Maurice Leigh Gardner was killed in a tragic air crash just as he was about to set out on his career as an officer in the Royal Flying Corps.
Maurice Leigh Gardner was born in 1886, the son of Frederick Leigh Gardner and his Cape Town-born wife Miriam Gardner. Living with his father (and a domestic servant) at 14 Marlborough Road, Gunnersbury in 1911, he is described in the census return as living on ‘private means’. Frederick Leigh Gardner was similarly described – he had been listed in the 1891 census as a ‘dealer in stocks and shares’, but early in the new century gave that up and became an occultist, bookseller and author.
In the summer of 1914, Maurice Leigh Gardner took up flying lessons at the Beatty School at Hendon (run by American aviator George W Beatty). After a few months’ training, he passed his flying test on a Wright biplane and earned his Royal Aero Club Certificate (No. 1002). At the same time he must have applied to join the Royal Flying Corps because on 19 January 1915, the London Gazette carried a notice that, as of 11 January, he was a Second Lieutenant in the RFC Military Wing.
That same day, 19 January, disaster struck. Flying in a Maurice Farman biplane at Farnborough, Gardner had completed a number of manoeuvres and was approaching the aerodrome at around 4.30pm. Suddenly the aeroplane dived and ploughed into the ground, engulfed in flames. RFC comrades were soon on the scene and extinguished the flames as quickly as possible, but Gardner was dead and his body charred by the time he was pulled from the wreck.
Accounts vary about exactly what happened. Initial reports were that the aeroplane had mysteriously caught fire in the air (this was reported in Flight magazine and the Daily Mirror). However, the inquest found that the fire occurred after impact, when the fuel tank crashed into the engine.
Why Gardner’s aeroplane plummeted so spectacularly and disastrously into the ground that day is something of a mystery, as far as I can tell. The official inquest was inconclusive. The Aeroplane magazine stated in 1915:
“An eyewitness of the accident expresses the opinion that Mr. Gardner must have fainted in the air and have fallen onto his controls, so causing a dive for die last 60 feet. It may be, however, that he merely misjudged his height, and had no room in which to pull the machine back, as in the fatal accident to Flight Sub-Lieut. Ffield, R.N., at Hendon recently. It was not made known whether he was strapped into his seat or not.”
Sources and links:
- Lives of the Great War profile
- Flight magazine, late 1914, and 22 and 29 January 1915
- The Aeroplane
- Daily Mirror 21/1/1915