Noel Pemberton Billing

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Studio Portrait of Billing released for publication to the press in 1916

Noel Pemberton Billing (sometimes hyphenated as Noel Pemberton-Billing) (31 January 1881 – 11 November 1948) was an English aviator, inventor, publisher, and Member of Parliament. He founded the firm that became Supermarine and promoted air power, but he held a strong antipathy towards the Royal Aircraft Factory and its products. He was notorious during the First World War for his extreme right-wing views and his homophobic conspiracy theories, which eventually led to a sensational libel trial.

Early life and aviation[edit]

Born in Hampstead, a residential suburb in north London, Billing ran away from home at the age of 13 and travelled to South Africa. After trying a number of occupations, he joined the mounted police and became a boxer. He fought in the Second Boer War, but was invalided out.

Billing then returned to England in 1903 and used his savings to open a garage in Kingston upon Thames. This was successful, but he became more interested in aviation, which was then in its infancy. An attempt to open an aerodrome in Essex failed, so he started a short-lived career in property, while studying to become a lawyer. He passed his exams, but instead moved into selling steam yachts. Convinced of the potential of powered aviation, he founded a flying field with extensive facilities on reclaimed marshland at Fambridge in Essex in 1909,[1] but this ambitious venture did not prosper, British aviation activity becoming centred at Brooklands. In 1913 he bet Frederick Handley Page that he could earn his pilot's licence within 24 hours of first sitting in an aircraft. He won his bet, gaining licence number 683 and £500, equivalent to more than £28,000 in 2010,[2] which he used to found an aircraft business, Pemberton-Billing Ltd, with Hubert Scott-Paine as works manager, in 1913. Billing registered the telegraphic address Supermarine, Southampton for the company, which soon acquired premises at Oakbank Wharf in Woolston, Southampton and started construction of his flying boat designs. Financial difficulties soon set in, but the onset of World War I revived the fortunes of the business.

In 1914, Billing joined the Royal Naval Air Service, where he claimed to have planned an air raid on Zeppelin sheds near Lake Constance made in November 1914. He was able to sell his share in the aviation firm to Scott-Paine in early 1916, who renamed the firm Supermarine Aviation Works Limited after the company's telegraphic address.[3]

Politics and his advocacy of air power[edit]

As a man of means, Billing contested the Mile End by-election as an independent candidate in 1916, but was not successful. He then contested and won another by-election in Hertford. He held the seat at the 1918 general election and retained his East Hertfordshire seat until 1921.[4][5]

During World War I he was notable for his support of air power, constantly accusing the government of neglecting the issue and advocating the creation of a separate air force, unattached to either the British Army or the Royal Navy. During the so-called "Fokker scourge" of late 1915 and early 1916, he became particularly vocal against the Royal Aircraft Factory and its products, raising the question in typically exaggerated terms once he entered Parliament. His prejudice against the Factory and its products persisted, and was very influential. He called for air raids against German cities. In 1917 he published Air War and How to Wage it, which emphasised the future role of raids on cities and the need to develop protective measures. His own eccentric quadraplane design for a home defence fighter, the heavily armed and searchlight-equipped "Nighthawk", was built in prototype but had insufficient performance to be of any use against Zeppelins.

Publishing and campaign against homosexuality[edit]

Noel Pemberton Billing took the view that homosexuality was infiltrating and tainting English society, and that this was linked to German espionage in the context of World War I.[3] He founded a journal, Imperialist, in which he wrote an article based on information provided by Harold Sherwood Spencer which claimed that the Germans were blackmailing "47,000 highly placed British perverts"[6] to "propagate evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia." The names were said to be inscribed in the "Berlin Black Book" of the "Mbret of Albania". The contents of this book revealed that the Germans planned on "exterminating the manhood of Britain" by luring men into homosexual acts. "Even to loiter in the streets was not immune. Meretricious agents of the Kaiser were stationed at such places as Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner. In this black book of sin details were given of the unnatural defloration of children...wives of men in supreme positions were entangled. In Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of the state were threatened".[7] He publicly attacked Margot Asquith, wife of the prime minister, hinting that she was caught up in this. He also targeted members of the circle around Robbie Ross, the literary executor of Oscar Wilde, who supported and introduced homosexual poets and writers.

Billing's journal was then renamed Vigilante, and published a second article, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This implied that the actress Maud Allan, then appearing in a private production of Salome organised by Ross, was a lesbian associate of the conspirators. This led to a sensational libel case, at which Billing represented himself and won. Lord Alfred Douglas, a former lover of Oscar Wilde, testified in Billing's favour. Billing's victory in this case created significant popular publicity, and he was re-elected to parliament in the next election.

Inter-war years[edit]

After the war, Billing suffered increasingly from health problems, which contributed to his eventual retirement from politics in 1921. He dramatically resigned his seat in Parliament, urging his constituents not to vote in the consequent by-election.[4] However, he continued to remain active writing literary works and producing films. In 1927, Billing wrote a play, High Treason, inspired by Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. It was a sci-fi drama about pacifism set in a future 1940 (later changed to 1950), when a "United States of Europe" comes into conflict with the "Empire of the Atlantic States". In 1929 Maurice Elvey made a film of the play, using the same title. It was released in two versions, one silent and the other an early "talkie",[8] but neither proved successful.

World War II[edit]

In 1941 Billing attempted to return to politics, seeking to replicate his success during World War I as a critic of the conduct of the war. He advocated the defeat of Germany by bombing alone, and the defence of Britain by a system of spaced light-beams directed upwards, which would confuse enemy bombers. Billing also proposed a post-war reform of the British constitution, arguing that general elections should be abolished in favour of a rolling programme of by-elections and that a new second chamber should be created, appointed from representatives of trades and professions. He also argued that there should be a separate "Women's parliament" dedicated to "domestic" matters.[9] He stood in four by-elections, most notably in Hornsey; however, he was unable to win a seat in parliament at any of them.

Inventions[edit]

In 1922, Billing patented a recording system intended to produce laterally-cut disc records with ten times the capacity of existing systems. Billing's "World Record Controller" fitted onto a standard spring-wound gramophone, using a progressive gearing system to initially force the turntable speed down from 78 rpm to 33 rpm and then gradually increase rotational speed of the record as it played, so that the linear speed at which the recorded groove passed the needle remained constant. This allowed over ten minutes playing time per 12-inch side of Billing's special "World" records, but the high cost of his long-playing discs (10 shillings apiece, or nearly $29 today) and the complexity of the playback attachment prevented popular acceptance. A further musical invention, the "Duophone" unbreakable record, appeared in 1925, but was discontinued in 1930 as its material rapidly wore out needles and most Duophone recordings were made by the obsolete acoustical process.

In 1936, Billing designed the miniature "Le Coultre Compass" camera. In 1948, he devised the "Phantom" camera to be used by spies. It never entered production, but its rarity led one to sell for £120,000, a record price for any camera, in 2001.

Shortly before World War II, Billing claimed to have invented an uncrewed flying bomb, but the design was not pursued.

Representations in literature[edit]

Novelist Pat Barker's award-winning World War I trilogy – Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road – was set against the backdrop of the Billing campaigns against homosexuality, with several characters mentioning his ominous black book. The middle novel, in particular, deals with the psychiatric treatment of soldiers torn between patriotism and pacifism, and between homosexuality and heterosexuality.

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Flying Ground at FambridgeFlight 20 February 1909
  2. ^ According to the UK National Archive's currency converter, £500 in 1910 would have the equivalent purchasing power of over £28,000 in 2010.
  3. ^ a b McKinstry, Leo. Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend. London, UK. John Murray Publisher. 435pp. ISBN 978-0-7195-6874-9
  4. ^ a b Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Labour 1920–1924: The Beginning of Modern British Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.459
  5. ^ The Parliamentary Gazette, 1921
  6. ^ Air Minded: Air power & British Society http://airminded.org/biographies/noel-pemberton-billing/
  7. ^ Philip Hoare, Oscar Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century., Arcade Publishing, 1999, p.40; see also Kettle, Michael. Salome's Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century, London: Granada, 1977.; Jodie Medd, "'The Cult of the Clitoris': Anatomy of a National Scandal," Modernism/Modernity 9, no. 1 (2002): 21–49
  8. ^ High Treason http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018996/
  9. ^ Chris Cook, John Ramsden, By-Elections in British Politics, Routledge, 1997, pp135-6

Further reading[edit]

  • Barbara Stoney, Twentieth Century Maverick. East Grinstead: Manor House Books, 2004.
  • Barry Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule: British Air Strategy 1914–1939, London UK, Croom Helm, 1976
  • Hoare, Philip, Wilde's Last Stand: Scandal, Decadence and Conspiracy During the Great War, Duckworth Overlook, London and New York, 1997, 2nd ed., 2011. (concerning Pemberton Billing's trial for criminal libel).
  • James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War. Stroud: Sutton, 2002.
  • Pemberton-Billing, Noel, Air War: How to Wage It, with some suggestions for the defence of the great cities, Portsmouth UK, Gale & Polden, 1916, 74pp

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir John Fowke Lancelot Rolleston
Member of Parliament for Hertford
19161921
Succeeded by
Murray Sueter