Friday, 14 October 2011

Herne Bay, Upminster … and the speed of sound

Over the past few months I have spent quite a lot of time in Herne Bay, Kent (where my father-in-law lives) and Upminster, Essex (which is where I spent most of my youth and where my father’s house is located). Until today I had never realised that these two locations were linked in any way … but it appears that they are … by the speed of sound!

In the early eighteenth century the Rector of Upminster and member of the Royal Society – The Reverend William Derham – carried out experiments that led to the first reasonably accurate measurement of the speed of sound. He used his telescope – which he mounted on the tower of his church, St. Laurence – to observe the flash produced by a shotgun fired from a location that was at a know distance from the church tower. He timed how long it took from his observation of the flash to him hearing the sound of the shot, and from this basic data he was able to calculate the speed of sound.

Towards the end of 1945, two Gloster Meteor fighter aircraft were modified by the RAF in order that an attempt could be made on the World Air Speed record. These aircraft made several attempts to break the record, and on 7th November 1945 Group Captain H.J. (Willy) Wilson set the first official World Air Speed record by a jet aircraft of 606 mph (975km/h) in the skies above Herne Bay.

This event is marked by a plaque which was on display in Macari’s Café on the seafront in Herne Bay. (This is where my wife and I had fish and chips for lunch today!).

This successful attempt to set an official World Air Speed record for a jet aircraft led to formation of the RAF High Speed Flight in 1946. This was a special unit that was tasked with retaining the World Air Speed record and attempting to push it towards the speed of sound. The Flight was commanded by Group Captain E. M. Donaldson (who established a new official world record of 615.78 miles per hour (991.00 km/h) in a Gloster Meteor on 7th September 1946) and included:
  • Flight Lieutenant Neville Duke (who set a new world air speed record of 727.63 mph (1,171.01 km/h) in a Hawker Hunter on 7th September 1953)
  • Wing Commander Roland (Bea) Beamont (who broke the sound barrier in May 1948 whilst flying a North American F86 Sabre fighter aircraft, and who was the first British pilot to achieve this distinction, although this is usually not acknowledged as he was not flying a British aircraft)
  • Squadron Leader William Arthur (Bill) Waterton (who later became the Gloster Aircraft Company’s chief test pilot)


  1. Interesting stuff - and all the better that you read it while eating fish & chips!

  2. Tim Gow,

    They were excellent fish and chips as well. Fresh fish, freshly cooked, and chips that were double fried ... perfect!

    All the best,