Historicist: “The Pride of the British Empire”
Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
His Majesty’s Airship R-100 with crowd visible on adjacent rooftop, August 11, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, TTC Fonds, Series 71, 7920.
At daybreak on the morning of August 10, 1930, His Majesty’s Airship R-100—the British airship that had arrived in Montreal from England on August 1—made a surprise visit over Toronto. She hadn’t been expected until 9 a.m., but just before dawn the faint droning of motors announced her presence over the harbour. Milkmen stopped their carts mid-route, diners and staff emptied from restaurants, and night-watchmen all gazed skyward to marvel at the ghostly sight of the airship against the moonlit sky. Ship whistles greeted the airship and woke its passengers. Across the city, people in pyjamas rushed outdoors to witness the history-making event.
With a fabric-covered frame of duralumin, an aluminum alloy, containing fifteen giant balloons of hydrogen to provide lift—since helium was rare outside of the United States—the R-100 measured 695 feet in length and 133 feet in diameter and was said to be the largest airship in the world. Built for the British Air Ministry by the Airship Guarantee Company, the R-100 flew a number of tests around the British Isles after its launch on December 16, 1929, before crossing the Atlantic to Canada where it was greeted with a jubilant outpouring of excitement.
With the benefit of hindsight, the airship seems a flawed technology stillborn in the waning days of the Empire. But this was an era when Canada’s nascent nationalism was still deeply entangled with imperial boosterism. And as the R-100 whirred above cheering throngs in Toronto and other cities, she was a symbol of a new age. With visions of airship routes criss-crossing the world, airship promoters hyped the lighter-than-air craft as the transportation and communication technology that would cement the economic and emotional bonds of the British Empire.
Front Page Headlines. Toronto Star of August 11, 1930.
From its initial arrival at Saint-Hubert Airport near Montreal—where a special mooring mast had been erected—the R-100 attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators, as Barry Countryman recounts in a 1981 issue of Canadian Geographic. As R-100 mania took grip, souvenir buttons, toy models, and postcards were bought by the handful. Other visitors simply stole glasses from the R-100’s dining room or scavenged for scrap pieces of its outer fabric. At least one person, it was reported in the Globe, even had to be dissuaded from cutting off a section of one of the balloons. While amateur poets across the land contributed verses to local newspapers, leading singers of the day, including La Bolduc and Arthur Lapierre, composed popular songs such as “Toujours L’R-100” and “La chanson du R-100.”
Winchester Cigarette Ad. Toronto Star of August 6, 1930.
Companies were quick to take advantage as well. Castrol Motor Oil, Nestlé’s Milk, and Waterman’s Pens among others all claimed to be official suppliers to the R-100 in special advertisements. The most shameless promotion saw Winchester Cigarettes present each crew member with a gift pack—knowing that smoking hadn’t been permitted aboard the ship—so the tobacco company could run a coast-to-coast campaign claiming that the crew’s “first impressions of Canadian hospitality will always be associated with the fragrance and satisfaction of Winchester Cigarettes.” The airship’s backers, however, were steadfast that the R-100’s experimental flight remain non-commercial and even turned down a well-known multi-millionaire’s $100,000 for passage aboard the R-100 on her return flight to England.
While the ship’s planned tour of Ontario was delayed to repair minor damage to its fins, several crew members visited Toronto anyway. On a flag-decked platform before a cheering audience of five thousand, Mayor Bert S. Wemp welcomed Major G. H. Scott, the Assistant Director of Airship Development and an advisor to the Air Ministry, and M.A. Gibblett, the R-100’s Meteorological Officer, on August 6. While praising “the pride of the British Empire”—as he deemed the R-100—Wemp perfectly captured the common sentiment that the R-100 was an imperial symbol when he said:
We realize that this air cruise is not merely a transatlantic flight, but is a step in a far-sighted plan to bind together the distant parts of the empire by a speedier and more efficient air service. This plan will not only serve in a commercial sense, but will arouse the peoples of the British commonwealth of nations to a realization that they are being brought in closer contact by the establishment of regular air routes around the world.
Scott and Giblett shook hands with as many well-wishers in the crowd as they could before rushing off to address the Empire Club, make an appearance at the Police Games, and visit Government House before returning to Montreal by train. Scott promised reporters that he’d return to the city aboard the R-100: “We expect that the repairs will all be completed at the end of the week, and then we shall come to Toronto. Don’t worry about that; we’ll see you get a real show.”
Mayor Bert S. Wemp (centre) introduces Meteorological Officer M.A. Giblett (left) and Major G. H. Scott (right) at Police Games, Hanlan’s Point, August 6, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, TTC Fonds, Series 71, 7884.
The following day, Sir Dennistoun Burney, the managing director of the Airship Guarantee Company, appeared before the Canadian Club. Sir Dennistoun had been the driving force behind Britain’s 1924 Imperial Airship Scheme, which called for the construction of two large rigid airships, the R-100 and the R-101, and the eventual establishment of commercial service. Sir Dennistoun’s purpose in Canada was to meet with government officials and business leaders to secure their interest and investment in his venture. Laying out his business plan, he hoped the next generation of bigger, faster airships would provide regular and reliable commercial bi-weekly flights carrying passengers and mail between London, Montreal, and—if the city would build a mooring mast—Toronto. The profitability of the enterprise was assured, he stumped, by luring Canadian and American passengers paying in the neighbourhood of $1,000 each to travel in ocean liner luxury and by securing government contracts to carry six tons of mail per week at a rate of $1,000 per ton. His pitch apparently worked. Upon his departure to England, he told newspapers he was confident that there would be “sufficient capital forthcoming from commercial sources in Canada to finance the ultimate bi-weekly service,” but he did not elaborate on specific details.
Dirigible R-100 visits City, August 11, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1166A.
Torontonians were excited to finally have a chance to see the R-100 on her twenty-six-hour tour of Ontario, which was recounted in Rénald Fortier’s “The R.100 in Canada” [pdf]. Setting off on the evening of August 10—and scheduled to visit Toronto at 9 a.m.—the airship carried eighteen military, government, and civilian passengers—including journalist George Macdonald and Major-General A.G.L. McNaughton—who, as Countryman notes, “had to sign waivers absolving the King, his officers and servants of liability should injury of death result on the excursion.” After dipping its nose in appreciation to the 50,000 gathered on Parliament Hill, the R-100 ambled along past Kingston and Peterborough. After her surprise visit to Toronto at dawn, the vessel continued to Niagara Falls before returning to Toronto at the appointed hour when the city was ready to greet her.
At 9:21am, Wes McKnight, the CFRB announcer, excitedly described the R-100’s arrival from an improvised rooftop radio setup:
The great dirigible is coming straight toward us at this moment. A wonderful sight! For all the world like a great silver fish in the air. Now—now, she is directly overhead—right above us. Your announcer literally has to ‘stand on his ear’ to observe and broadcast at the same time. She is not more than 700 feet above us. It is a thrill worth waiting a lifetime to witness.
His Majesty’s Airship R-100, over the Canadian Bank of Commerce Building, August 11, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, TTC Fonds, Series 71, 7921.
Torontonians flocked to rooftops and even shimmied to the tops of water tanks for a better vantage point. One young woman, overheard by a Star reporter, stood breathless and fearful that the big ship was going to hit the still-under-construction Bank of Commerce Building—where construction workers waved—until the airship appeared on the other side. The fire brigade even had to rescue a child who’d made it to the roof of his house but couldn’t find a way back down. “Heads hung out of what seemed to be every window of the Bay St. office buildings,” the Star reported. “No work was done while the R-100 was cruising overhead. The boss and the smallest office boy shared the same window ledge.” Mayor Wemp watched from atop the City Hall clock tower. Below him, a huge Union Jack had been draped across the building’s steps and “Welcome R-100” was painted on the driveway in letters fifteen feet high—which were perfectly legible from above, as the R-100 reported in radio messages. Traffic came to a standstill as pedestrians wandered into the street with necks craned skyward. Wherever the airship passed overhead, the sound of its engines was nearly drowned out by the cheers and whistles of crowds wafting handkerchiefs and waving towards the invisible passengers and crew.
But before long, the ship was on its way back to Montreal. Complaining about the brevity of the R-100’s visit to the provincial capital before returning to Montreal, the Star complained: “She certainly made it snappy. Like the good old Duke of York, she swept right up, swept right over and swept right out again.” Upon her return to England, the R-100 was retired to her shed so the crew could prepare for the R-101’s October 1930 flight to the Imperial Conference in India. Shortly after departing on the evening of October 4, the R-101 encountered stormy weather and nose-dived into a small hill near Beauvais, France, killing all but six of the fifty-four people aboard—including Major Scott and many of the crew who’d flown over Toronto. Canada mourned with flags flown at half-mast across the country. Disheartened by the R-101 disaster, the British Government shuttered its airship program. Its sale to the Canadian Government was briefly debated, but the R-100 was dismantled to be sold as scrap in late 1931. Its demise marked an end to the unfulfilled promise of a commercial airship service delivering closer economic and emotional bonds between Canada and the mother country.