‘Edward Wakefield (standing with pipe), Herbert Stanley Adams (pilot) seated'

Pre - Waterbird
First Flight
Post - Waterbird
Edward Wakefield


"...and once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you long to return." Leonardo da Vinci 

The Lake District has a remarkably selective memory when it comes to commemorating its heroes. The most revered are those who celebrate its undoubted beauty, for example William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and Alfred Wainwright, with Beatrix Potter sitting close by.

However, the Lake District has a proud history of industry and enterprise that demands recognition, none more so than the exploits of Captain Edward William Wakefield in the early years of the Twentieth Century.

In the early morning of 25 November 1911 a hydro-aeroplane called "Waterbird" took off from the waters of Windermere, flew for a short time, and alighted safely. Herbert Stanley Adams was the pilot on this historic occasion, though the whole enterprise had been the brainchild of barrister landowner E W Wakefield of Kendal. This was one of the very first successful flights from water in the world, and is now recognised as the first successful complete flight from water, and safely back again, in Britain.

The flight is all the more admirable because when Wakefield embarked on his project in 1909 he did so whilst flying in the face of accepted wisdom; powered flight was not thought possible from water. Drawing in part on the skills of a local boat builder he was to prove the doubters wrong.

Perhaps the achievements of Wakefield, and his pilot Adams, would have survived much more prominently in the folk memory of the area were it not for his dispute with a certain Beatrix Potter and Canon Rawnsley, and their supporters. The issues that divided these three equally strong willed personalities are still very much alive today, and the relationship between nature and machine has always been uneasy, especially in the Lake District.

We can, however, begin the process that will surely see Edward Wakefield take his rightful place in the Lake District "Hall of Fame".

As if the rediscovery of archive material relating to E W Wakefield and his flying exploits were not exciting enough, a further trove of recently discovered personal letters and documents offer an invaluable insight into a remarkable man of his time, and one who has much to say to today's world.

Trevor Avery & Rosemary Smith


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Captain Edward William Wakefield was among the spectators at an aviation meeting in Blackpool in October 1909.  Having been fascinated by constructing model aeroplanes as a child, his passion for flight was reignited at this meeting.

Having witnessed crashes at Blackpool, Wakefield developed his idea that flying could be safer by taking off and alighting on water.  This idea was further reinforced through the death of Charles Stewart Rolls in July 1910, the first British pilot to lose his life in a powered aircraft.

In early 1910 Wakefield began to make preparations for his extraordinary project, which was to have a successful hydro-aeroplane.  His land in the Lake District included an area known as the Hill of Oaks that stood on the shores of Windermere.  Trees were cleared and a road constructed that zig-zagged down to the Lake where his hangar was to be sited.

Whilst the Hill of Oaks was being prepared, Wakefield visited France & southern England to research the practicalities of combining aeroplanes with floats.

By the autumn of 1910 Wakefield placed an advertisement in Flight magazine for a second-hand Bleriot aeroplane and an aero engine in good condition.  Amongst those who replied was A.V. Roe & Company of Brownsfield Mills, Manchester.

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The original negotiations between Wakefield & Roe were superseded by the news that an American by the name of Glenn Curtiss had made a successful flight from water in California.  Wakefield quickly judged that the American’s aircraft was the first really practical hydro aeroplane and so it was decided between Wakefield and the Roes that he should pay them to build a version of the Curtiss aeroplane, complete with a supplied Gnome engine.

The Curtiss Biplane that Wakefield ordered from the Roe Company was taken to the Brooklands test site in May and was ready to fly by the end of June 1911.

The adapted Curtiss aeroplane was ready to return to Windermere where floats would be fitted and experiments on water would begin.  It was at this point that Wakefield met with an able and willing young pilot who was prepared to come up to Cumbria and work with him on his project.  Herbert Stanley Adams was the pilot who played a key role in the success of Waterbird.

A local company, Borwicks, delivered a completed float in August 1911.  The float was based on the design for the float used on the Curtiss plane but adapted taking account of the results of Wakefield’s earlier experiments.  In addition to the float, Wakefield fitted two side balancers to the wing tips.  These became popularly known as Wakefield sausages.

Initial tests on water proved unsuccessful until Wakefield asked Borwicks to make hydroplane steps in the float.


‘This is the original drawing by A.V. Roe & Company showing the amended design for a Curtiss Biplane, dated 9 March 1911’

‘Herbert Stanley Adams, Pilot’
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First Flight


After weeks of strong winds and rain, the weather improved dramatically and on the 25 November 1911, Adams took Waterbird out onto the Lake and successfully flew Waterbird and alighted safely.  Sadly Wakefield was not there to witness this first flight but his excitement can be seen in the correspondence to his wife.

This was the first successful flight from water in the British Empire.  There had been two earlier and notable attempts to fly on water by Commander Schwann at Barrow Dock and Oscar Gnosspelius at Windermere, but neither alighted safe.


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Post - Waterbird


The Lakes Flying Company was founded in January 1912, and included Wakefield, Adams and the Earl of Lonsdale.  Almost immediately Wakefield and the Company found themselves the focus of a campaign that was to make national headlines.  The protest Committee, led by Canon Rawnsley and Beatrix Potter, were vehemently opposed to Wakefield and his flying activities in the Lake District and this would lead to a public inquiry into the issue.  Eventually the matter was resolved in Wakefield’s favour and flying did continue though only after much heated argument and debate. One of Wakefield’s supporters was a certain Winston Churchill, MP, First Lord of the Admiralty, who supported his activities on Windermere. At the same time planning permission was granted for new hangars at Cockshott Point, Bowness.

Flying activities continued on Windermere until around 1916 although Edward Wakefield went on to serve in Flanders during the First World War.


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Edward Wakefield


Edward Wakefield (1862-1941) was one of Britain's most important aviation pioneers, now recognised as one of the fathers of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. It was his plane, Waterbird, that on 25 November 1911 made the first successful flight from water in the UK from Windermere.

Born into a prosperous Lakeland family, Edward Wakefield trained as a banker and lawyer. But from an early age his restless disposition, combined with a strong sense of religious duty and Victorian patriotism, drove him to wider pastures. He was active in charity work, mainly with children in need, in London in the 1890s and again in the early 1900s. On the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 he joined the Carlisle based Border Regiment and saw two years active service in South Africa. 

Attending a flying demonstration in 1909 he was told that casualties were inevitable when flying from land. He decided that flying from water would be much safer. Helped by considerable wealth and self-confidence, he set out to prove it. He built hangars on Lake Windermere. He bought and tested one of the earliest Avro planes, which he named Waterbird, for experimentation and adaption. National publicity followed. A strong protest campaign led by Beatrix Potter and Canon Rawnsley was foiled with government help. Soon his Hill of Oaks base became a centre for Admiralty testing and, by WW1, for the large-scale training of naval pilots whose graduates fought, and all too often died, all over the Western and Mediterranean fronts.

In 1914, despite advancing age (he was then 52) Wakefield re-joined the army, spent three years training troops, commanded a Labour Battalion on the Western front, served in Italy and ended the War as Chief Church Army Commissioner for France and Belgium. His health badly damaged, he spent the rest of his life in Kendal, active as Mayor, Chair of Magistrates, local landowner and supporter of good causes. He died in 1941. His wife Mary pre-deceased him in 1921. He had one child, Marion, who many years later fondly reminisced of helping sew fabric for Waterbird's wings and foiling pre-WW1 German spies. His grandson, James Gordon (1913-98), was also a distinguished figure in aviation history - pioneering air-sea rescue dinghies and revolutionary wood epoxy construction techniques for Mosquito aircraft and Horsa gliders in World War 2.

John Gordon
Great Grandson

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The Waterbird project was conceived and managed by The Lakes Flying Company Limited.
The Lakes Flying Company Limited is a registered charity no. 1138624

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