History: The Lindberghs in Lerwick

In 1933, Charles Lindbergh was probably the most famous man on the planet. Charlie Simpson tells the story of his spectacular arrival in Lerwick harbour, and the rapturous welcome that awaited him.

Celebrity is a phenomenon of the media, a device to arouse widespread interest and thereby sell media products. Newspapers and radio were the early arbiters of celebrity, pumping out “human interest” stories about suitable people “in the public eye”, whose doings were scrutinised, recorded and commented upon in minute detail – much as today. 

A present-day “celebrity” can be created out of just about anybody seen regularly on television, if editors think the subject’s doings will increase a newspaper’s daily circulation. It’s a lot easier to become a celebrity these days than it used to be,  for in the past fame had to be earned the hard way, through meritorious achievement at a very high level, or epic deeds. Celebrity – except in the case of royalty – was a matter of “doing” rather than simply “being”.

Shetland has always been a bit off the beaten track when it comes to celebrity visitations, so apart from the occasional royal or sportsperson we’ve seen very few. Sir Walter Scott was possibly the first – although at the time he came, out of the whole population only a tiny handful of gentry had ever heard of him. The first real celebrity to visit Shetland, a man whose deeds were known to every person in the islands, came much later, in 1933; his name was Charles Lindbergh, and the story is worth retelling.

Born in Detroit in 1901, Lindbergh was catapulted from obscurity into huge and instant fame on 20th May 1927 when he landed his aircraft Spirit of St. Louis at Paris airport after a 33 1/2 hour flight from New York, to become the first person to fly the Atlantic solo. He was mobbed by crowds everywhere and pursued by the world’s press, which soon spread his fame into every corner of the globe. Babies, streets and even a town were named after him.

Lindbergh was uncomfortable with this legendary status, and did his best to avoid the adulation. On a private visit to Mexico he met Anne Morrow, daughter of the American ambassador, and they were married in 1929, to international headlines, after the “romance of the century”.
She took up flying – becoming the first American woman to gain a glider pilot’s licence – and made a number of other pioneering flights with her husband. Fame came with a terrible price however; in 1932 their 20-month-old son Charles was kidnapped from their home in New Jersey. Again there was enormous worldwide publicity, and although a ransom was paid, the child’s body was found ten weeks later.

There was recovery of a kind from this trauma with the birth of a second son in 1933, although it’s fair to say the Lindberghs only found peace in the air. That’s probably why Lindbergh – a colonel in the US Army Air Corps Reserve – undertook a five-month survey to assess the potential for a trans-Atlantic passenger service using flying-boats. No commercial aircraft at this time had both the capacity and range to fly passengers viably across the oceans, although overland services were well established and airship travel was still considered feasible. A big flying-boat making the crossing in stages was considered the most viable option, and this is where Shetland came into the reckoning.

The story broke locally in July 1933, when a consignment of aircraft petrol and oil arrived in Lerwick for the Lindberghs’ use. On Wednesday 24th August a telegram from Faroe to Lerwick’s harbourmaster Captain Harrison informed him that the famous flyers would arrive the following day. The Shetland Times, published on Saturdays, could only manage a brief report, but the headlines in the Shetland News the following Thursday, said it all:

Colonel Lindbergh in Lerwick.
Aerial Survey of Northern Trans-Atlantic Route.
Shetland as Junction for British Isles?
Keen local interest in possibilities of great new aerial development.
Famous airman and his wife enthusiastically welcomed.

“What is hoped to be the beginning of aviation history for Shetland was made last weekend when Lerwick was officially visited by the famous American airman, Colonel Charles Lindbergh, who was accompanied by his wife and whose elegant black and red seaplane Tingmissartoq had flown from Faroe to Shetland on Thursday afternoon. Colonel Lindbergh, who was visiting a British port for the first time since his historic solo flight across the Atlantic six years ago, has recently been engaged in surveying the proposed new North Atlantic route from America to Europe for Pan-American Airways. This route is from Canada, via Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, Faroe and Shetland to the Norwegian coast or Denmark.

“Apart from the great interest that centred around a visit from this distinguished pioneer airman with a world-wide reputation, Colonel Lindbergh’s call at Lerwick is of immense local importance . . . there is a likelihood of Shetland becoming a very important link in a great new ocean air chain . . . it can only be hoped that if the North Atlantic air route becomes a reality, Shetland will be chosen as the principal intermediate base to connect up with Denmark and the British Isles. If in time this proves to be the case it should mean the dawn of a new era for Shetland”.

Stirring stuff! No wonder the story was big; it was simply the most newsworthy event in Shetland for decades. My mother was 12 years old at the time, and remembers the Lindberghs’ arrival clearly. “Wis bairns got off school that afternoon. Everybody in town was excited, and there was a huge crowd of people down at the harbour to see the plane arrive and the Lindberghs come ashore. He had wavy hair, I remember; she had a leather helmet on, and had lovely eyes. They were young, a lot younger than we expected.” Lindbergh was 31, his wife 27. My mother wasn’t the only one impressed.

The cream of Shetland’s officialdom went out in a boat to welcome the famous pair; the county convenor and county clerk, the provost and town clerk of Lerwick, and so on. Obviously the significance of Lindbergh’s mission was understood, and the local authorities pulled out all the stops to further Shetland’s cause. At the same time, as far as the ordinary folks of Lerwick were concerned, here was possibly the most famous human on the planet, standing on the Bressay slip; wow! The pens of the press dripped with excitement.

According to the “News” “The Colonel and his wife, both of whom looked remarkably well and cheery, returned grateful thanks for the cordiality of the welcome. Here at the slipway dense crowds had concentrated, and as the handsome young airman and his equally beautiful wife stepped ashore they were loudly cheered.”

The couple’s every move in Shetland was chronicled in detail. They went first to the Grand Hotel, and afterward Lindbergh refuelled his aircraft from cans of petrol boated out to its mooring off the Sooth End. In the evening after dinner there was an informal reception in the Grand for the Lindberghs, attended by “representative citizens and their wives” – and the press. “The company realised and appreciated the extreme pleasantness and natural modesty of the Colonel and his wife. This never deserted them during their stay and wherever he went the Colonel’s handsome boyish face and disarming smile made an instant appeal to all. The Colonel who is only 31 is tall and slim with fair curly hair denoting his Scandinavian descent, so that Lerwegians regarded him as a sort of kinsman . . .”

The following morning, the county convenor Magnus Shearer and his wife took the Lindberghs by car to Lerwick Observatory, to study weather data and obtain a forecast, the latter making them decide to postpone their departure for another day. Almost like royalty, they visited the Infant and Central schools and the Gilbert Bain Hospital, before driving with the Shearers to Sumburgh to allow Lindbergh to inspect a Scottish-owned Dragon Moth aircraft that had landed there the day before – chartered to take up  a Daily Express reporting team. This was a quite a notable event in itself, for the very first landing by an aircraft with wheels had been made only three months before. They also inspected the ongoing excavations at Jarlshof, and on the way  back to Lerwick “The Colonel and his wife admired the colours of the countryside as they passed along, and were keenly interested in Shetland agriculture and in the people.”

The famous couple left Lerwick for Denmark on Saturday at noon. “When the Colonel and his wife boarded the little Shetland model boat rowing boat manned by Mr. Adam Manson, assistant harbourmaster, the Chairman of Lerwick Harbour Trust, Mr. E.S. Reid Tait, called for three hearty cheers for Col. Lindbergh, which were lustily given by the great crowd standing in the vicinity, followed by three more for Mrs. Lindbergh.”

They landed in Copenhagen just under five hours later, and that, as the saying goes, was that. For the moment though, Shetland was happy, its local press delighted. “The arrival of the Lindberghs in Lerwick created quite a furore in newspaper offices in the South. All the leading national, daily and Sunday papers wired their correspondents for details, and many thousands of words were telegraphed on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. On Thursday and Friday evenings the Lerwick Post Office was kept open till a late hour transmitting telegrams . . . In a number of papers Shetland got a first-class advertisement, and has suddenly leapt into prominence as being marked out as an important link in the proposed new aerial chain.”

The “Times” could not resist a triumphant peerie dig at Orkney; under a headline “Kirkwall waits in vain” it reported “On Wednesday evening of last week preparations were made by the authorities in Kirkwall for the reception of Colonel and Mrs. Lindbergh, and Kirkwall Town Band was on parade ready to play in case the Lindberghs arrived. Kirkwall’s hope of a visit from the flyers was raised by a report that they would call at Orkney”.

So, the feel-good factor worked; the celebrity visitors charmed Shetland and gave it a few days of national headlines. There’s no doubt the Lindberghs got on famously with their hosts, especially Magnus Shearer and his wife Flora. This is confirmed by their daughter Noelle who was just six years old, and has vivid memories of the Lindberghs in her home, having coffee. Her mother and Mrs. Lindbergh corresponded for several years afterwards.

A modern observer in this era of celebrity-sodden media  might wonder how a mere airman could create such a stir, but you have to remember that in 1933 Lindbergh was an absolute living legend worldwide, so to actually see this hero and his wife in the flesh and hear their voices was a fantastic opportunity, especially in Shetland. Only if Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, had come to Shetland a year or two after his epic deed would we have perhaps seen a comparable event. We know now, of course, that there never was a trans-Atlantic northern air route, and we also know that after their Shetland visit the Lindberghs had other traumas to come, including the trial and execution of their son’s murderer in 1936, and the discrediting of Lindbergh’s reputation through his outspoken isolationist attitudes to World War II, which led to his withdrawal from public life. Charles Lindbergh died in 1974, while Mrs. Lindbergh survived him until 2001. Although Shetland got its regular air service – to Scotland – in 1936, a permanent and reliable international air link is today no more than the dream it turned out to be, almost 80 years ago.

Charlie Simpson

Written with the kind assistance and co-operation of Mrs Noelle Gordon, Lerwick.


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