Deadly risks for early pilots

In the shadow of the church in Annitsford lies the cemetery of St John the Baptist, containing the grave of Lieutenant William Henry Segrave, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the RAF.

Saturday, 3rd February 2018, 13:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 31st January 2018, 13:11 pm

The Northumbria World War One Project has been researching Lt Segrave and has just published his records on its database.

The 31-year-old instructor pilot was not from these parts. He was born in South Africa into a landed Catholic family from County Wicklow, where his father was a retired army major.

In the 1911 census he was still in Ireland, visiting family friends in Cork, but William, like his father, seems to have had a penchant for adventure and we find him before the war as a rubber planter in the Malay Peninsula.

He joined the Malay States Volunteer Rifles in May 1912 and served until January 1915, when he came back to dear old Blighty.

Whether he had some flying experience in the Far East is unclear, but back in England he mastered the ‘old kites’ and was soon teaching others to fly, including the squadron based at Cramlington airfield.

He was on a long haul flight from the south on February 12, 1917, bringing back a new 90hp biplane, a BE2c, when he crashed at the Blue Stoops, near Chesterfield, and died moments later.

Researchers have uncovered reports of his inquest, published in the Derbyshire Times on April 17, 1917.

It appears that he was flying quite low and seemed to be searching for a field. Pilots on long flights would often land in a farmer’s field, usually on the scrounge for food. Whether this was the case with Lt Segrave, or that he had some kind of mechanical trouble, was never determined.

Witnesses reported that it was a clear day, with occasional gusts of wind, which may have been a factor.

Lt. Segrave’s plane clipped a tree and somersaulted twice, before landing nose down with him underneath. He died of a fractured skull.

The Coroner remarked that “although the dangers of flying had very considerably diminished, they were still very great and that this was an example of how unexpected an accident may occur”.

Indeed, there were more pilot deaths during the war in accidents while training than in combat.

The body of Lt Segrave was taken to Chesterfield Station in an oak coffin, draped with the Union flag, and army volunteers from Chesterfield acted as a guard of honour as his body was put aboard the 1.20pm train to Newcastle.

He had been married less than a year to Lily Exell in Marylebone. She never remarried and died in 1971, aged 82.

William’s brother Hugh, also a pilot, was shot down one month before from 7,000ft and emerged with only a few scratches, such are the vagaries of war.

The project welcomes anyone with information about casualties of the Great War from the North Tyneside area, or who wishes to become involved in research. Our website is or call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, North Shields, from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday. Alternatively, contact me at