Alfred George Buckham was born on 6th November 1879 at 11 Cole Street, St Mary Newington, Lambeth, London, to Alfred George Buckham, coal merchant, and his wife Deborah, natives of Lambeth and Southwark respectively. They lived in a respectable working class district; their neighbours were bricklayers, painters and decorators, sewing machinists, porters and general labourers. Though statistically average, the family members were far from ordinary, being intelligent, sensitive and creative.
A.G. Buckham Sr had his own business and was relatively prosperous. He and his wife created a benign atmosphere for their children who grew up in a household that was based on sound religious belief, faith in natural healing and the benefit of wholesome food, as well as a fondness for music and pet animals.
Alfred was the middle child with two sisters, Ann and Deborah. He was a sickly child who came close to death each winter and so alarmed were his parents by the fragility of their son that they regularly sent him out of the smoke and fog of Victorian London to relatives on the Isle of Wight in the hope that country air and sea breezes would strengthen him. His health improved marginally but he was still too delicate to attend school and was taught at home by an uncle who was a retired schoolmaster. As he grew into his teens he was able to finish his education at school. In the years when illness restricted his activities he had loved to draw and so his first career choice was to be an artist. He made a promising start, as Royal Academicians Stacey Aumonier and B.W. Leader encouraged him to think that his prospects were good. They both advised him not to take any formal lessons until he had formed a ‘style’. However, one day he returned home from the National Gallery where he had been studying the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner and, after mulling thoughts over during the night, next morning made a bonfire of all his work. ‘It was,’ he says, ‘the brightest bonfire he had ever seen.’ The delicate child had matured into a strong-looking man of 6ft in height with brown eyes and dark hair. He spent much time with relatives at Cookham, near Maidenhead, Berkshire. There he became friendly with one of the church organist’s sons, Harold Spencer, whose younger brothers grew up to be the artists Gilbert and Stanley Spencer.
For recreation he would walk the 30 miles there from his home in London and study the dawning of the light and the sunrise on the way. He was already interested in clouds and atmospheric conditions, as can be seen from his early photographs. Around 1905 he began his career as a photographer inspired by a friend who took landscape photographs. In a few years he had won thirty-three awards for his work. According to his own account he found the technology of his craft, the physics and chemistry, simple to master.
He joined the Royal Photographic Society in 1913 and was elected a Fellow the same year. By then he had become a teacher and demonstrator of photographic technique at Borough Polytechnic Technical Institute in London and, enthusiastic about his subject, he travelled throughout England lecturing on it.
On 25th September 1913, at the Register Office of St George, Hanover Street, Mayfair, aged thirty-three, he married Grace Marianne Ash, aged thirty, from Maidenhead. She was the daughter of his cousin Daniel Ash, an expert in wood. They set up home at 76 East Dulwich Grove, Camberwell, London, where their only child, Stanley George Godwin Buckham, was born on 29 February 1916.
Alfred G. Buckham was by then a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and entered the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on 9th December 1917 aged thirty-eight. He attended the Naval College at Greenwich for a few weeks’ officer training as a temporary lieutenant, after which he was assigned to Chingford Photograph Section in January 1918 As a lecturer he spent the days in classrooms at airfields shouting at the top of his voice over the roar of aero engines outside. In a short time his voice could not cope and he requested a transfer to a flying unit. On 10 March 1918 he was sent to join the staff of the Admiral Commanding Aircraft, HMS Repulse, on photographic duties with the aircraft of the Grand Fleet and on Britain’s first experimental aircraft carrier, the converted light battle cruiser, HMS Furious. Thereafter he was stationed at Turnhouse, Edinburgh, until he was demobilised in August 1919 bearing the rank of captain.
During this period he was involved in frequent flying which meant strenuous work in difficult, dangerous circumstances. At this late stage of the First World War there was still constant danger from the enemy while the combatants resolved to fight on tenaciously to the last man. In the last two years of the war alone over 100 bombing attacks were carried out by the RNAS against German submarines at sea, aided by aerial reconnaissance.
While statistics for the Western Front tend to dominate the overall understanding of the First World War, exceeding those of any other area of the conflict, it is sufficient to say that the aircrew of the RNAS Coastal Service had a 1-in-5 chance of serving their first tour of duty and a 1-in-10 chance of surviving the second. One of the reasons behind these figures is that of hurriedly trained pilots familiarising themselves with machines and conditions not previously encountered. The peril of the occupation was increased further by two factors: Firstly, the conditions encountered in the open cockpit of the aircraft; a freezing rush of air and a continuous fine spray of oil from the aircraft’s engine made conditions uncomfortable at best.A tall man like Buckham, wrapped up in constricting layers of clothing and working in cramped conditions, surrounded by the bulky photographic equipment of the time, found it impossible to wear a safety belt. To take good photographs he discovered that it was imperative to have the freedom of movement to stand up in order to reduce the vibration from the machine, then to huddle down into the cockpit to change the photographic plates. Secondly, the aircraft of the time were inherently very dangerous vehicles. Even the most casual glance at statistics indicates how prone to failure were these early aeroplanes.
Crash landings on fields and in the sea were commonplace due to mechanical problems, or to navigational difficulties if the weather closed in.Pilots had to be well versed in the mechanics of their machines so that they could fly safely, land and take-off without the aid of ground staff. Spares were routinely carried and replaced by the pilot himself if it became necessary.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Buckham was involved in nine crashes during his time with the RNAS. Eight of them left him relatively unhurt: ‘He was bashed into hillsides, catapulted into the North Sea, flung into hedges.’ .....
This article is continued in the book 'A Vision of Flight' - click here.