John Boothman and the Boothman Window
By Alex Bateman
Anyone who has entered or left Harrow County School through its main entrance cannot have failed to notice the ornate stained glass window above the doors, depicting an aeroplane. It has become known as the 'Boothman Window', and commemorates the achievements of one former old boy of the school.
John Nelson Boothman was born in Wembley in 1901, the eldest of two brothers and a sister. His passion for aviation began at an early age, reinforced after he made his first flight aged ten with the great Colonel Cody from Brooklands. A year later he joined Harrow County School, where this interest grew. It was the practice of the then Headmaster Ernest Young to give the boys a 'Scout's Diary' for Christmas, and more than on page of the young John's became filled with doodles of aircraft, airships and racing cars.
He left the school in 1917, and immediately tried to join the Royal Flying Corps, only to be turned down because of his age. Undaunted, and still wanting to 'do his bit' in the war, he instead joined the French Red Cross as a driver in Salonika. Aged only 16, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) for the service he gave.
After the war, he began work in the motor industry, but his passion for flying continued and he learnt to fly privately at RAF Hendon. In 1921, his dream of Service flying came true, when he was accepted for a Short Service Commission in the Royal Air Force. After gaining his 'wings', he began, amongst other things, some display flying, and for the nest three or four years flew in the famous Hendon Air Pageants, winning in 1926 the Duke of York's Cup for his station. The following years were spent with Nos. 50 and 30 Squadron's in Iraq, and on a flying instructors course at the Central Flying School.
In 1930, the announced that it was to reconstitute its High Speed Flight – a team of racing pilots – at Felixstowe. The first to be posted to the new unit, conducting research into high speed flight, was Flight Lieutenant John Boothman. They also looked forward to a possible entry into the Schneider Trophy Seaplane Race.
The race had been proposed in 1912 by a Frenchman, Jacques Schneider, as an international seaplane race. The trophy, offered by him, and bearing his name, depicted the spirit of the air, kissing Neptune, the God of the Sea.
The first year it was held, 1913, attracted only two nations France and the USA, with France being the victors. Great Britain entered the following year, along with France, Germany, the USA, and Switzerland, and won it. With the onset of the First World War, the contest was suspended until 1920, but that year it was won by Italy, who retained it the following year. 1922 saw Great Britain win the race for the second time, denying Italy the right to keep the trophy.
By the late 1920's, Great Britain were starting to dominate the contest, with wins in both 1927 and 1929. For the 1931 race, Britain were the only entrants, but this did not mean an automatic win. First, at least one aircraft had to complete the course, and avoid any possibility of any disqualification, while speed records were also there to be won.
Despite Britain's successes, the Government had refused to provide finance for the race before 1927. They did over the next three years, but withdrew it again in 1931. It was entirely due to the generosity of Lady Houston that Britain were able to enter the 1931 race at all.
Lieutenant Boothman was chosen from the pool of High Speed Flight pilots, to
compete in 1931, doing so in a Supermarine S6b Seaplane racer (S1595). On September 13th, he climbed into the aircraft, and
commenced his initial taxi and take off tests which went well, before he took
off for the race proper, flying over Calshot.
He almost lost count of the number of laps he had done, and later came
close to burning his legs on the side of the cockpit as they were so hot.
The aircraft was constructed in such a way that the floats contained the
fuel, and the wings and fuselage acted as radiators for the water and oil
John covered the 218 mile course in 38 minutes, an average speed of 340 miles per hour, winning the Trophy outright for Britain, and setting a new course and 100 kilometres record. He was almost mobbed after he landed, and overnight became a national hero. Later, the King awarded him the Air Force Cross, an award made for supreme acts of flying, not in the face of an enemy.
John (right) and his fellow Schneider Trophy pilot, Flight Lieutenant Stainforth, leaving Buckingham Palace on 31st October 1931 after being invested with the Air Force Cross
Thoughts were put forward on how the school could permanently remember the achievements of John, and the unanimous decision was a stained glass window, to be placed in a position above the main entrance, a position occupied since the school opened by a decorative window, in the same style as the main entrance doors.
The Boothman window (November 2000)
The cost of the window, £27 10s 0d, was borne by the Mothers Sewing Party. It was unveiled during Speech Day, March 1933 following a short service conducted by Colonel the Master of Semphill. Present were various members of staff along with John's parents. Pupils gathered outside.
After the race, John was posted to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment testing new weapons and aircraft, where he remained until 1935, after which he went on to Air Staff duties. In 1939, he was appointed to command No. 44 (Bomber) Squadron, completing a number of operational flights as the war began. Later on he served at the Air Ministry, Bomber Command HQ, and was adviser on bombing techniques to the USAAF in Washington. He was awarded an American Distinguished Flying Cross and made a Commander of the Legion of Merit, and in 1944, was awarded a British DFC for photo reconnaissance flights over the D-Day beaches. He received it at an investiture on the same day in 1945 as his son received the same award for operational flying. His son died the following year in a flying accident.
In 1945 John was promoted to Air Vice-Marshal and became the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Technical Requirements). His last post was as Air Officer Commanding Coastal Command, a position he held for three years until retirement in 1956. He joined the firm of Kelvin and Hughes Ltd, as a Technical Director, but died only a year later, aged 56.
(The Schneider Trophy, won by John for his Country, can today be seen at the Science Museum in Kensington, London, alongside the Supermarine S6b aircraft he flew in the race.)