Farnborough, Town in Hampshire, History.
As well as its aeronautical and military associations, Farnborough also has a strong but sad connection with France.
The Empress Eugenie, widow of the Emperor Napoleon III, bought an ornate mansion (now a convent school) on Farnborough Hill in 1883. The gaiety of France’s Second Empire had ended abruptly with the defeat by Prussia at Sedan and the capture of the Emperor. Eugenie and her son, the handsome Prince Imperial, escaped to England. Napoleon later joined them in exile, though he died shortly afterwards, in 1873.
Eugene’s second loss was that of her son. The Prince was killed six years later in a skirmish in Africa, having volunteered to serve in the British Army in the Zulu War.
In memory of husband and son, the tragic Empress built St. Michael’s Abbey — a gloriously flamboyant structure a-top a timbered hill. In its crypt (open to the public in the afternoons) repose the tombs of Emperor and Prince, and between them that of Eugenie herself.
She had lived at Farnborough until her death in 1920, at the age of ninety-five.
To the Benedictine Abbey is added a museum of fascinating French Imperial souvenirs.
There are several Farnboroughs in England, but the one in the far north-east of Hampshire, adjoining the Surrey border, has a special claim to fame: it is the birthplace of British aviation.
A gaunt and leafless tree, embedded in a waist-high plinth, recalls an historic moment in 1908. The inscription tells us that “Colonel S. F. Cody picketted his aeroplane to this tree and from near this spot on 16th October, 1908, made the first successful officially recorded flight in Great Britain.”
Texan-born Samuel Franklin Cody had tried other occupations before turning his attention to aeronautics. He had been a cowboy, horsedealer, trapper, Klondyke prospector, actor, playwright, showman — and tommy-gun inventor.
Cody’s son, Vivian, was many years later to explain why the aeroplane was tethered to the tree. “It was to measure the thrust developed at full power. While Dad sat up with the engine it was my job to measure the power in pounds by means of a spring balance which was attached. One important thing which I don’t think most people realise is that my Dad had to teach himself to fly. There was nobody else to do it.”
It is appropriate that the Royal Aircraft Establishment should be at Farnborough, where it is renowned among experts and laymen alike for its Air Display. But its aerial history goes back even before Cody and the tree. It became a military centre shortly after the Crimean War, and in 1905 it became a school and factory for lighter-than-air craft: Army balloons!