Dorset’s aerial hero – William Rhodes Moorhouse
Pete London on William Rhodes Moorhouse of Parnham
Published in December ’14
William Rhodes Moorhouse became the first aviator to receive the Victoria Cross; his daring act of courage took place high above enemy territory. One of the original ‘Magnificent Men’, Edwardian gentleman William was among Britain’s earliest pilots. When World War 1 broke out, he left his beautiful Dorset home to join the country’s fledgling air force, the Royal Flying Corps.
William was born on 26 September 1887 to Edward and Mary Moorhouse. His parents had grown up in New Zealand and Mary was of partly Maori heritage; the family arrived in England during 1884. Mary had inherited a huge sum of money from her step-father, and young William was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge.
Physically powerful and full of beans, with reddish fair hair and vivid green eyes, William loved speed. Studies came second; he preferred to race fast motor-cars through the Cambridge streets. Later he entered numerous rallies, and tore round the vast concrete banks of newly-built Brooklands racing circuit. In 1909 William acquired a blue 90-hp Fiat which he named Linda, and adopted dapper racing colours: a light mauve coat and sleeves, with dark purple collar and cuffs, topped off with a matching cap.
At that time too, Britain’s first aeroplane designers were experimenting with their frail contraptions and making tentative flights. William became captivated with the infant art of ‘aerial navigation’, teaming up with aero pioneer James Radley. The men developed their Radley-Moorhouse 50-hp monoplane, and on 17 October 1911 William flew the flimsy aircraft to gain his Royal Aero Club Pilot’s Certificate, No.147; his flying licence gave his occupation as ‘engineer’.
William and Radley travelled to America where they bought a Blériot aeroplane, similar to that piloted by Louis Blériot during his famed cross-Channel flight. They entered many air races and won several prizes, including £1,000 in San Francisco. Back in Britain, during June 1912 William married Linda Beatrice Morritt, a great friend of his sister Anne – so it seems the Fiat had been aptly-named. Like her husband, Linda was fearless and quickly grew to love flying. In August the couple flew the Channel, but the weather worsened and their journey ended in a crash near Ashford. After that episode, William stuck to somewhat less dangerous motor-racing.
As their family home, toward the end of 1913 William’s mother purchased the beautiful Dorset estate of Parnham House, just south of Beaminster on the Bridport road. With its oldest parts dating from the mid-16th century, Parnham had previously been owned by the prominent Oglander family and more recently by South African Hans Sauer, who’d been keen to restore its Tudor interior.
The grounds too had been newly-altered, the deer park augmented with gardens, lawns and lakes: an exquisite abode for the young couple. On 4 March 1914 Linda gave birth to her only child, christened William Henry: Willie, as his parents affectionately nicknamed him.
But when war with Germany came in August 1914, Rhodes Moorhouse was determined to ‘do his bit’. Leaving Parnham he travelled to Farnborough air base, joining the Royal Flying Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant. Despite his great experience as a flyer though, at first he wasn’t allowed an aircraft; owing to past aerial mishaps William had false teeth, and the RFC’s lofty rules forbade flying with such dental deficiencies.
William was given a job checking aero-engines, but began to fly on the quiet. By March 1915, such was the need for war pilots that he was moved to France, joining No.2 Squadron RFC at Merville near Calais. His squadron flew BE.2 biplanes, designed at Farnborough, with a top speed of just 70 mph.
During March and April William made many reconnaissance flights over the Western Front, photographing enemy troop movements; frequently he was fired at by anti-aircraft guns. If he spotted German aeroplanes he would chase them, flying close enough to shoot at the enemy pilots with his revolver.
In April 1915 the Second Battle of Ypres erupted, a bloody confrontation which began with a German advance. As French and British forces struggled to contain the foe, on 26 April the RFC was ordered to bomb the Germans’ railway network, to prevent reinforcements arriving. William, who’d been owed well-earned leave, was instructed to attack the railway junction at Courtrai. The mission was vital, but greatly perilous.
He set off in the mid-afternoon; against him, the foibles of his spindly aeroplane, a prevailing headwind, and furious fire from the enraged enemy below. His BE.2, No.687, was a two-seater; usually William flew with an observer, but not this time. Instead, the brave aviator carried a single 100-lb high-explosive bomb.
He’d been told to release his bomb from just below cloud-level. However, to ensure he hit the railway line, over Courtrai he flew down to a mere 300 feet. A torrent of rifle and machine-gun fire greeted him, badly damaging the BE.2, while fragments from the explosion of his own bomb tore through the wood-and-fabric aircraft.
William completed his mission successfully, but was gravely wounded. Faint and in great pain he nursed his shattered aeroplane 35 miles back to base; ground crew lifted him gently from the cockpit. Despite his injuries he refused medical attention until he’d reported the details of his sortie. Finally, he allowed the orderlies to take him to Merville’s casualty clearing station.
Made comfortable, William was given painkilling treatment but it was clear he wouldn’t recover. He showed his flight commander, Maurice Blake, a photograph of Linda and baby Willie, asking him to write to them and to his mother. Semi-conscious, he said: ‘It’s strange dying, Blake, old boy – unlike anything one has ever done before, like one’s first solo flight.’ The following day, still holding his photo and with Maurice at his side, William Rhodes Moorhouse passed away.
For his flight he was acclaimed a hero; at that time aerial bombing was almost unheard-of. British army commander Sir John French said he had been responsible for ‘the most important bomb dropped during the war so far.’ Posthumously promoted to full Lieutenant, in May 1915 William was awarded the Victoria Cross for ‘most conspicuous bravery’. His decoration was the first VC awarded to an airman.
William had asked to be buried at Parnham House. It was not government policy for the dead to be repatriated but on the orders of Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Trenchard, commander of the RFC’s First Wing, supported by Sir John French, he was conveyed to Dorset. On 5 May the Vicar of Beaminster, Reverend G C Hutchings, conducted the funeral service in Parnham’s Great Hall. As the Last Post sounded, William was laid to rest on the hillside overlooking his home.
Linda stayed at Parnham until 1927. Four years later, at the age of 45 she became a pilot in her own right, flying a small de Havilland Moth biplane. Willie beat her by a couple of months, qualifying aged just 17; later he joined the RAF and flew in the Battle of Britain. Willie received the Distinguished Flying Cross but died during the Battle; his ashes are interred beside his father.
On the centenary of the foundation of the Victoria Cross, in June 1956 a remembrance service was held at William’s graveside. Fifty years after his gallant flight, a parade took place at Beaminster in honour of the first air VC, together with a commemorative ceremony at Parnham House. Today the name of William Rhodes Moorhouse appears on Beaminster’s World War 1 memorial in St Mary’s Church; his heroism is also acknowledged on the Roll of Honour forming part of the churchyard wall. ◗