One of my first Bermuda Postal History interests was Air Mail, especially after the chance purchase of a letter written by Governor Sir James Willcocks on May 22′ 1919, and a Christmas card he sent out later that year. Intrigued by the letter and by the following day’s story in the Royal Gazette, I contacted the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in an effort to identify the seaplane. This was only fully possible after the discovery in the Bermuda Archives of a photograph of General Willcocks climbing aboard the seaplane in Hamilton Harbour. In 1983 this material led to the design of the 12¢ stamp in the ‘Bicentenary of Manned Flight’ series. Here is the full story:
It was during May of 1919 that an American astronomical expedition, en route to the South Atlantic to observe a solar eclipse, was forced to call at Bermuda for engine repairs. On board the ‘S.S. Elinor’ was Professor David Todd of Amherst College, head of the expedition and friend of Bermuda’s Governor, General Sir James Willcocks. When the two met, General Willcocks mentioned his ambition to be the first to take a birds-eye view of Bermuda. After all, his official title designated him ‘Governor of and over the Somers Isles’, and it would be only appropriate for him to make the first ascent.
It so happened that a seaplane formed part of the expedition’s equipment, and it was quickly decided to make the Governor’s wish come true. On the following day, Thursday, May , 1919, the Curtiss N-9H ‘Jenny’ was lowered from the ‘S.S. Elinor’, and amidst great excitement His Excellency the Governor was taken in a rowboat from the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club to the seaplane. General Willcocks then made history – he became the first person to see Bermuda from above.
With Ensign G.L. Richard at the controls, the seaplane headed from Hamilton Harbour through Two-Rock Passage to Spanish Point, and across the Great Sound to H.M. Dockyard. After circling Ireland Island, the plane once again returned to Hamilton Harbour. In describing his first flight, General Willcocks said: “I knew that Bermuda was a beautiful spot, but I never knew how truly beautiful are the many islands when looked at from above: the whole scene reminded me of the Arabian Nights”.
During the twenty-minute flight the Governor dropped “A Message of Goodwill to the People of Bermuda”. This letter was contained in a canvas-covered package attached to a wooden float. It was found two days later by ten-year-old Dudley Butterfield, swimming off Point Shares. I consider it Bermuda’s first Air Letter.
Rambling Notes of a Bermuda Philatelist published in December 2023 and is available at bookstores island-wide.