WILLIAM STEPHEN TOMKIN (1860-1940) Biography
MODERN BRITISH (20th Century ) Biography

The Zeppelin which fell at Cuffley (England, 1916)

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Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
Signed and Dated Sep 3 1916


30.20cm high
48.30cm wide
(11.89 inches high)
(19.02 inches wide)
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On the night of 3rd September 1916, twelve Zeppelin airships headed towards London on a bombing raid, heavily armed and regarded as indestructible. Until that night, no Zeppelin had been shot down- they flew at a great height which challenged the capabilities of British aircraft. Pilot Leefe Robinson of the Royal Flying Corps had taken off with colleagues from Suttons Farm in Essex. He had been in the air for two hours and already had encountered an airship which was a Zeppelin over Hertfordshire at 8,000 feet and he made several close attacks on the wooden-framed Shutte-Lanz SL11. Under machine-gun fire, and on his last drum of ammunition, he attacked once more. The incendiary bullets raked the length of the airship. The hydrogen-filled canopy burst into flames, a blinding flash seen as far away as Cambridge.

The wreckage plunged into the fields near the East Ridgeway, Cuffley, threatening to engulf a church and a public house. All the crew perished. The loss marked the end of the extensive Zeppelin attacks upon Britain.

William Stephen Tomkin’s watercolour of the incident was painted from his garden in Walthamstow, 107 Orford Road. The artist has mounted a section of the airship beneath the scene. Tompkin was a watercolour and coastal painter who had exhibited his work at the Royal Academy.

There were great public celebrations at the time. The site had to be guarded by police as souvenir hunters swarmed over the fields. The local pub, The Plough, sold out of food and drink. The day became known as `Zeppelin Sunday'. Within three days Robinson was awarded the VC, the first for an aviator for action in English air space. He went on to serve in France. He was in aerial combat with Baron von Richthofen, the `Red Baron'. Later, in April 1917 he crashed and was taken captive. He was not a model prisoner, escaping several times. Seventeen days after the war ended, he died in Stanmore, aged 23. The Zeppelin's crew were originally buried in Potters Bar but in 1966 their remains were transferred to the German military cemetery at Cannock Chase. In 1986 a memorial to Leefe Robinson was erected in East Ridgeway.

W.S. Tomkin worked for General Pitt-Rivers, who was Inspector of Ancient Monuments, from around 1882 until 1890. He was employed as a sub-assistant and earned £84 per annum. Thompson says of him: The most interesting [assistant] in many ways was Tomkin, who has left us those charming drawings of Pitt-Rivers acting as scale when he was on tours of inspection. He was evidently a skilled draughtsman and the accounts show that he was sent on courses at the Polytechnic in London in 1889 for photography and drawing. Perhaps this was where he made the contacts that secured him a job with a printing house soon after.. [Thompson, 1977: 95] He prepared some of the drawings in Pitt-Rivers' private publications on Excavations on Cranborne Chase .... [Pitt-Rivers 1892, xv]. He was asked to redraw both skulls and coins for the first Cranborne Chase volume because Pitt-Rivers was not happy with the accuracy of his first attempt. [Bowden, 1991: 104]

He left Pitt-Rivers' employment a year after his photographic training and went to work for Waterlow Brothers Ltd. Bowden suggests that he was forced to leave the General's employment because he could not afford to marry on the 'pittance' he was paid. [Bowden, 1991: 106]

William Stephen Tomkin was a highly proficient watercolour painter of marine subjects. He exhibited Wind Against Tide at the Royal Academy in 1909; also British Old Barges signed and dated 'W.S. Tomkin 1925', watercolour over pencil. Several of his maritime works were sold by Bonhams on 14 September 2004.

Tomkin's great-granson writes:
William Tomkin is my maternal great-grandfather. I do not know very much about him, but can tell you that he was living at 107, Orford Road, Walthamstow in London (Essex) when my mother was born there on 23 December 1914 to his own daughter, Janet May Tomkin, a shorthand typist - and the father is 'unknown'.

He was born on 26 November 1860 (although the birth was not registered until 5 January 1861 in the Sub District of Loose in the Registration district of Maidstone) at the family home on Park Road, Boughton Monchelsea. His father, a farmer, was also named William Stephen Tomkin and his mother, was formerly Elizabeth Harrison.

The village is quite close to Maidstone where I note that Waterlows had some premises. They were acquired by De La Rue. Apparently Waterlows company records are hard to find. I don't know if Tomkin stayed with them for the rest of his working life. Clearly he moved to Walthamstow, so perhaps changed jobs then.