A Cautionary Tale Updated: Robert Newport Dobbyn


Dobbyn, Esq. R.N. Photographed by Knights Whittome, 20 Mar 1915

After posting the blog “A Cautionary Tale” about Robert Newport Dobbyn (March, 2015) we were contacted at The Past on Glass by a member of Robert Dobbyn’s family who has been kind enough to provide more information about him. It is exciting for all those involved in this Project to receive feedback from living relatives, and we thought that Robert’s story deserves to be more comprehensively presented.

Robert was the only son of Robert Dobbyn, a solicitor in Waterford, Ireland. Both his parents came from prominent Waterford families with a long history in the religious and business life of the area. Ballinakill House, the home of the Dobbyns for some generations, is set in beautiful surroundings overlooking Waterford Harbour and is reputed to be the last refuge of King James ll when fleeing Ireland after his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1670.

Robert, known to his family and friends as Robin, was educated at Clifton College in Bristol, a school that had a progressive attitude to education in having a scientific rather than a classical curriculum and welcoming boys from all faiths and backgrounds. In December 1914, at the age of 21 he joined the University and Public Schools Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers as a private and saw service in the trenches before taking a commission in August 1916 and transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. His pilot’s training was at Beddington Aerodrome, later to become better known as Croydon Airport.

Robert died on 23 November 1916 while on a solo training flight. His flight plan was to land at Brooklands Aerodrome, and return to Beddington via Hounslow Heath Aerodrome, presumably to give him landing and take-off practice. Robert’s take off from Hounslow Heath started well but once at a height of seventy or eighty feet his plane went into a nose dive. The impact with the ground burst the petrol tank and the whole plane was soon alight. “Several officers from the adjacent aerodrome, who had observed the descent, hurried to the spot, and saw that the pilot was making frantic efforts to free himself from his seat. One after another they dashed into the flames in the hope of saving their comrade, only to be beaten back by the fierce heat, and one of the number was very badly burnt and had to be taken to hospital. At length a combined rush was made and the poor fellow was rescued from the burning wreckage, unconscious, and in a most pitiable condition. Hewas taken with all speed to the hospital, where he died almost immediately after his admission.” (Middlesex Chronicle, 26 Nov 1916.)

The Coroner’s enquiry heard that the most likely cause of the accident was that Robin had turned the plane downwind too soon after take-off causing the engine to stall or the plane to lose lift. A verdict was returned of accidental death through an error of judgement on Robert’s part probably due to his lack of experience. Robert’s senior officer, Captain Fuller, described Robert as a very reliable pilot, a capable man and one of the best pilots under instruction. Robert was buried with full military honours in the family graveyard adjoining Ballynakill House. His death left the family grief-stricken and with no male heir. Robert’s distant cousin and neighbour, Lieutenant Alexander Lee Dobbyn, attended the funeral. By a quirk of fate he had been awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry only a few days before. Aubrey Dobbyn, the Naval Lieutenant whom I had initially muddled with Robert, was also a distant cousin.

This story is just one example of how useful social media can be for a project of our kind.  The original blog post our volunteer Mary Jessop wrote about Robert Dobbyn not only generated a direct response from family but also from others with an interest in aviation history who were able to offer further details about the incident in which he was killed. Images of other individuals uploaded to Flickr have similarly prompted interaction with historical interest groups and other individuals. We have also developed links and contacts with other projects through Twitter and various online discussion forums.

This collection of glass plates has lain untouched for close to one hundred years – almost 40 of those have been spent here in the library collection.  For all that time the plates have remained hidden in their envelopes, anonymous, undisturbed and silent. Seeing now the contents of these dusty wrappers it is easy to lament the loss of those years, during which relatives of the sitters may have tried and failed to discover information about their predecessors. But the reality is that twenty years ago, even ten years ago, we simply would not have been able to do justice to a project like this.  The digital age has opened up the world of family and local research to everyone and has made possible the dissemination of information and images on a scale previously unimaginable.  When it all works as it should, and we get feedback like this from families and researchers, all the hours that our fabulous team of volunteers put in are justified.  If you recognise any of our featured sitters, or any of the faces or names displayed in our Flickr set then please get in touch.  With the little information we have, some of these faces may only be identified and given a voice with help from you. Any information you can offer about individuals, or the area during the period 1905-1917 would be gratefully received.

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