George Bertram Cockburn

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George Bertram Cockburn
Cockburn 6407.jpg
1911, Rheims.
Born(1872-01-08)8 January 1872
Died25 February 1931(1931-02-25) (aged 59)
NationalityUnited Kingdom
OccupationResearch Chemist
Known forAviation Pioneer

George Bertram Cockburn OBE (8 January 1872 – 25 February 1931) was a research chemist who became an aviation pioneer. He represented Great Britain in the first international air race at Rheims and co-founded the first aerodrome for the army at Larkhill. He also trained the first four pilots of what was to become the Fleet Air Arm. During World War I he worked as a Government Inspector of Aeroplanes for the Royal Flying Corps at Farnborough and subsequently became Head of the Accidents Branch of the Department of the Controller-General of Civil Aviation at the Air Ministry.[1]

Early life[edit]

Bertram Cockburn was the youngest child of George Cockburn, a Liverpool provisions merchant, and his second wife Katherine Jessie Stitt (née Bertram). Both his parents having previously been widowed, he had four older half siblings from his parents' first marriages – John Scott Cockburn, Ada Cockburn, Mary Cockburn and Katie Stitt.[2][3] The family lived across the River Mersey at Lingdale Lodge, Shrewsbury Road in Oxton, Birkenhead.[4] Several earlier generations of the Cockburn family had lived in Inveresk south east of Edinburgh.[5] However, George Cockburn (Senior), who had travelled south to seek his fortune, had become sufficiently prosperous to be able to send both his sons to be educated at fee paying schools in Scotland. John, who became a Presbyterian minister,[6] attended Edinburgh Academy then Glasgow University [7] and George (Junior) was sent to Loretto School in Musselburgh from 1887 until 1892.[8] In October 1892 Bertram Cockburn entered New College, Oxford to read Natural Sciences specialising in Chemistry. He graduated in 1895.[9]


Research Chemist[edit]

On leaving Oxford he went to the Chemistry Laboratory of St George's Hospital in London to work with John Addyman Gardner [10] on the study of fenchones. Between 1897 and 1898 they jointly published four papers in the Journal of the Chemical Society.[11][12][13][14] In 1899 Bertram Cockburn published a fifth paper on fencholenic acids independently of Gardner. By this time, he had received his BSc.[15]

His father died in 1893 while he was at Oxford [16] and, by 1901, he had returned to Birkenhead to live with his widowed mother and unmarried sister Mary.[17] Following the death of his mother in 1903,[18] they sold the family home and moved to Taynton in Gloucestershire.[19]

Pioneer Aviator[edit]

In February 1909 Bertram Cockburn was elected to membership of the Royal Aero Club [20] and, later that year, travelled to France to become the first pupil in Henri Farman's flying school at Châlons-sur-Marne.[21] He made his first flight in June of that year [22] and took part in the Grande Semaine d'Aviation at Rheims in August.[23] He represented Great Britain in the competition for the Gordon Bennett Cup but unfortunately crashed into a haystack and was unable to complete the course.[24]

He returned to Britain with a Farman III biplane and, on 26 April the following year, he received Royal Aero Club certificate number 5. By this time he was resident at St Mary Bourne near Andover, Hampshire.[25] In June 1910, he won a prize of £100 in the 'Quick Starting' Competition at the Wolverhampton Air Meet .[26] Although he actively promoted air races as an incentive to develop improvements in aircraft performance,[27] he never flew competitively again following the death of his friend Charles Rolls at Bournemouth. In 1912 he became a founder member of the Royal Aero Club's Public Safety and Accidents Investigation Committee.[28]

Trainer of Pilots[edit]

On returning from France, Bertram Cockburn devoted himself to the training of other pilots.[29] He obtained permission from the army to rent a shed at Larkhill adjacent to Salisbury Plain.[30] From here he and other aviators gave private instruction in flying to army officers. By 1910, he and Captain JBD Fulton had founded the first aerodrome for the army.[31] In 1911, following the death of Cecil Grace in a flying accident, he volunteered to train the first four naval pilots at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey.[32] This he did free of charge[33] while lodging with Maurice Egerton [34] after which he returned to Larkhill.

Aircraft Inspector[edit]

In 1913, as war approached, Bertram Cockburn resigned his Fellowship of the Chemical Society [35] and in 1914 was appointed to be an Inspector of Aeroplanes for the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate of the Royal Flying Corps at Farnborough. In the New Years Honours of 1918, he was awarded an OBE for his services.[36]

Shortly afterwards, he became Head of the newly established Accidents Branch of the Department of the Controller-General of Civil Aviation, Air Ministry.[37][38]


On 12 February 1913 he married Lilian Woodhouse, daughter of a sugar broker. They had one daughter, Joan, who was born in 1914. He died at Larksborough near Whitchurch in Hampshire in 1931, aged of 59.[39]


  1. ^ Raleigh, Sir Walter, (1922), The War in the Air, page 143, Hamish Hamilton SBN 241 01805 6
  2. ^ BMD Records England and Scotland
  3. ^ Taynton Memorial Inscriptions
  4. ^ 1871,1881,1901 Census Records
  5. ^ Registers of Inveresk Parish Kirk
  6. ^ Records of St. Paul's United Reformed Church (formerly Presbyterian) Harrogate
  7. ^ Records of Edinburgh Academy
  8. ^ "George Bertram Cockburn". Early Aviators. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  9. ^ Register of New College, Oxford
  10. ^ Obituary Notice, John Addyman Gardner
  11. ^ John Addyman Gardner M.A. and George Bertram Cockburn B.A. Action of Phosphorus Pentachloride on Fenchone, (1897) Journal of the Chemical Society Transactions
  12. ^ John Addyman Gardner M.A. and George Bertram Cockburn B.A. Researches on the terpenes. II. On the oxidation of fenchene, (1898) Journal of the Chemical Society Transactions
  13. ^ John Addyman Gardner M.A. and George Bertram Cockburn B.A. Researches on the terpenes. III. Halogen derivatives of fenchone and their reactions, (1898) Journal of the Chemical Society Transactions
  14. ^ John Addyman Gardner M.A. and George Bertram Cockburn B.A. Researches on the terpenes. IV. On the oxidation of fenchone, (1898) Journal of the Chemical Society Transactions
  15. ^ George Bertram Cockburn B.A., B.Sc., Isomeric fencholenic acids, (1898) Journal of the Chemical Society Transactions
  16. ^ BMD Records England
  17. ^ 1901 Census Records
  18. ^ BMD Records England
  19. ^ Kelly's Directory, (1910) Gloucestershire
  20. ^ Flight Magazine, 27 February 1909
  21. ^ Villard, Henry(1987) Contact! The Story of the Early Aviators, page 76, Smithsonian Institution Press, ISBN 0-486-42327-1
  22. ^ Flight Magazine, 19 June 1909
  23. ^ Events 1909 Rheims, Grande Semaine D'Aviation de la Champagne
  24. ^ University of Liverpool, Flight Science and Technology, The Reims Air Meeting 1909
  25. ^ Records of the Royal Aero Club
  26. ^ Flight Magazine, 2 July 1910
  27. ^ New York Times, 19 July 1910
  28. ^ Flight Magazine, 26 October 1912
  29. ^ Turner ,Charles Cyril, (1972), The Old Flying Days, page 200, Arno Press, ISBN 0-405-03783-X,
  30. ^ Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government (1909–1914), pages 92 & 93, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-1591-2
  31. ^ Aviation on Salisbury Plain
  32. ^ Flight Magazine, 13 May 1911
  33. ^ Turner, Charles Cyril, (1972) The Old Flying Days, page 19, Arno Press, ISBN 0-405-03783-X
  34. ^ 1911 Census Records
  35. ^ Chemical Society Annual General Meeting, 14 May 1913
  36. ^ Supplement to the London Gazette, 7 January 1918
  37. ^ Turner ,Charles Cyril (1972) The Old Flying Days, page 72, Arno Press, ISBN 0-405-03783-X
  38. ^ Route to Egypt Losses Enquiry, Hansard, 30 October 1919 vol 120 cc914-5W
  39. ^ BMD Records England

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