Heritage: Robert Loraine, airman extraordinaire
One of Britain’s most extraordinary aviation pioneers, the stage actor Robert Loraine (1876-1935), was born 137 years ago this week and is buried beside Wimbledon Common.
He deserves to be remembered as the first man to fly through a rainstorm; the first to land on the Isle of Wight; the first to cross the Irish Sea; and the first to communicate from the air to ground using radio communications – all within a few months in 1910.
He was even the first pilot to use the word “joystick” to describe his plane’s control column, afterwards a standard term.
He had also served earlier in the Army during the Boer War, being mentioned in dispatches, and later won both the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order while in the Royal Flying Corps – forerunner of the RAF - during the First World War. Yet despite all, Loraine was better known during his lifetime as an actor than an aviator.
Born on January 14, 1876, in Cheshire, he came from an acting family and had first appeared on stage in Liverpool at the age of 13, joined a touring company, and made his first London appearance five years later.
He took up flying in 1909, trained in France and watched Bleriot’s historic pioneering flight across the English Channel. His own first public appearance in the air, flying a Henry Farman biplane, came at Bournemouth in July 1910 when he achieved the first of his two historic records, then making the Irish Sea crossing in September and the radio communication two weeks later.
In 1914 he was eager to sign up for the new Royal Flying Corps and had a very mixed war, crashing two aircraft, suffering serious injury, alienating men under his command over training standards, and even facing court martial for drunkenness. However, he was acquitted of that charge, won a string of honours, and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before further injury ended his war service.
When it was all over he returned to the stage as an actor-manager and continued the career he had started years earlier, enjoying a reputation in both London’s West End where he appeared in a total of 56 productions throughout his career and Broadway, New York, in another 27 productions.
He had a wide acting range, appearing both in light entertainment and serious drama. Acclaimed for performances of Shakespeare and Strindberg, he was particularly known for his roles in plays by George Bernard Shaw and knew the playwright personally. They once flew over London in a balloon together and also shared a seaside holiday in Wales. Loraine had appeared in Shaw’s “Man and Superman” many years earlier at the Royal Court theatre and he even took time off briefly during the war in February 1917 to perform a brand new Shaw play at an army camp in Belgium. Shaw himself attended the dress rehearsal despite the dangers and bizarrely on his enlistment papers Loraine had given Mr and Mrs Shaw as his own next of kin.
In fact Loraine married twice and had three daughters. He died aged 59 in Golden Square Hospital, Westminster, on 23 December 1935 but his funeral was at Putney Vale cemetery beside Wimbledon Common.
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