Get involved: send your pictures, video, news and views by texting ECHONEWS to 80360, or email us »
RAF pilot’s victory roll love token killed three
STANLEY Brown is 75 – but he almost didn't make it beyond 14. He says: “If my mum hadn’t pushed my brother and me out of the house that morning, if she hadn’t insisted we go to college, we’d have died in our back garden.”
Westcliff back gardens aren’t normally lethal places, but the morning referred to by Stanley was September 10, 1951, and disaster was about to descend from the skies.
People were going about their routine business. In Brightwell Avenue, Westcliff, young Stanley Brown, set off for the Municipal College.
Painter-decorator Sidney Smith arrived for work and set up his ladder outside the front of a house in neighbouring Ramuz Avenue.
An elderly spinster, Margaret Gilbert, was shuffling down London Road, on her way to visit a friend.
Further away, Tony Mullinger, seven, was playing with some friends in a clay pit, now the site of Roots Hall football ground.
None of them even glanced at the RAF jet as it passed overhead. The Gloster Meteor was on a routine flight from its base at Wattisham, Suffolk, flying at about 1,500ft. At the controls was a young pilot officer, Lionel Millikin, of 84 Squadron. And somewhere down below in the town was his lady love. Her identity remains unknown, but according to a widely circulated story, she was a Leigh school-teacher, taking a primary class at the time.
As he passed over her head, Millikin put the Meteor into a victory roll. The manoeuvre was allegedly a love token.
Whatever the implicit message, it proved fatal. Half way through, the engine stalled. The plane dived towards the ground, disintegrating as it plunged.
Sections of the plane scythed their way through rooftops, and crashed into streets and gardens. The epicentre of the crash lay around a cluster of neighbouring houses in Hainault Avenue, Brightwell Avenue, Beedell Avenue and Ramuz Avenue.
The most lethal piece of debris turned out to be the fuel tank, which hit No 105 Ramuz. The people inside stood little chance. Miss A Gilbert, Margaret’s sister, was killed on the spot.
Her landlady, Mrs J Sydenham, a widow, died later in hospital. Flying metal also caught Sidney Smith as he painted. He too was killed.
The first thing that Mr R Duck, of 83 Beedell Avenue, knew about the crash was when he disappeared all of a sudden beneath a pile of rubble. He found himself wedged between a door and the floor.
Ominous cracking sounds warned him that the house was about to collapse completely.
Luckily help was already at hand. Heroic neighbour Mr Cody crawled through the debris and pulled him free, then both men scrambled hurriedly out through the window.
On the Roots Hall site, Tony Mullinger and his friends had heard what he recalls as “a loud whining roar and a crash”.
Tony, who now lives in New Zealand, says: “Even at the age of seven, it was fairly obvious to me an aircraft had crashed. We ran in the direction of the noise.”
By the time they reached Hainault Avenue, the emergency services were already present at the site, along with crowds of onlookers.
Tony says: “I recall a large tubular thing sticking out of the road from our position behind the crowds and several appliances with the hoses run out. I don’t remember any fire, just a lot of smoke and dust.
“A few well-meaning mums sent us little kids packing, so after a few failed attempts to get closer we went home to very relived parents.”
The “large tubular thing” was the tail and rear fuselage section of the Meteor, crumpled into the pavement, but with its red, white and blue RAF roundel still intact.
The cockpit had broken off and lay elsewhere, in front of Stanley Brown’s home, 91 Brightwell. Inside was the pilot’s body, still strapped into the seat.
As the crowds gaped from behind the police line, an old lady made her way timidly to the police cordon line. “What’s happened to my home?” she asked.
“They’re digging for Miss Gilbert who lives there,” one of the onlookers told her.
“But I am Miss Gilbert,” she said.
The police led her away and broke the news of her sister’s death as gently as possible.
The main segments of the aircraft were shipped off by accident investigators, but one relic remained for a few days. A wing of the Meteor had lodged in the back garden of 91 Brightwell. This was the family home of Stanley Brown.
He says: “Normally my brother and I would have been in the back garden at the time, studying. That day, my mother pushed us out of the house, insisting we go to sign some documents in the college. It saved our lives. It meant I have been able to live to 75 instead of dying in the back garden that day.”
Stanley was a keen amateur photographer. A day or so later, the entire Brown family posed for a group photo on the Meteor wing. Stanley took the picture using a delayed timer.
“It probably hasn’t seen the light of day for half a century,” says Stanley.
Sixty years later, the picture is published for the first time in a newspaper, an extraordinary image and a lasting reminder of the horror of the day.
Comments are closed on this article.