The Butler did it.

Wood has been used since time immemorial for making such things as rudimentary sticks for whacking animate and inanimate things with, to shelters and furniture etc. But wood really came into its own in the mid-nineteenth-century for creating the most unimaginable of things.

Mosquito bombers, built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited as late as 1950 (many are still flying) were constructed from ash, balsa, birch, spruce and walnut.

Fig. 1. de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito.

In 1947 the entire fuselage and wings of the Hughes Aircraft Company’s Hercules flying boat was built from birch (and still boasts the widest wingspan of any aircraft ever flown).

Fig. 2. Hughes’ H-4 Hercules.

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made the first successful flight on the 17th of December, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in a wood-and-wire, propeller-driven, self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft.

Clement Ader, a Frenchman and no doubt, a maître d’art, constructed his bat-like, steam-powered flying machine, the Éole in 1886, which realised an uncontrolled bounce of 160 feet at the dizzying height of about eight inches above the ground.

However, these aeronautical pioneers are comprehensively eclipsed by the achievements of one man, Godwin Swifte, an Irishman of immense stature in the world of powered flight, and without whose invention, none of their contraptions would ever have taken off.

Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte (also styled Viscount Carlingford) inhabited Swifts Heath in County Kilkenny (infamous also for its indoor toilet – the oldest in Ireland).

Fig. 3. Swifts Heath, County Kilkenny, built circa 1750, home of Godwin Swifte.

In 1854, Godwin Swifte patented what he called “an aerial screw” which, according to a local newspaper, ‘was the complete solution to the problem of aerial navigation, but such was the apathy or suspicious disposition of scientific folk that none seemed to appreciate the grandeur of the idea and the ingenuity of the mechanism.’ [1]

Swifte (a would-be engineer and mechanic of no practical experience whatsoever), ignored suggestions and scathing opinions of several respected carpenters and celebrated cabinetmakers, to construct the fuselage of his new flying machine from slender laths of flexible, lightweight larch (figure 4).

Fig. 4.  The patent sketch for Swifte’s flying machine.

Undeterred, Swifte designed and built his contraption described as “an aerial chariot (figure 5) or apparatus for navigating the airs”[2] from heavy spars of abundant local oak “for ultimate strength”, later naming the machine ‘Oakenswift’.

Fig. 5. Swifte’s patent.

Swifte built the craft in the dining room of Swiftes Heath, but when complete, found it wouldn’t fit through the terrace doors so he had the doors knocked out and when this didn’t realise the desired result, he also had part of the wall demolished through which to extract it.[3]

It had a boat-shaped carriage with one wheel in front and two behind; the silk-covered wings were “a network of lengthened square shapes”, which the inventor claimed would replicate the aerodynamic properties of birds’ feathers and enable the chariot to float on the air for several miles, “perhaps 50 or 60”, he added optimistically. The altitude could be altered by raising and lowering the tail by means of a cord. The chariot was to be drawn forward by the aerial screw twisting through the air at 45°, similar to that of a bird’s wing. The screw was turned by a winch acting on three multiplying wheels.

He suggested that, as he had proved by experiment that an aerial screw of only five inches long can pull a 10-pound weight or more suspended on a cord and drawn through a pulley, it would only take a small force to maintain the flight. “What we look upon as fabulous may hereafter come to pass and that, like the chariot of Jupiter, we may yet behold two eagles trained to draw the aerial chariot.”[4]

Natheless, being the ‘belt-and-braces’ sort, Swifte settled on a team of three horses “arranged in arrowhead formation, to neatly comply with the shape of the hull” to provide the motive force. To convert the horses’ action to rotational effort, a canvas conveyor belt and rollers were commandeered from a reaping machine and connected via a leather belt to the multiplying wheels in the contraption.

Three Irish Draught horses were relieved of their farm duties for the occasion and towed the aerial chariot to nearby Jenkinstown whereupon they and Oakenswift were hoisted up onto the battlements of Foulksrath Castle, which, conveniently, Swifte also owned (figure 6).

Fig. 6. Foulksrath Castle, Jenkinstown, County Kilkenny.

On the day of the flight, Godwin’s brother, John, had organised a garden party in Rathfarnham, to the south of Dublin, where the highlight was to be the unprecedented entrance of Godwin, making a controlled and graceful descent from the heavens in his three-horsepower aerial chariot.

Come the moment however, Swifte glanced down at the ground from the battlements and, smitten by acrophobia, directed his butler to take the controls of Oakenswift. As the apprehensive manservant was hastily ushered into the pilot’s seat, he was heard to utter, “Ours not to question why…”[5]

Oakenswift was then unceremoniously shoved [catapulted, according to documents kept by the late Major Briggs Swifte[6]] off the fortifications.[7]

Not surprisingly, Oakenswift plummeted straight to earth (aided, unquestionably, by her excessive construction… and all those aboard her) and the long-suffering butler, finding himself situate between terra firma and several tons of descending horses, suffered numerous broken bones. According to an article in the Old Kilkenny Review by Swifte’s descendant, Geoffrey Marescaux, the unhappy individual received Danville House[8] and a lifetime gratuity[9] by way of a solatium.

The ribs and frames of Oakenswift’s fuselage and wings may have been constructed of oak, but Godwin Swifte was not a man completely devoid of taste and style and so, had the prominent screw “carved from mahogany and polished to perfection”. All that survives that ill-fated day is one of the craft’s wheels and Swifte’s lavish twin-blade screw which, according to Marescaux, tore itself free of the craft when the horses were ‘gunned’ and proceeded to slash a path through manicured beds of daffodils, narrowly missing several women and children who had gathered in the castle grounds to witness the spectacle. The propeller was later recovered from a large buddleia by the butler’s wife and currently resides in the museum at Rothe House, Parliament Street, Kilkenny (figure 7).

Fig. 7. Swifte’s mahogany screw.

Occasionally still referred to, by flyers of vintage aircraft, as a Swifte screw, the identifiable shape and laminated construction of Swifte’s wooden propeller has remained largely unaltered to this day.

Jack Plane

[1] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[2] Swift’s Heath, Kilkenny People, June 20, 2012.

[3] ibid.

[4] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[5] Misquote of Tennyson’s lines “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” from The Charge of the Light Brigade.

[6] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[7] Swift’s Heath, Kilkenny People, June 20, 2012.

[8] ibid.

[9] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Distractions and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Butler did it.

  1. odl says:

    ahhhh, the luck o the oirish!


  2. Eric R says:



  3. Paul Huckett says:

    I’d heard of this amazing story but thanks for the detail. I’ve had a series of Riley motorcars over the years, the last a 1949 RMB 2 1/2 lt, and they have all had the English ash frame that the body work is fixed to. Most people were astounded to see the thick ash rails quite prominently seen in the engine bay. Some British cars used wood as a structural component as well way into the 20th century. Alas no Riley atm , but looking .


  4. Jonas Jensen says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post.
    I am impressed with the idea that 3 draught horses were hoisted to the top of the old castle, and furthermore placed onboard the flying machine to be.
    This line:
    Swifte (a would-be engineer and mechanic of no practical experience whatsoever)
    Stands as a shining beacon that one should never let any lack of previous experience stand in the way for an epic experiment.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nunbetter says:

    A little blarney on another April first. Hope to see more in the future. Best wishes.


  6. Sylvain says:

    Congratulations for this excellent (as usual) 1st of April post. I wish I could tell stories like that.


  7. joeyb5 says:

    A swift screw indeed!
    Happy April Fool’s Day to you, Sir.


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