Bedales 1911-1912, RNAS, RAF

William Barton Hughes was another young Royal Air Force pilot who lost his life in May 1918.  Born in Didsbury, Manchester on the 21st September 1899, William was the elder son of Alfred Hughes, Dean of the Faculty of The Arts at Birmingham University, and Hester Emily Hughes. The 1901 census return records Alfred as the 40-year-old "Registrar Vict[oria] University" and Hester as his 26-year-old wife.  William appears as a one-year-old infant alongside his six-year-old sister, Lydia Mary.  The family was living at Whaley Hall, Yeardsley cum Whaley, Cheshire.  Victoria University was a federal university, established in 1880, which included Owens College, Manchester; University College, Liverpool, and Yorkshire College, Leeds.  When the Liverpool and Leeds colleges left to become fully-fledged universities, the federal Victoria University was granted a new charter as Victoria University of Manchester. 

Alfred Hughes secured a position at Birmingham University in time for William to attend West House Preparatory School, which had been founded in Birmingham in 1895.  He subsequently attended Bedales for a year between the summers of 1911 and 1912.  He earned two mentions in the school magazines – for winning the 220 yard race at the 1911 sports day, and for gaining nine stars for his ‘stencil, map and basketwork’ in the ‘prizework’, Spring 1912.  After Bedales he went on to study at King Edward's School, Birmingham.  The school website publishes a short biography of William on its roll of honour page and notes, somewhat oddly, that "William was an accomplished linguist but only managed an unranked finish in the Gymnastics competition of 1914".  He would certainly prove himself an accomplished flier, mastering a number of different aircraft in a remarkably short space of time. For some reason the biography fails to mention that William was a member of the school officer training corps between September 1914 and July 1916 although this information is recorded on his Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) papers. It was also the school's headmaster, R Cary Gibson, who recommended William as a candidate for the RNAS.

After school, according to both De Ruvigny's and King Edward's School, William was engaged in agricultural work, working on a farm between April and July 1917.  He joined the RNAS on the 2nd September 1917 (De Ruvigny gives 1st September) and obtained his wings in March 1918.  When the Royal Air Force was formed on the 1st April 1918, subsuming the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps, William became one of its newest officers and was gazetted on the 3rd April.

RNAS papers record that William was based at Greenwich (from September 1917), Chingford (from October 1917), Cranwell (from March 1918) and latterly Manston Flying School in Kent from the 4th May. On the 13th May 1918 he was assigned to Dunkirk, No 5 Group. Four days later he was involved in a flying accident at Dover and subsequently died from his injuries. He was buried at Dover (St James's) Cemetery.

On leaving Cranwell, a report on William's RNAS papers in series ADM 273 stated, "Graduated. VG pilot; VG officer. Recommended for Scouts; sound pilot and with more experience should turn out well." Notes on his Royal Air Force record in AIR 76 attest to his competency as a pilot recording that since September 1917 he had flown the following aircraft: "DH6, Aero, BE 20, 2C, Bristol Scout, Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Camel..." hardly surprising then that he also gained his pilot's certificate.

William's death was briefly reported in the [Birmingham] Evening Despatch on the 20th May 1918 and the Whitstable and Herne Bay Herald on the 25th May. The latter article concludes, "The deceased officer was buried with full honours. The chief mourners included Professor and Mrs Alfred Hughes (parents), Mrs Ernest Cross (sister), Master G B Hughes (brother), Lieutenant E Cross (brother-in-law). There were also present a large number of officers and men of both branches of the RAF."

De Ruvigny's, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, RNAS papers and RAF papers all give William's address as 29 George Road, Edgbaston although on his RAF papers this address is scored through and replaced with Eastnor House, Malvern Link, Worcester.

By Paul Nixon, with additional material by Jane Kirby

Sources: De Ruvigny's Roll of Honour; The Commonwealth War Graves Commission; Royal Naval Air Service papers in ADM/273; Royal Air Force papers in AIR 76 / 243; King Edward's School roll of honour: https://kes.org.uk/RollofHonour/biogs/hughes-william-barton.html; The British Newspaper Archive; 1901 Census entry in RG 13