1923 - Kenley Pilot Crashes in Catford

P/O Stevens upturned aircraft in Ladywell Recreation Ground.
Sunday Mirror 21/1/1923
The Bristol Fighter came to rest with one wing in the River Ravensbourne.
Sunday Illustrated 21/1/1923

On the morning of 20th January, 1923, witnesses in Lewisham noted an RAF aircraft flying very low as it approached Ladywell Recreation Ground in Catford, from a south-westerly direction…

Children at play scattered as the Bristol Fighter (H1426) took the top off a young tree and crashed into an old elm, knocking branches to the ground. It overturned before coming to rest with one wing in the River Ravensbourne. Luckily, help was at hand – the ‘plane had come to rest only 60ft from the grounds of Lewisham Hospital and staff climbed over the south wall to extricate the young pilot from the cockpit. Dazed and bleeding, his first words were, “Who is going to guard my machine?” “What about the instruments?” His rescuers carried him away to the hospital on a stretcher, where he was found to have broken his nose and suffered other relatively minor injuries.

The pilot was 21-year-old Flight Officer Charles Herbert Algernon Stevens, from Paignton, Devon, who had graduated from the RAF College, Cranwell, the previous year before joining No.24 Squadron at Kenley.

Charles was born in Arrah, Bengal, on 14th December, 1901. His Father, Algernon Francis Stevens, was a Captain in the Indian Medical Service from 1899-1904. He had married Evelyn Alice Stevens in Madras in 1899. The couple had three children, though only Charles and his sister, Evelyn Pamela, survived to adulthood.

Algernon’s Father, Charles Cecil Stevens, had a distinguished career in India and served as Lieutenant Governor of Bengal 1897-1898. He was appointed Knight Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India in 1905 and died in 1909. However, his wife, Mary Ann Caroline Stevens (nee Turner) outlived him. The newspaper reports of Charles Stevens crash mention that he had stayed with Lady Stevens at Lyncourt, her home in Elmsleigh Park, Paignton, on many occasions. On hearing of his accident, she travelled to Lewisham immediately, so she must have had quite a strong bond with her Grandson.

Here’s a summary of the information we have so far on the life of Charles Herbert Algernon Stevens:

  • 14/12/1901 – Born in Arrah, Bengal.
  • 1920 – Charles entered the RAF College, Cranwell, in 1920, attaining the rank of Flight Cadet Corporal and representing the college in athletics and rugby.
  • 1922 – graduated from the RAF College.
  • 29/9/22 – commissioned as Pilot Officer  with effect from 16/8/22. (London Gazette 22/9/1922)
  • 20/1/23 – Flying a No.24 Squadron Bristol Fighter when it  crashed at Ladywell Recreation Ground, Lewisham.
  • 16/2/24 – promoted to F/O (London Gazette 26/2/24)
  • 7/8/24 – married Daphne Joan Emma Liddle at St. Augustine’s, Thorpe Bay, Southend-On-Sea, Essex.
  • August 1927 – on strength with No.14 (Bomber) Squadron. Amman, Jordan, flying DH.9A’s.
  • 1/2/28 – Posted to No.15 (Bomber) Squadron, “A” Flight for flying duties, based at Martlesham Heath, in the rank of Flying Officer. No.15 Squadron were part of the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment and were involved with the test flying of bomber aircraft.
  • 7/11/28 -promoted to Flight Lieutenant (London Gazette 6/11/1928) while still serving with No.15 (B) Squadron at Martlesham Heath flying Hawker Horsleys.
  • 1/1/34 on strength with No.111 (Fighter) Squadron, flying Bristol Bulldogs.  (Operations Record Book)
  • September 1935 – A “Flight Lieutenant Stevens” was posted to No.41 Squadron. No initials are given in the Operations Record Book so at this stage we are uncertain that this is definitely Charles. The squadron were equipped with Hawker Demons and already preparing to move to the Aden Protectorate to provide a presence in the region during the Abyssinian Crisis. They arrived at Khormaksar on 21st October and carried out a bombing operation on El ‘Asala on 19th November. The squadron also took part in co-operation exercises with the Royal Navy. In March, 1936, the Squadron moved to Sheikh Othman. (41 Squadron Operations Record Book)
  • 11/6/36 – “F/Lt. Stevens” posted to Iraq (Communications Flight). Again,  no initials are given so we can’t be absolutely certain that this is the correct F/Lt. Stevens. (41 Squadron Operations Record Book)
  • 1/10/36 – promoted to Squadron Leader.
  • 12/3/37 – Officer Commanding  No.84 Squadron, flying Vickers Vincents, stationed in Iraq. “S/Ldr. C.H.A. Stevens took over command of the unit vice S/Ldr. F. J. Fogarty DFC AFC.” (Operations Record Book)
  • 11/1/38 – 84sq “12 I.E. Vincents left for Singapore on annual cruise under command of S/Ldr. C.H.A. Stevens and four days later 3 I.R. Vincents commanded by P/O P. A. Tipping left. All arrived at Seletar and took part in combined operations Singapore 1938.” (Operations Record Book)
  • 1/1/40 – promoted to Wing Commander (reported Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury 1/1/1940)
  • 14/6/1945 – Group Captain, awarded O.B.E.(M), (London Gazette, 14/6/1945, page 2947)
  • 12/1/48 – retired in the rank of Group Captain
  • 2/11/86 – died. 55 All Hallows Rd, Paignton.

Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.

Many thanks to Colin Lee for the serial number of the Bristol Fighter.
RAF Operations Record Books and London Gazette as above.
The Sunday Mirror 21/1/1923
The Sunday Illustrated 21/1/1923
Western Mail 22/1/1923
Sunday Pictorial 21/1/1923
Western Morning News and Mercury 22/1/1923
Evening News – 22/1/1923
Sunday Post 22/1/1923
Sheffield Daily Telegraph 22/1/1923
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury 1/1/1940

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