Flight Lieutenant Charles Anstey Narbeth

Charles Narbeth & Muryel, his Sopwith Camel, photographed in winter.

Given the dates that David Knights-Whittome was running his business in Sutton (c.1905-1917), it is not surprising that we are finding a huge number of the glass plates from the basement of his shop are of soldiers, airman, naval personnel and nurses. A number of these military portraits were researched by Archives staff prior to the start of this project, in preparation for the World War One exhibition Great War Stories, shown at Sutton Central Library during November and December 2014. Today’s blog post is the story of one of these men.

Flight Lieutenant Charles Anstey Narbeth, Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Lived at Ferndale, Grove Road, Sutton

Charles Anstey Narbeth joined the RNAS as a probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant in June 1916, aged 18. During the rest of 1916 he was under instruction at Crystal Palace, Eastchurch and Cranwell ending up in Dover at the beginning of 1917. Charles was a founder member of the No. 10 Squadron which was formed at St. Pol (a suburb of Dunkerque) on the 12 February 1917 as part of the RNAS’s commitment to assist the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was involved in a flying accident just four days after the formation of the squadron when he crashed a Nieuport 17bis scout 8751 which was on loan from the 9th Squadron at St. Pol. The Suttonian (school magazine) described the incident as “a nasty fall whilst flying in France”; but, though, at the time of the report, “not yet out of surgeon’s hands” he was already “a walking case”.

CAN & Muryel

Charles & Muryel, The Sopwith Camel

Throughout the spring and summer of 1917 Charles was plagued with psychasthenia (a stress disorder) which was thought at that time to be related to nerve damage, although nowadays it would be described as a disorder that arises from sudden unexpected stress. He was found unfit; re-qualified and found fit again on a number of occasions.

In September 1917 Charles’s front line service began in earnest as part of No. 9 Squadron attached to the 14th Wind RFC. He flew Sopwith Camels, one of which was named Muryel after his fiancé.

Charles claimed three kills during this time, with his last flight on 6 December 1917. The Suttonian carried a note that he had “been in the air on the French front constantly since the end of August, and during November fighting almost daily over land, having been lent to the R.F.C.”

Log book 1917

Charles Narbeth’s log book 1917

It seems that his stress disorder returned and he was discharged to be re-surveyed. In January 1918 he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant but found unfit. In March he was still considered unfit and spent four weeks in hospital. Finally in May 1918 he was found fit for ground duty only and recommended to be in the open air as much as possible.

Charles’ post war life included marrying Muryel Cheshire in 1921. They set up home together in Stockton on Tees where Charles worked as an engineer’s draughtsman. Muriel sadly died in 1923 after being stung by a bee. He went on to marry two more times and to have a very successful career as a technical supervisor with the British Sugar Corporation. He was awarded a MBE in 1945 for services to this industry.

In around 1970 Charles penned the poem “Broken Wings”. He died in Kent in 1973, age 75.

Broken Wings

Once through the air at thrilling speed

I’d rove about the sky

The world’s harsh call I did not heed

As soundless clouds swept by.

Far up above, alone and silent

Where I and my soul were one

Gentle thoughts and passions violent

Were mine and disclosed to none.

No man living who has not flown

Could ever lift his heart

To the solitude mine has known;

He but of earth is part.

I am broken now. No more to rise

Above the sea and the shore.

My spirit is crushed, My sad heart cries

For a freedom known no more.

Many thanks to the family of Charles Anstey Narbeth for providing images and information about his post-war life.


3 thoughts on “Flight Lieutenant Charles Anstey Narbeth

  1. An interesting account of my maternal grandfather who died when I was 19 and a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. Like my grandpa, I too joined the RAF later in my career and suffered various mishaps, including two ditching. His poem is beautiful and sums up my memories of flying aeroplanes solo above the clouds, though Helicopters and search and rescue missions became my life.


    • Thank you so much for getting in touch. It is wonderful to make connections with the families of the individuals in our plates. I am very pleased to hear from you and to learn that you followed in his footsteps.


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