Bedales 1915-1918, RNAS, RAF

The McConnels seem the epitome of an early Bedalian family. They were pioneering, radical, deeply committed to public service, and highly cosmopolitan in experience and outlook.

May Jordan McConnel,1  David's mother, is still celebrated in her native Queensland as a pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement and of trade unionism. Trained as both a teacher and a nurse, May’s early career teaching in state schools in Brisbane gave her a strong grounding in the problems affecting working class families. She was “the driving force behind the formation of the Brisbane Women’s Union” and also the inaugural General Secretary of the women’s section of the Australian Labour Federation. She served on the Royal Commission into Shops, Factories and Workshops and was a founder member and Treasurer of the Women’s Equal Suffrage Association.2

David’s father, David Rose McConnel was an educational pioneer, whose career included spells in Australia, the USA, the UK, Switzerland and Albania. He was the first Director of the Brisbane Central Technical College and later helped support the development of Montessori education in Australia.3 Other members of the extended family were also heavily involved in the development of public institutions, such as the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane.4

David Ewan McConnel was born in Queensland on 15 April 1900.5 Ten years later the family moved to California,6 where David attended the Palo Alto Elementary School.7 The next move was to Switzerland, where David attended the school sometimes known as ‘Swiss Bedales’. La Châtaigneraie had been founded beside Lake Geneva just a few years earlier, by two former Bedales teachers. Here, David became a fine skier and mountaineer.8

In 1914, he joined Bedales itself, or to use the description printed in the Palo Alto Times “that famous school where boys and girls learn their duty to the race and love for mankind.”9 It was said that “though he came to us late, he soon became a true Bedalian, and won a deep and lasting place in the affection and respect of all here".10

The whole family was appreciated at Bedales for the breadth of international experience they had to share. May McConnel was asked to give a lecture on social and political reforms in Queensland,11 and David senior gave a lecture on Swiss history.12

The younger David was Head Boy in his final year.13 He was also a member of the school council, or School Parliament as it was then called, at a time when Mr Badley was encouraging the highest possible level of self-government by the students.14 He gave a great deal of time teaching Dunhurstians to box, and was a member of the football team.15 He was said to be intolerant of any kind of bullying as he “did not believe in it as preparing a boy for a hard and callous world, but thought it ‘equally bad for the bully and the bullied’”. Mr Badley himself said of him that “there was something fatherly in his attitude” to the younger boys.16

David joined the Royal Naval Air Service direct from school, in March 1918, his first posting being to Greenwich College.17 His service record notes that he already had experience in driving motor cars and motor bikes, and a knowledge of engines.18

Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the newly established Royal Air Force in April 1918, David was posted to No. 1 School of Aviation at Reading in June, and thence to a training squadron based at Scampton in Lincolnshire.19 David’s O.C. considered him a “born flyer” and he was appointed to a permanent post as an instructor before had even qualified for his wings. He was due to complete his final tests on Saturday 7th December, before taking up his new appointment the following Monday.20

However, this plan was overturned by a last minute order to fly a Sopwith Camel to Tadcaster Aerodrome, near Leeds, where it was required. David took off in fair weather at Scampton, but approached Tadcaster in dense fog. A witness observed him circling within a mile of his intended destination, presumably trying to find the runway. For reasons which remain unknown, he lost control of the aircraft and crashed into the ground. The inquest heard that he must have been killed instantly. He was just 18 years old.21

His funeral was held in the Lupton Hall before he was buried at All Saints Church, Steep. The Bedales Record states that it was his own wish to be brought back “to lie near those for whom he cared so much and who care so much for him.” He left some 50 books to the school library.22

It was at the funeral that David’s parents first heard about a mystery which had been troubling his comrades. On the afternoon of his death, David’s friend Lieut. James Larkin was writing letters in the room they shared when David himself came in, apparently returned from the trip to Tadcaster. The two friends chatted together for a few moments. Everything seemed normal to Larkin, although he was puzzled not to be able to find his room-mate later on, when he set out for an off-duty evening in Lincoln. It was only later that he learned that David had never returned from his flight, but had been killed. David had died around the time that, so it had seemed, they were chatting together in their room.23

In a letter to David’s father, Lieut. Larkin wrote that,  “I tried to persuade myself that I had not seen him or spoken to him in this room, but I could not make myself believe otherwise as I was undeniably awake and his appearance, voice, manner had all been so natural. I am of such a sceptical nature regarding things of this kind that even now I wish to think otherwise, that I did not see him, but I am unable to do so.”24

David McConnel senior passed this letter on to Sir Oliver Lodge, another Bedales parent, whose son Raymond had been killed on the Western Front in 1915. Sir Oliver had a well-known interest in spiritualism. His book Raymond, or Life and Death, told of his attempts to contact his son beyond the grave.25 Mr McConnel had judged quite rightly that this case would interest Sir Oliver, who arranged for a detailed report to be published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.26

David McConnel senior summed up his son’s character, saying that he “had a happy, even joyous disposition…. At Scampton, as at school, his conduct, character, and disposition made him as much loved as respected.27 His Commanding Officer wrote: "Nothing has given me greater pleasure than to recommend McConnel for a permanent commission, for besides being one of our best show fliers, his influence in the mess and among the mechanics was great.28 Although sadly accustomed to sudden tragedies, the camp was completely “broken up” by news of his death.29

David’s gravestone bears the RAF insignia on one side, with the bee and rose of Bedales on the other, supported by the school motto, “Work of Each for Weal of All”.

By Ruth Whiting, Jane Kirby and Ian Douglas


1. Mary Emma McConnel née Jordan, born 06 September 1860, was usually known as May.
2. Lee Butterworth, 'McConnel, May Jordan (1860 - 1929)', The Australian Women's Register, <http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/PR00479b.htm> [accessed 01 December 2018]; ‘Organisation of Women : Address by Miss May Jordan’, Brisbane Courier, 30 August 1890, p. 7, available on the National Library of Australia Trove database <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/3512491> [accessed 01 December 2018].
3. Death of Mr McConnel, Early Director of Technical Education’, Telegraph (Brisbane), 22 November 1940, p. 10,  available on the National Library of Australia Trove database <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/184539042> [accessed 01 December 2018]; Susan Feez, Montessori : The Australian Story (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2013), p. 111.
4. For example, Barbara Lemon,  ‘McConnel, Mary (1824 - 1910)’, The Australian Women’s Register, <http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE3771b.htm> [accessed 01 December 2018].
5. ‘McConnel, David Ewen [sic]’, 15 April 1900, Queensland Register of Births: 1900/C/11065, <https://www.familyhistory.bdm.qld.gov.au/details/a24413d4ad9569df9af9d31461b9d9a9d8cb48998104327353a4228b8ccb2220> [accessed 01 December 2018].
6. United States Census, 1910: David E Mcconnel in household of David R Mcconnel, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, California, United States; enumeration district 78, sheet 4B, family 88, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 105; FHL microfilm 1,374,118 — accessed via FamilySearch <https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MVGL-DS5> [accessed 1 December 2018].
7. ‘David M’Connel [sic] Killed in England : Former Palo Alto Boy Meets Death Through Accident While Flying’, Palo Alto Times, 08 February 1919, page unknown.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Bedales Record, Number 31, 1918-1919, p.15.
11. Bedales Chronicle, 11(4), May 1918, p. 40.
12. Bedales Chronicle, 13(4), 4 April 1921, p. 43
13. Bedales Record, Number 31, 1918-1919, p. 3.
14. Bedales Chronicle, 11(3), March 1918, p. 35; Bedales Record, Number 30, 1917-1918, pp. 59-66.
15. Bedales Record, Number 30, 1917-1918, pp. 69, 97.
16. ‘Palo Alto Times, op. cit.
17. RNAS Register of Officers’ Services, Vol. 27, p. 9 — The National Archives (TNA): ADM 273/27/9.
18. Air Officer’s Service Record — TNA: AIR 76/314/40.
19. Ibid.
20. ‘Cases: L1226, Apparition at the Time of Death’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 19(357), July 1919, pp. 76-83, available on the IAPSOP website <http://www.iapsop.com/archive/materials/spr_proceedings/spr_journal_v19_191-20.pdf> [accessed 21 November 2018].
21. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, loc. cit.; ‘Airplane Fatality at Tadcaster’, Yorkshire Post, 10 December 1918, p. 7.
22. Bedales Record, Number 31, 1918-1919, pp. 3, 80.
23. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, loc. cit.
24. Ibid.
25. Sir Oliver Lodge, Raymond : or life and death with examples of the evidence for survival of memory and affection after death (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1916).
26. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, loc. cit.
27. Ibid.
28. Letter from DEM’s Commanding Officer quoted in Bedales Record, Number 31, 1918-1919, p.15.
29. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, loc. cit.