'A golden memory unique in history': Unpublished manuscript on N.L. aviation history preserved at MUN

A book covering Newfoundland's place in aviation history couldn't find a publisher 75 years ago, but it's found a home in Memorial University's archives.

Arthur Brown reflected on the first non-stop, transatlantic flight in letters now held at Memorial University

Capt. John Alcock (l), an unidentified chief engineer and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown (r) standing in front of Vickers Vimy at Lester's Field in June 1919. (Elsie Holloway / MUN Coll-232, 3.08)

A book commemorating Newfoundland's place in aviation history, including a foreword from one of the aviators on the first transatlantic flight, was nearly lost to time — but found a home in the Memorial University archives.

Lawyer and civil servant R. H. Tait spent the early 1940s researching, writing and collecting photos that documented Newfoundland's pivotal role in the air race across the Atlantic and nascent aviation industry.

Capt. John Alcock, left, and Lieut. Arthur Whitten Brown stand beside the Vickers Vimy at Lester's Field, June 1919. (The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, A 47-15)

Tait hoped Newfoundland, Air Port of the North Atlantic: The Proving Ground for the Pioneer Transatlantic Flights, 1919-1937 would be published in 1944 to coincide with the silver anniversary of 1919's first non-stop, transatlantic flight by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown.

And who better to write the foreword for his book than the surviving member of that pioneering duo, Brown himself? Tait asked Brown to contribute and after some reluctance, he agreed. 

Unfortunately, Tait's book was never published. But the yellowed pages of a typewritten manuscript and a handful of fascinating letters between the two men — including that foreword — still exist, a century after that historic flight.

Major Robert Holland Tait, M.C., served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment from 1914 to 1919. (The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, VA 36-10.9)

Robert Holland Tait

Robert Holland Tait was born in St. John's in 1891. A Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Trinity College, Oxford, with a bachelor of arts in law in 1913. He then returned to Newfoundland and later completed a bachelor of civil law in Nova Scotia. 

Tait enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. One of the first 500 to go overseas, he fought in the Gallipoli campaign, served in France and Belgium, and received the Military Cross for gallantry. He suffered injuries during service that required several periods of hospitalization. In 1918, he was assigned to regimental headquarters back in St. John's where, when the war ended, he oversaw the discharge of Newfoundland soldiers.

Tait then resumed his legal career, but ill health due to his war wounds led him to immigrate to the U.S. in 1923 — first to Boston, then to New York City, where he was the director of the Newfoundland Government Information Bureau.

Part of that job was to promote Newfoundland as a travel destination. Tait delivered public lectures, started a newspaper for expat Newfoundlanders, and published a narrative poem, The Trail of the Caribou, about the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in World War I.

Postcard of Alcock and Brown's takeoff from Lester’s Field on June 14, 1919. (MUN Coll-232, 3.09)

Letters to Brown

But Tait had another interest. He'd been at Lester's Field that Saturday afternoon on June 14, 1919, to witness Alcock and Brown take off in their modified Vickers Vimy bomber.

To mark the 25th anniversary of that flight, he decided to create a record of all the pioneering flights between Newfoundland and Europe from 1919 to 1937, when a regular commercial transatlantic air service began between Botwood and Foynes, Ireland. 

While in St. John's on business in 1943, Tait researched material and collected photos of the aviators and their aircraft for his book. He included a hand-drawn map and a chart detailing both the successful flights and unsuccessful attempts, about 40 in all. His manuscript comprised 36 pages of text and 73 photos.

Excerpt of letter by R.H. Tait to Arthur Whitten Brown, Feb. 24, 1944. (MUN Coll-232)

Uncertain how to contact Brown directly, on Feb. 24, 1944, Tait wrote him a letter care of the Air Ministry in London.

"It occurred to me that it would be most fitting if you, as the survivor of that famous Alcock-Brown team, would be willing to write a short foreword to the book, perhaps recalling something of that 1919 experience of yours and comparing the flying conditions of that day with those of the present day," wrote Tait. He added that he hoped his request was not an imposition and should Brown decide to comply, he'd appreciate an early reply so he could finish his book.

I do not wish to be churlish, as I owe much in return for the kindness and hospitality of Newfoundland.- Arthur Whitten Brown

The letter found its way to Brown, who was living in Swansea, Wales. On March 27, 1944, he replied and at first did not appear enthusiastic.

"I appreciate your kind request to write a foreword," wrote Brown. "In the present circumstances it is very difficult for me to do this, quite apart from my lack of literary ability, and unless you consider it absolutely necessary I would like to be excused."

Then he relented. "On the other hand, I do not wish to be churlish, as I owe much in return for the kindness and hospitality of Newfoundland." But Brown wanted to see Tait's manuscript first.

On April 13, 1944, Tait excitedly replied. "Your airmail letter … arrived here yesterday — not in 15 hours, 57 minutes as in 1919!" Grateful for the prompt reply, he said he hoped Brown wouldn't think he was being "too insistent" in asking for him to write a foreword. He pressed his case, writing, "We Newfoundlanders do not forget that momentous flight," and enclosed a copy of his manuscript.

When Brown wrote back on May 15, 1944, he congratulated Tait on his book, "which must have entailed a great deal of research on your part."

He also made a correction, asking Tait to change the flight time to 16 hours 12 minutes from takeoff to landing versus 15 hours 57 minutes, the time from coast to coast.

The aviator had one final request for Tait: "Further, may we please appear, if you insist, as unassuming?"

Tait made the changes.

Excerpt of manuscript by R.H. Tait, copyright 1946. (MUN Coll-232)

'Happy days spent in St. John's'

Brown enclosed a foreword with that letter, recalling the many transatlantic flights made in the 25 years that had passed since his and Alcock's own.

"It is sad to think that many valuable pioneers have been lost in keeping open the blazed trail," Brown wrote, "but their example, and the efforts of those who were successful, have turned the trail into a broad highway linking the Old and the New Worlds in a closer association than ever before."

All form a golden memory unique in history which it is my privilege to possess and associate with Newfoundland.- Arthur Whitten Brown

He also wrote about Newfoundland's past and continuing role in aviation and communications, and described the hospitality and help he and Alcock had enjoyed. 

"The happy days spent in St. John's; the good company at the 'Cochrane House'; and the many friends left behind, perhaps never to be met again, yet never forgotten; all form a golden memory unique in history which it is my privilege to possess and associate with Newfoundland."

Brown concluded by writing that a silver cup presented by the people of Newfoundland was among his most prized treasures. "I see it each day," he wrote, "and each day it renews the bond between that historical island and myself."

Excerpt of foreword by Arthur Whitten Brown, 1944. (MUN Coll-232)

Tait wrote back on June 12, 1944, acknowledging receipt of the foreword and promising to send Brown a copy of the book when it was printed — but it never was. He finished his book on Newfoundland's early aviation history but couldn't pull together the money to get it published.

Brown died in 1948, and Tait in 1964.

The Smallwood connection

Tait's manuscript and correspondence with Brown would likely have remained tucked away on a shelf and forgotten or lost if not for Joseph R. Smallwood. 

Smallwood had a personal connection to the historic flight. Just 18 years old in 1919 and a reporter with the Evening Telegram, he reported on a trial flight by Alcock and Brown. On June 14, when the two airmen took off from St. John's, Smallwood was in Harbour Grace writing about the efforts of another team about to make the voyage.

In 1960, Smallwood — now premier of Newfoundland and Labrador — made a public plea for information about the province for a history he was compiling. Tait learned of those efforts and on Dec. 7 of that year, he wrote to the premier about his book project, including the hand-bound manuscript and letters.

"When I read of your recent endeavour to gather material, the thought struck me that, perhaps, my Flight Book typescript might advantage you in some way," wrote Tait.

"So, I am taking the liberty of asking you to accept it with my compliments for such use as you may see fit to make of the material."

The R.H. Tait manuscript, photos and correspondence. (Christine Davies/CBC)

According to Linda White, archivist with Archives and Special Collections at Memorial University's Queen Elizabeth II LIbrary, there's no indication Smallwood ever used any of Tait's material. 

When Smallwood died in 1991, the manuscript and correspondence were included in a gift the university subsequently received from his estate.

The photos Tait taped onto pages in his book were carefully removed, and they, along with the hand-typed pages, are protected by individual Mylar sleeves in file folders kept in an archives storage box. Tait's letters, written on onion skin paper, and Brown's replies, on short, personalized sheets of stationery, are stored inside another file folder. 

The gem inside is that foreword, written 75 years ago for a book that was never published, by one of two men who a century ago made a flight into history.

"My goodwill goes out to Newfoundland and its People," Brown wrote, "with every hope for a prosperous and peaceful future as one of the centres of the world's Air Highways."

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Christine Davies has worked with CBCNL for more than 30 years and is currently an Associate Producer in the St. John's bureau.