It can sometimes take a while for a fitting memorial to a historical event to be designed, made and put into the public eye. They might not even get past the drawing board, if there are enough delays or even a cancellation thanks to “death by committee”. Others should never really been made real, such as the touching tribute to the king of pop made by Fulham FC owner Mohamad Al Fayed in 2011.
But for the family of Captain Eric Lubbock, a pilot who was shot down over Belgium in 1917, it took decades for a fitting memorial to make its way to a grieving family.
The pilot had been awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and skill” shown in the field when he shot down an Imperial Albatross – a biplane fighter flown by many top German aces – in October 1915. After a campaign fighting in Europe, Captain Lubbock was shot down in his Sopwith Camel bi-plane during a mission flown in Belgium with the Royal flying Corps – the predecessor of the RAF – in March 1917.
On news of Captain Lubbock’s death his grieving mother, Lady Avebury, commissioned a plane-shaped memorial to be made so that he could be remembered in the family home of High Elms, Bromley, alongside his brother and brother-in-law, who were also lost in the Great War.
During the 1930s, however, the Avebury family were forced to sell the estate back to Kent County Council. In 1981, after years of neglect, the family graveyard was broken up, gravestones uprooted and the rest moved into the grounds of the nearby St Giles’ Church.
During the turmoil, Lubbock’s Camel went missing. Nobody saw exactly what happened at the time, but it was probably taken by a looter who thought they could flog it for some cash years later.
Until several years later, that is, when it was rediscovered at a stonemason’s near Hungerford in Wiltshire. According to Lyulph Lubbock (the 5th Baron of Avebury and descendent of the Captain’s), it was being used to advertise the mason’s services. “The mason wouldn’t say how he got hold of it and refused to give it back. In the end my father had to buy it back at auction for £8,000,” he added.
And so, almost a century later, the memorial was placed back where it belonged in what was the Avebury family’s walled kitchen garden – now part of Bromley Council’s visitor centre at High Elms Country Park – and was re-consecrated in 2010.
In 2018, Lubbock’s plane is one of 14 war memorials that were dedicated to British airmen in The First and Second World Wars that Historic England has recognised to mark the centenary of the founding of the RAF.
They also include a memorial to Britain’s most decorated airman – James McCudden, who shot down 57 enemy aircraft and was awarded the Victoria Cross – and Leefe Robinson, the first British pilot to shoot down a German Zeppelin airship.
Baron Avebury said it was of great importance to keep such memorials alive and remembered to avoid soldiers like his great uncle being forgotten. He added: “We need to protect our link to the past and remember the stories that go with these memorials.”