Silent Voices

The Postmaster and the King

When John William Robinson was born at Gosberton Clough in 1877 few would have imagined he would later form an acquaintance with a future British monarch.  At the age of three, John was living on High Street, Horbling with his grandparents.  This seems to have been a short-term arrangement as by 1891, John was back living with his parents.  His father Charles moved the family to Ordsall in Nottinghamshire where he became an Inn Keeper at the Nags Head.  John at this time was 13 and was a hairdresser’s apprentice.

In 1899, John married Martha Hart Durham and they had a son Charles the following year.  The family settled in Billingborough for a time with John working as a joiner.  Following the birth of a second son Alfred in 1904 the family remained in Billinghborough for another 12 years.

In 1916, John was advised by doctors to reduce his workload and consequently moved to HMS Daedalus (Cranwell) as postmaster.

John & Martha Robinson Image credit – Linden Secker

He soon became acquainted with Prince Albert (later to be King George VI) who was based at Cranwell as a Flight Lieutenant.  In June 1945, John was invited to meet with the King during a visit to the base.  They chatted over old times recalling one winter’s Friday many years before when John and the then Prince funded the civilian staff on camp as the wages train could not reach them from Sleaford because of snow.

John was also acquainted with author T.E. Lawrence who served at Cranwell under the name of AC2 T.E. Shaw until 1926.

On 8 July 1949, the Grantham Journal reported the Golden Wedding celebrations of John and Martha.

Original Post Office Building Image – collection of Mr G Dear

The couple’s oldest son Charles is said to have served for 20 years in the Royal Engineers.  Younger son Alfred (known as Stanley) joined his father at the Post Office after World War 2.  Stanley’s son who was brought up there recalls the premises being mainly constructed from corrugated sheeting and situated in front of the Sergeants’ Mess, near to the West Camp Guardroom.  Stanley retired from the business in 1976.

Post Office Location Image – collection of Mr G Dear

John was buried at Cranwell in September 1955 aged 78 years.


Herbert Tomlin – A Boy’s Wing Entrant

On 10 February 1920, Herbert Tomlin enlisted to be trained at RAF Cranwell’s Boys’ Wing as an Aircraft Apprentice.  A hundred years later, documents, photographs, newspaper clippings and other material collected by Herbert was donated to Cranwell Aviation Heritage Museum (CAHM) by his nephew, Tony Barron.

Cataloguing these items made fascinating reading regarding the life of a young man who joined the RAF in 1920 and who 65 years later was still attending events with former colleagues commemorating their RAF service.

Herbert Tomlin Image – CAHM archive

RAF Cranwell’s Boys’ Wing 

Boys undergoing training at RAF Cranwell enlisted at between 15 and 16½ years of age.  The Boys’ Wing, was set up under the direction of Hugh Trenchard and the ‘Boys’ were referred to as “Trenchard’s Brats”.

Most of Herbert’s photos have handwritten comments on the reverse.  One image is of a group of young men, had no such comment.  Is this an image of the Boy’s Wing? – with young men seated on the ground, Officers seated on the first row and young men in the two rows behind.

Is this Boys’ Wing, Cranwell 1922? Image – CAHM archive

The Officer in centre of the front row bears a striking resemblance to the Officer Commanding Boys’ Wing.

Wing Commander CF Kilner, DSO – OC Boys’ Wing Image – CAHM archive

Training at the Boy’s Wing

The Boys were divided into two Sections, to be trained, beginning with elementary work, and passing out when trade specific training had been completed.

The Boys sat examinations in a number of subjects including: Science, Mathematics, English and Drawing.  The images of examination papers give an idea of the depth of knowledge expected of the ‘Boys’.

Life at the Boy’s Wing

Life at the Boys’ Wing was not all work and no play, as the ‘The Boys’ Wing’ an official style publication including reports and photos of sports and training activities. and ‘Realities and Fancies’ a light hearted publication containing anecdotes of life at Cranwell show.

The Boys also took part in amateur dramatic productions.

Christmas at the Boys’ Wing was a sumptuous affair which included cigarettes with their coffee.

RAF Cranwell in 1922

Herbert’s photo album includes numerous images of RAF Cranwell as at 1922.  Captions beneath the images are as Herbert wrote on the reverse of his photos.

John Farina

On 20 May 1917, 18 year old Alfred John Oswald Farina began his basic training as a Probationary Flying Officer in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

After undertaking a balloon flight at RNAS Wormwood Scrubs Farina was transferred to the Airship Service.  He completed his Balloon course on 4 August, by which time he had accrued 18 hrs 20 min of balloon flying over seven flights, of which 4 hrs were solo.

On 9 August he travelled to RNAS Cranwell to commence his Airship Course. The month comprised ground training.  In September, Farina advanced to the senior class to undergo flying training.  The training day started at 04.30 in the hope of getting in some early morning flying. His first flight was on Tuesday 11 September at 09:45 and was a 25 minute flight on Submarine Scout (SS) 37 with one of the instructors, Flt Lt Plowden, for a circuit of the airfield at 500ft.

SS airship over RFC Waddington – 1917. Image – Courtesy of Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire

On Tuesday 1 October, Farina completed his first solo flight in SS 37. That evening he completed his first night flight.  Flying training then progressed to solo cross country flying and high altitude flights.  All Farina’s flying training seems to have been conducted in either SS 37 or SS 39A.

SS airship schematics. Image – Reproduced by kind permission of Flightglobal

As well as flying training, Farina was instructed in the Lewis gun and basic bomb aiming using Cranwell’s Bombing Tower which was located next to St Peter’s Church.

He was required to do a minimum of fifteen hours flying time in order to obtain his certificate and become a qualified airship pilot. All this training had to be accomplished within three months of the new recruit joining the service. On the 29 November 1917, Farina completed his Airship Command Exam with 19 hrs 21 min of flying and was qualified to fly a Submarine Scout Airship. This made him the first of his course to do so.

Farina was then sent to RNAS Anglesey to undergo further training.


Airships and the William Alvey Old Boy

Charles William Penson was born on 12 January 1898 at Sleaford, Lincolnshire.  He was the eldest of seven children.

Wm Alvey class c1895 Image – Wm Alvey School Collection

On 15 June 1916, Charles joined the Royal Navy as an Officers Steward and between 1916 and 1917 he was stationed at Royal Naval Air Service Training Establishment, Cranwell.  Penson transferred to the newly formed RAF on 1 April 1918 as a Private 2nd Class (Batman) and on 2 April 1918, Charles re-mustered as Aircraftman 3rd Class (Rigger Airship).

By November 1919, he had been promoted twice more to Aircraftman 1st Class.  In May 1920 Charles was posted to RAF Airship Base Howden, East Yorkshire.

On 24 August 1921, the pride of the British Airship fleet, the R38 took off for a test flight with the intended destination of RNAS Pulham in Norfolk.

She was the biggest airship in the world at the time and was 695ft long and a maximum speed of 60 knots.  She carried enough fuel to allow her to travel from Britain to Japan non-stop.  The R38 had recently been sold to the USA for £500,000.

Three test flights had previously been undertaken with only minor issues found.  The R38 took off from Howden, Yorkshire on her final test flight.  On board was a crew of 49 who were mostly RAF personnel but also included US Navy servicemen and civilian scientists.  The US Navy was due to take over the airship after the flight.  One of the RAF contingent was Leading Air Craftsmen (AC1) CW Penson.

R.38 Trial Crew at Howden Image – Wm Alvey School Collection

Less than 36 hours later at 17:37, at Hull the Airship failed amidships.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing creases down the body of the Airship before both ends drooped. This was followed by a fire in the front section and then by an explosion.


Only 4 people survived.  Unfortunately AC1 CW Penson was not among the survivors.  His funeral service took place at St Deny’s, Sleaford.  All of the businesses of Sleaford closed for an hour during the service out of respect, and a large contingent of RAF Cranwell personnel attended the service providing a large floral tribute, a Firing party and Bugle band to the service.

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