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Making History
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Listen to the latest editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Vanessa Collingridge and the team answer listener’s historical queries and celebrate the way in which we all ‘make’ history.
Programme 9
27 May 2008
Vanessa Collingridge and the team discuss listeners' historical queries and celebrate the many ways in which we all 'make' history.

Listen to this programme in full

Operation Polo, Hyderabad 1948

Making History listener Janet Bishop contacted the programme to find out more about the circumstances surrounding the death of a great uncle in Hyderabad in 1948. It appears that he was working for a notorious gun runner called Sydney Cotton and got caught up in the Indian invasion code named Operation Polo in September 1948.

Making History consulted Dr Taylor Sherman from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Contrary to popular belief, not all of what is now India accepted independence in 1947. There were more than 500 princely states that were free to join with India or declare independence. Hyderabad was one such place.

The Nizam first wanted to join with Muslim Pakistan and when this was ruled out tried to broker a deal with Britian to remain a dominion of the Commonwealth. But this was unacceptable to India because Hyderabad was logistically important to the new republic. Indeed, India was concerned that Hyderabad was being supplied with arms by Pakistan.

This was a difficult situation for Britain because members of its own armed services were serving as advisors to the Indian and Pakistani government. As tensions between the two rose there was a real fear that a conflict would ensue with British personnel effectively fighting each other.

The situation came to a head on 12th September 1948 when thirty thousand Indian troops invaded Hyderabad and in five days secured the state. This quick success hides the fact that as many as 50,000 people may have died in the reprisals that followed the invasion.

Hyderabad was divided up in 1956 and ceased to exist.

Were members of your family caught up in Operation Polo? If so, Making History would like to hear from you please contact us at the addresses below.

Useful links

The Armchair Historian

The Hindu

John Murphy runs a successful brewery at St Peter's Hall near Bungay in Suffolk. Like many historic houses in East Anglia, this wonderful 13th century building has a moat. John contacted Making History to find out why?

Making History consulted landscape historian Professor Tom Williamson at the University of East Anglia. According to English Heritage:

"A moat is a wide, water-filled ditch partly or completely enclosing one or more islands of dry ground which provided the site for one or more buildings (domestic, religious or agricultural), or for horticulture, or for both. Moats may be situated in open countryside or within rural settlements, but specifically excluded from the class of monuments here called moats are the water-filled ditches around castles, mottes, ring-works, and towns. Moats represent a class of field monument whose function was similar to other classes of monument of rather different form."

Most moats are dug in clay – hence the geographical distribution. However, Tom Williamson explained that most historians and archaeologists do not now believe that moats were built for defensive reasons, rather they were a fashion which reflected social status. At the same time, moats would help drainage; provide a ready supply of water whilst also providing an obstacle to thieves and petty criminals.

Useful Links

English Heritage

St Peter's Hall

Professor Tom Williamson

Caroline Chisholm – ‘the emigrant’s friend’.

May 30th is the bicentenary of the birth of Caroline Chisholm. She is revered in Australia but forgotten in Britain. Dr Elizabeth Hurren at Oxford Brookes explained more about the importance of her work for women convicts and settlers in Australia.

Other useful links

A full biography of Caroline Chisholm can be found at BBC H2g2

Northamptonshire people: Caroline Chisholm (from BBC Northampton) 

Caroline Chisholm's The ABC of Colonization (via Google Books)

Dr Carole Walker is currently finishing a new biography of Chisholm, The Saviour of Living Cargos, The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm 1808-1877 by Dr. C. A. Walker, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.
Elsie Mackay

Elsie McKay
Aviatrix Elsie Mackay

Making History listener Jayne Baldwin lives close to what is now the Glennap Hotel near Ballantrae south of Ayr in Scotland. This was once the home of Lord Inchcape of P&O fame.

One of his four daughters was Elsie Mackay and Jayne got interested in her story after attending a talk about her extraordinary feats as an early pilot. In March 1928 she attempted a crossing of the Atlantic travelling from East to West.

Tragically she was never seen again. This attempt was only months after Charles Lindberg had made it from West to East and well before other now famous female pilots (such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson) had gained any public recognition.

Jayne Baldwin has written an article about Elsie (see below) and is constructing a web site too.

Article about Captain W G R Hinchliffe and the Honourable Miss Elsie Mackay to mark their attempt to fly the Atlantic from RAF Cranwell on March 13th 1928

By Jayne Baldwin

Eighty years ago this month (March 2008) an intriguing pair of aviators took off from RAF Cranwell in an attempt to be the first to fly the Atlantic from east to west.

Half of the intrepid duo was the Honourable Elsie Mackay, one of the richest women in England and already famous as an actress and the third daughter of wealthy shipping tycoon Lord Inchcape. Her aim was to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic.

In March 1928 her name was splashed across the headlines of daily newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic as reporters learned of her association with Captain W G R Hinchliffe, a pilot known to be preparing for a long distance flight.

Captain Hinchliffe was a flying ace decorated for his bravery during World War One. Despite losing the sight of one eye in an horrific accident during the war he had become an accomplished pilot in the early days of civil aviation.

In the 1920s aviation was a new and exciting science. People were thrilled to read of the exploits of men and women who were trying to become the fastest or fly the highest or the furthest. Big money prizes were on offer to those who could achieve these goals.

Some tried to set records to prove the reliability and speed of new models of aircraft and were sponsored by the manufacturing companies. For others it was a matter of national and personal pride. For Elsie Mackay it was simply the thrill of flying that attracted her.

She had been one of the first women in Britain to gain her pilots licence despite one of her early flying experiences almost causing her death. Elsie had encouraged the pilot to carry out a dangerous manoeuvre whilst flying at 10,000 feet. The pilot later told reporters how she had asked him to ‘loop’ the plane around with the wheels on the inside of the circle. During the exploit Elsie’s safety strap had broken and while she gripped the bracing wires her body swung out of the plane like a stone on the end of a string

The pilot returned the plane, with difficulty, to the ground and found that Elsie's hands had been cut to the bone due to her fearsome grip of the wires. Yet her response was to say she was ready to repeat the exploit any time – as long as she was given a stronger safety belt!

After becoming one of the first women in Britain to gain her Royal Aero Club pilot’s licence Elsie bought her own plane and she was later elected to become a member of the advisory committee of pilots to the British Empire Air League.

Despite her wealth Elsie had previously sought her own career and enjoyed success as an actress on stage and screen under the name of Poppy Wyndham. At the time of her attempt on the Atlantic she was working as an interior designer for her father’s shipping company, P & O, creating lavish interiors for their luxury liners.

Flying simply for pleasure wasn’t enough for this extraordinary young woman and Elsie had long held a secret ambition to become not only the first woman to fly the Atlantic but to tackle the ocean flight from east to west, an even more challenging task due to the weather conditions. Flying against the prevailing winds had already defeated a number of pilots and had cost the lives of two women along with their male crews in the months before her flight.

Although several flyers had successfully crossed the Atlantic from west to east, most famously Alcock and Brown in 1919 and Captain Charles Lindbergh in 1927, even that route still proved to be treacherous. Despite the dangers Elsie was determined to fulfil her ambition.

Elsie’s vibrant and charming personality made her a popular figure both at the family’s Scottish estate in South Ayrshire and in London society. Her contacts in the Air Ministry and her persuasive character brought her together with one of the world’s most experienced pilots,
Captain Ray Hinchliffe. During 1927 he had been employed by an eccentric American millionaire to fly him across the east west Atlantic route but the plan had later been abandoned.

Knowing he shared her ambition Elsie joined forces with Captain Hinchliffe combining her financial backing with his extensive flying experience and the meticulous planning he had already carried out in preparation for his earlier aborted attempt. Captain Hinchliffe’s skill as a pilot had
led to him become a valued instructor at RAF Cranwell during World War One and he was also decorated for his combat flying at the Front in France.

The pair of aviators planned their Atlantic attempt in great secrecy as Elsie did not want her father to learn of her ambition. She knew that he had the power and influence to prevent her and she hoped to complete the flight while her parents were in Egypt, intending to reveal all on her safe arrival in New York or Newfoundland.

In early March 1928 reporters discovered that Captain Hinchliffe had been carrying out test flights at RAF Cranwell and he had been accompanied by the Honourable Elsie Mackay. After tracking the aviators down to The George Hotel in Grantham The Daily Express ran a story claiming the they were about to embark on a transatlantic attempt but the editor was promptly threatened with legal action by Elsie. Days later the truth emerged.

Although a friend of Captain Hinchliffe had helped in trying to throw the newshounds off the scent by pretending to be the co-pilot, after the little plane had taken off into the snow clouds above Lincolnshire on the morning of March 13th the journalists soon worked out who was really in the cockpit.

In the days that followed the story of Captain Hinchliffe and Elsie Mackay continued to dominate the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic as people waited for news. There were numerous false alarms and reports of sightings all along the eastern seaboard of Canada and America but sadly after being spotted over Mizen Head on the tip of the Irish coast the flyers were never seen alive again.

There were several unusual post scripts to the flight. In the months that followed Captain Hinchliffe’s widow became convinced that she was receiving posthumous messages from her late husband and went on to write a book about this psychic phenomenon and carry out a sell-out lecture tour. Elsie’s considerable financial legacy was left by the Inchcape family to the British nation to be held in trust for 50 years and then be used to help pay off the National Debt. The family of Elsie Mackay also installed a beautiful stained glass window in the tiny church at Glenapp in her memory and also spelled out her name in flowering shrubs on the opposite side of the glen.

Useful Links

Further information from Jayne Baldwin's Elsie McKay web site

Extracts from Newfoundland newspapers of the day

Further reading

A flight too far,  a story of Elsie MacKay of Glenapp,
by Jack Hunter
Published by Stranraer & District Local History Trust. (ISBN 978-0-9542966-8-1)

    Contact  Making History
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    Making History is produced by Nick Patrick and is a Pier Production.
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    Vanessa Collingridge
    Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

    Contact Making History

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    Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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