tributes were carried, one bearing the inscription "In Memory of England’s Greatest Airman" and the route to the cemetery was lined every step of the way by what was estimated at the time to be fifty thousand people. All had come to honour the memory of one who had captured the imagination and earned the love and respect of the British Nation Samuel Franklin Cody.
Who was the American born Samuel Franklin Cody? First and foremost he was an aviator the first man to fly a heavier than air, powered aircraft in Great Britain; he was also a superb and successful kite flyer and designer, a well known theatrical performer and a Wild West showman he was all this and much more. His story begins in Davenport, Iowa and ends in the wreckage of his aircraft in Farnborough, Hampshire and his journey between these two places is a fascinating one.
He was born in 1867, one of five children born to Samuel and Phoebe Cowdery. Very little is known about his teenage years in Iowa, we only have Cody's own stories to go on and as he was very good at embellishing the true facts I will omit these tales! We do know that by the age of twenty one he was employed in a Wild West Show and had changed his name to Cody. Although logical, it is an assumption that this change of name was made only for theatrical reasons. William Frederick Cody, Buffalo Bill, was by this time hugely successful in both America and Europe with his traveling show. Samuel Franklin Cody with his long flowing hair, beard and waxed mustache was often mistaken for his namesake or for a member of his family, a mistake still made today.
Samuel Franklin Cody
In 1890 Cody and his wife arrived in England by which time they were both excellent riders and expert shots. One of their first engagements, early in 1891 was at the Olympia appearing in "The Burlesque of the Wild West." This show was, I believe performed on roller skates and the manager of the show was shortly afterwards sued by the Buffalo Bill Company for using the term "Wild West". The couple also performed at Earl's Court and numerous Music Halls mainly, at this time, in and around London. Cody soon expanded his act to include children, and the mother of these children took over from his wife in the act. This new "Cody and Family" act toured a number of European countries with a very varied programme, the most popular being races on horseback against cyclists, from which Cody invariably emerged the winner.
In about 1897 Cody settled in England and decided to try his hand at writing a series of "Western Melodramas", a form of entertainment which was becoming increasingly popular with the audiences of the day. By far the most popular of Cody's dramas was "The Klondyke Nugget", a five act extravaganza which included in its cast five horses and a donkey! The play successfully toured the country for many years ensuring Cody a regular income.
Exactly how or when Cody became interested in kites is unclear, but by 1899 he was giving
demonstrations of kites during the intervals of his plays. These kites were not the sort we see children playing with in the parks today but huge box kites some being thirteen feet wide. His main interest was in lifting a man into the air with a kite and to this end he produced a train of five or six kites with a basket suspended beneath the ‘carrier kite’ for a passenger. During this period in 1903/4 he set up workshops at both Crystal Palace and Alexandra Palace and set about interesting the Army in using his kites in time of war for signaling and observation.
In 1904 we find Cody in Aldershot, the home of the Royal Engineers, giving demonstrations of his man-lifting kites. So successful were these that he was made the Army's Official Kite Instructor and he exchanged his show business world for a military one. It must have been a strange sight, Cody giving instructions to the soldiers still with his long hair and his waxed mustache and riding to work on his white horse!
The first manned, powered aircraft flight in this country
As a natural progression from kites Cody turned his attention to aeroplanes and after a series of adventures with boats being pulled across the sea by a kite, gliders and airships he designed and built an aircraft. So it was that on the morning of 16th of October 1908 on Farnborough Common, Cody's aeroplane ran across the ground before lifting to an altitude of approximately 35 feet. This flight of 1,390 feet and lasting only 27 seconds was the first manned, powered aircraft flight in this country ensuring Cody a place in aviation history. The War Office then decided, in their wisdom, that there was no future in aeroplanes and Cody was removed from the official Farnborough scene. He now had to work on the development of his machine without the aid of government finance but, with the help of just family and a loyal band of friends, he continued to progress within the limits of his own resources. In the following years successes were achieved records were broken and many trophies were won but there were also many disappointments and a number of crashes.
Cody was killed on the morning of 7th August 1913 piloting his latest machine. During his lifetime he was an extremely popular figure with the British public but his great inventiveness and skills as an aviator were perhaps not fully appreciated by the Establishment of the day. Even though he had become a British subject in 1909 and eventually his long flowing hair and western attire had been replaced by a conventional haircut and suit he was still regarded as the "American Cowboy" turned aviator. He may have embellished his life story with tales of Indian raids and gold rushes etc. but contemporary accounts tell of a kind, considerate, indomitable and courageous man.
Within a year of his death the Great War had begun bringing to an end the Golden Era of Pioneering Aviation, an era whose most colourful character must surely have been Samuel Franklin Cody.
The Editors would like to thank Jean Roberts who is not a member of the group, for the above article which arose from a phone call from Jean asking for information about a house built at an Ideal home Exhibition. During the conversation she mentioned her large collection of S. F. Cody post cards which prompted me to ask for an article, which she has very kindly done.