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Charles Penson

You need to know where you have come from in order to understand who you are. (S.J. Tapley March 2021)


Charlie Penson lived at 75 then 111 Westgate and went to the Alvey. His name is actually on our Project 72 war memorial at the front of the school. However, he didn’t fall during the Great War of 1914-1918 but several years after it finished; his story is both fascinating and tragic.


Charlie was an air craftsman in the R38, an airship, almost like a spaceship of its time. Following a spell of bad weather, the airship was walked out from Howden on 23 August 1921, and, in the early morning, took off for its fourth ‘test’ flight, which had an intended destination of RNAS Pulham in Norfolk, where it could be moored to a mast (a facility unavailable at Howden). In the event, mooring proved impossible because of low cloud, and, so, the airship returned to sea for the night. The next day, after a brief speed trial (during which a speed of 71.9 mph (115.7 km/h) was reached), a series of turning trials was started at a speed of 62.7 mph (100.9 km/h) and an altitude of 2,500 ft (760 m). At 17:37, while close offshore near Hull and watched by thousands of spectators, the structure failed amidships. Eyewitnesses reported seeing creases down the envelope before both ends drooped. This was followed by a fire in the front section, and then by an explosion which broke windows over a large area. The remains fell into the shallow waters of the Humber Estuary. Sixteen of the 17 Americans, and 28 of the 32 Britons, in the crew were killed. There is footage of the wreckage on PATHE news:


The tragedy became known as the first great airship disaster of its day. Charlie was still given a war grave under Category One of the war graves commission (Commonwealth men and women who were still in military service at the time of their death). These personnel automatically qualified for commemoration provided they died within the qualifying dates as follows: First World War - 4th August 1914 to 31st August 1921. So Charles qualified for a war grave by just one week!


He is buried in Sleaford Cemetery and we have a very emotive photo of his funeral and his headstone. A memorial scroll was unveiled at the school in 1922, for all the children who attended the Alvey and went on to fight then tragically die in WW1 and special mention is made of Charlie Penson in the newspaper report of this event. Unfortunately the scroll was lost over the ensuing years and the search for the 72 names subsequently formed the basis of Project 72 and the replacement of the scroll now in St Denys and the creation of a permanent memorial, outside the school, which forms part of the ‘When in Sleaford’ Town Trail. What makes the story even more compelling is that Charlie’s father, James Ambrose Penson, also fought in WW1 and outlived his son, James died in 1928 at the age of 51, he too is buried in Sleaford Cemetery.  Mrs Whitt has actually traced some  fairly local relatives.


We have been offered the chance to buy Charlie’s war medal and his Father James’ medals,  so we can sort of complete the circle. One good non-uniform day should just about do it. We want to make a special display of the information we hold about Charlie and in the same way we are using the recently renovated air raid shelter as a piece of living history for WW2, we want to use the information about Charlie, the photographs and medals, as  a WW1 historical resource for the children to study.

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