THE EXTRAORDINARY VICAR WHO BUILT A FLYING MACHINE
IT must have been with a sense of anticipation that the folk of the North Westmorland parish of Crosby Ravensworth welcomed their new vicar, the Rev. Sidney Swann, at his institution and induction in St. Lawrence’s Church just over a century ago, on 14th June, 1905.
Cambridge-educated Mr. Swann came with a considerable reputation as an all-round sportsman and participant in some impressive, if eccentric, feats of cycling endurance. He was 44, but still full of adventurous energy that was to see him turn his attention to aviation and the construction at the vicarage of an aircraft in which he hoped to win a £10,000 prize offered by a national newspaper for the first flight between London and Manchester.
Mr. Swann was probably the most colourful of all the clergymen who have served the parish which includes the townships of Crosby Ravensworth, Maulds Meaburn and Reagill, and he is recalled in a newly-published book by local man David Risk, who is a founder member of Crosby Ravensworth Local History Society and member of the parochial church council.
Mr. Risk, retired principal lecturer in mathematics in the School of Computing, Staffordshire University, spent three years researching careers, family and any published material on the vicars and curates of the parish over 441 years. The work took him to Lambeth Palace Library and Record Offices in Cambridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Isle of Man and many churches.
The result, Clergy of Crosby Ravensworth 1564-2005, is a directory starting with the incumbency during the reign of Elizabeth I of the Rev. Roland Thwaite who was later thrown out by the diocese for failing to renounce sufficiently his Roman Catholicism.
The earliest known vicar of Crosby Ravensworth was Alexander son of Roger in 1160, but it is only from 1564 that a complete listing of the vicars can be made with any confidence.
This book is a neatly set out work of historical detail, leavened by items of interest about many of the clergymen, providing fascinating insights to their lives. Among the most interesting entries are those for Sidney Swann (1905-1912), George Frederick Weston (l848-l887), whose life was spent rebuilding and enlarging St. Lawrence’s Church at a total cost of £8,000, and Edward Carus Wilson (1836-1848), who taught the Bronte sisters whilst a curate at Tunstall and a teacher at Cowan Bridge.
Sidney Swann was more than merely interesting. Indeed he would not have been out of place as a Boys’ Own sporting hero. Son of a Marines officer and Crimea veteran, he was a champion rower at Cambridge for whom he was stroke in three Oxford and Cambridge boat races. After ordination and a couple of curacies, he went as a missionary to Japan where he won most of the sporting activities he took part in rowing, hurdling, cycling, running, pole jumping, weight and hammer.
Swann came to Cumberland in 1897 to be vicar of Blackford and created headlines by cycling 250 miles of rough roads from Carlisle to Inverness in less than 24 hours. He also rode from Land’s End to John O’Groats and was reputed to have been the first person to cycle round Syria!
David Risk records that in September, 1902, when vicar of St. Aidan’s, Carlisle, and at the age of 40 and weighing 14 stones, Swann undertook another extraordinary cycling marathon, the 301 miles from Carlisle to Euston railway station, London, on a Dursley Pederson roadster. He left Carlisle at midnight intending to catch the next day’s midnight express back home from Euston, which he missed by just three minutes. His only sustenance on the journey was a pound of raw sausages.
Following his move to Crosby Ravensworth he became involved in a number of projects, one of which was the design and construction of a stone-cutting machine for stonemasons Parkin & Sons. He also built a timber cross-braced box girder footbridge over the Eden near Crackenthorpe Hall for Lady Valda Machell. It lasted until March, l968, when it was carried away by the floods which also destroyed the Jubilee Bridge at Appleby and the stone bridge at Langwathby.
Then Swann turned his attention to aviation, motivated by an offer of £1,000 by the Daily Mail for the first British circular flight of one mile. Before the 40hp engined monoplane he designed was ready somebody else claimed the prize, so Swann decided to compete for £1,000 offered by the jam millionaire Sir William Hartley for the first engined flight between Liverpool and Manchester. Unfortunately he was unable to get his machine airborne through lack of engine power.
A new prize of £10,000 was announced by the Daily Mail for the first flight between London and Manchester and this time Swann decided on a bi-plane design, powered by the same engine, and constructed by himself in the coach house at his vicarage. The mainplanes were moved into the drawing and dining rooms to be covered with fabric by two seamstresses.
A suitable flying field of 40 acres was found near Meaburn Hall and for a hanger Swann borrowed a marquee that the Crosby Ravensworth agricultural and horticultural show committee had recently purchased. However, he was again plagued by poor engine power and the only time he got airborne was for about 30 yards before falling back and killing a sheep.
David Risk records that although this ended Swann’s interest in flying, possibly through lack of further funds, his record-breaking attempts were not over. In September, 1911, he rowed a skiff across the English Channel in 3hr 5min, a new record that stood until 1954.
Swann saw active service in the First World War as an ambulance driver and in 1917, at the age of 55, he beat Lieutenant Muller, of the Danish Army, in a contest in which they cycled, walked, ran, paddled, rowed and swam six consecutive half miles.
Swann was later vicar of Morland and his final living was at Lindfield, in the diocese of Chichester, where his story had a sad ending. He became increasingly eccentric, had to be straitjacketed on one occasion and was narrowly prevented from doing away with his wife, Lady Bagot, with a large cooking knife. He died, aged 80, of a heart attack following a fracture of the thigh caused by falling off his bicycle.
Clergy of Crosby Ravensworth, 1564-2005, is available by post from David Risk, Brookside, Crosby Ravensworth, Penrith CA10 3JP (tel. 01931 715324) for £7.50 plus £1 p&p, or from Bluebell Bookshop, Penrith.
It is David Risk’s second book since he and his wife, Eileen, a former primary headteacher and secretary until recently of the local history society, came to live at Crosby Ravensworth in 1998. In 2002, he published a book on local worthy Lancelot Addison, born in Maulds Meaburn The Life and Times of Lancelot Addison, 1632-1703, Dean of Lichfield.