Friday, 9 May 2008

RAF Volunteer Reserve at Derby, 1939 (Update)

Some great strides have been made on researching the background of the RAF Voluteer Reserve group photograph by Derby studio W.W. Winter, featured in an earlier post.

Peter Kirk and Peter Felix of the Derbyshire Historical Aviation Society have confirmed that the DHAS was involved in setting up the Alan Feary display at the Derby Industrial Museum about 25 years ago by providing the models and artefacts on display. Peter Felix believes he has a copy of the same photograph and is looking for it - if he's anything like me, it's probably stored somewhere "safe." Peter Kirk has made some observations about the photograph, which are very welcome - he guessed correctly that I am by no means an "aviation man."

On Image 1 there are five pilots, hence the ‘wings’ and probably the adjutant is the wingless one. Further, I’m pretty sure the sergeant pilot on the left is Feary, but will have to confirm or otherwise. One of the others might be the CFI (chief flying instructor) Roy Harben who wrote the classic manual on flying instruction. The [ranks of the] four officers are from left to right Flight Lieutenant, Flight Lieutenant, Wing Commander and Flight Lieutenant.

All the personnel are RAF; all NCOs and other ranks all wear a rearward-facing (don’t know why!) eagle on a black patch on their upper sleeves; those with three stripes are sergeants; those with the lower black patch (a two-blade propeller) are Leading Aircraftmen; those with no patch are Aircraftmen 1st Class and 2nd Class. Surprisingly I can’t see a single two-striper (corporal) in the whole bunch! A number of these may have been trainee pilots. The civvies may be civvy employees or new recruits.

The HQ of the VR during the War was at Broadway and we think that is where the photo was taken – I’ll try to get a bit more detail as it is something we have not really looked at, our attention being taken mainly by the airfield at Burnaston which was licensed from September 1938.
An almost certain identification of the location of the photograph has come from Nigel Aspdin, after a visit to the Derby Local Studies Library ...

I [copied] a page from a book "Derbyshire Fighter Aces of WW2" by B. M. Marsden ... He was one of the pair that set up the display at the Industrial Museum ... It does say that they "studied ... at the RAFVR centre at Highfields." ... Then with the mention of Broadway - If Peter Kirk is correct I think it could only be Highfield or The Leylands. Broadway was a section of Derby Ring Road, a new road set out in the 1930s, but which passed (probably partly through the grounds of) The Leylands. That too has been developed, in the 1950s, but as an area of retirement homes, and the whole building estate is now listed (Leylands Conservation Area) ... One way or another I think we are getting quite close to the answer of the location.
... where he found the houses referred to on a contemporary Ordnance Survey map ...

Image © Derby Local Studies Library and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Ordnance Survey Map of area around Highfield & Leyland houses, 1938
Image © Derby Local Studies Library and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

What I had forgotten (or never knew) is that Highfields is a large house north of Leylands. I have always known it as St Philomena's Convent, which is what it was (or still is maybe) although in the last 4 years pretty well all the park around the house has been intensively developed with housing. So you will see the houses Leylands and Highfields, adjacent on the attached OS maps ... I am putting my cash on Highfields now, the entrance is indeed off Broadway.
... and some energetic cycling in pursuit of a big enough lawn, hedge of the right colour, trees of suitable size, etc. The following arrived a few hours later:

I think I won my bet. I am pretty sure its Highfields. The camera would have been on the door step or east of the door step of the house, facing SSE to SSW approx. I am not sure that a photographer would choose to shoot into the southern light, but I guess Winters knew how to cope with sun etc.
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

You will see from my stitched panorama (above, click on image to see larger version), taken from approximately where Winter's man may have stood, that there is a well trimmed laurel hedge. This I think accords with the taller shaggier hedge in the group photo. I think that at some stage the lawn could have stretched further to the left than it does now.
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

There is the steel stump of a flag pole base, of M.O.D. quality, and the top of the old pole someone appears to have found and leant up in the wood. If the pole was there at the time of the group photo it would have laid flat parallel with the rows of chairs etc.
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

As for the trees in the background I really cannot claim to positively identify any particular tree. There is quite a lot of sycamore which will be post war self set trees. But as you know I have been obsessed with the tiny bit of cedar that just appears in the group photo as a horizontal branch. I felt that it was quite distinctive. It is indeed there, and is one tree that is not likely to have changed radically in the 70 years. It is hard to spot on my photo, but if you take one good step to the left of Jesus in the yew bush you are in front of a trunk of a sycamore, and if you take one more step you are in the front of the cedar trunk, which is set further back in the wood. Some of the other trees in the wood are tall yews, and I see tall yews in the group photo. The Highfields site has many Scots Pine elsewhere, and I think I do see Scots Pine in the group photo, albeit none still in that particular area now. The whole feel and depth of the wood feels right to me.
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
SSW facade of Highfield House
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

You remember that Frank Scarratt usually got his bike in his photos? I now think he actually did it by mistake.
Many thanks to Peter Kirk and Peter Felix for their investigations, and to Nigel Aspdin, for going the extra mile on this one. We are still hoping to identify at least some of the individuals in this picture, and I will report on any further progress in due course.

Post Script - a response from Peter Kirk:

The location is indeed Highfield. We confirmed this after PF found his picture, upon which we had noted the location some years ago ... Intriguingly, Pete’s photo is different to yours. Although the background trees are identical, the group is not! There are slightly fewer people on it, and seated centrally from left to right are Feary (it is him), the supposed adjutant, and two other unidentified sergeant pilots, one of whom is on your photo.

Regrettably, we have so far only been able to identify one other man – Sidney Bradley, a wireless operator/air gunner who was killed on 19 Nov 1940 when his Hudson crashed in bad weather returning from an anti-submarine patrol. In your pic he is the tall man with the moustache fourth from left in the back row of your pic section 5. In ours, he is seventh from the left on the back row.

Peter also has an enlargement of Bradley which we’d assumed came from his picture but on close examination it didn’t, and what’s more I can’t positively tie it up with yours either ... it appears that although the two long leafy fronds behind his lef shoulder look the same on each, the rest of the foliage doesn’t match. Hence I am 99% certain that there is yet another version of the photo.
Peter Felix's photo is shown below (at right) next to an enlargement of the relevant section of my photo for comparative purposes.

Images © and collections of Brett Payne and Peter Felix
Sidney Bradley, an RAF wireless operator/air gunner (d. 1940)

I've changed my mind several times along the way, but I've eventually decided that I think they are different prints made from the same original negative. There are just too many similarities in the vegetation behind Sidney Bradley for it to be a second photograph. I think the differences that are apparent may have been produced by (a) differences in the exposure times of the prints, and/or (b) specks of dirt on the negative when the second print was made. If the print was made a good time afterwards, the negative may have suffered a little in storage.


  1. The Derby Tramways Company had offices at 4 Victoria Street from 1888, prior to which they occupied 34 Victoria Street (Kelly 1884) and Albert Street (Red Book 1882). The Company disappeared in 1899 being purchased by Derby Corporation for £32.000. The Corporation took over the offices at 4 Victoria Street and rebuilt them in Art Nouveau style in 1904. A certain amount of rebuilding occurred before the building's transformation into the Post Office, including the Tramways Office name, which had previously been located on the Victoria Street frontage next to the 'official' tramways clock.A beautiful art nouveau window which had been situated on the angle of the building which now contains the 'Tramways Office'inscription, was removed previously when the Corporation Omnibus Department office was 'modernised'.

  2. If you want any further information on Feary, the Highfields photo or the derby RAFVR email me at


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