Sidney Bellingham Swann (1862-1942)

Sidney Bellingham Swann

Written by Stephen White

Occupations: Aviator, Clergyman and Oarsman

Early Life and Family

Sidney Swann was born on 30 September 1862 at Weymouth. His father, Rev Captain John Bellingham Swann [1835-1904] came from Weedon, Northampton. A veteran of the Crimea, the retired Royal Navy paymaster took Holy Orders late in life. Swann’s mother, Elizabeth Farmer [b.1828], was the daughter of a Stockport yeoman. They had two sons, Sidney and Harrington [1861-1928] and two daughters, Lilian [1864-1942] and Grace [1866-1951]. Sidney was educated at Marlborough, taking his BA at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and his MA in 1888. Swann was an outstanding athlete, rowing in the Oxford and Cambridge boat races in 1883, 84 and 85. He was ordained Deacon in 1885 and priest the following year, his first appointment being as curate at St Andrews, Plymouth, from1885-1888. His second curacy was at St Stephen's, Sulby, on the Isle of Man, from 1889-90. On 02 May 1889 he married Josephine Anderson [1863 -1918], daughter of Alexander Anderson, a solicitor [1834-1898]. Their first son Sidney Ernest was born on the island on 24 June 1890 [1890 – 1976]. From 1890-95 he was a missionary at Fukuyama, Japan and from 1895-96 was Chaplain to the English Congregation at Kobe, Japan. Their second son Alfred was born in 1894 [d 1961] and a daughter, Winifred, in 1895 [d 1967]. Sidney, a supporter of the temperance movement,recalled with some satisfaction that in Japan he had rowed in a teetotal boat against those who did not abstain and won.

Swann in Cumberland

In 1897 he was appointed vicar at St John the Baptist, Blackford, just north of Carlisle.  Here he installed the oak Kiari eagle lectern, still in situ [1982] which Swann brought back from Japan.
The family may have been drawn to Cumberland as Josephine’s father had retired to Allonby. Swann, a keen cyclist, was reported to be the first man to cycle around Syria. He decided to see how far north he could cycle from Blackford in a day. Setting off at 10:00 am by 10:00 am the following morning he had reached Inverness.  

From 1901-1905 he was vicar at the new church of St Aidans, Carlisle, and it was through his efforts that the debt of £4,000 was paid off. As the church had no bell-tower he acquired a bell from the Banks family of Highmoor, Wigton, and hung the bell from a girder at the rear of the church where it can be seen today [2021]. He would have seen such external bells in Japan and appears to have achieved this on his own authority, without application for a faculty. 

In September 1902 he undertook his famous ride south from the city, intent on seeing if he could cycle to London in twenty-four hours. He wrote up his adventure in a colourful article which appeared in the local press in that year. Using the latest Dursley-Pedersen single geared machine he featured in adverts for the company as the vicar who cycled to London in one day. Swann's testimonial read that in ‘all of the twenty-five years I have been cycling I have never had a machine to equal it'. Taking his leave of St Aidan's in 1905, the local press reported his unusual and strangely modest farewell in which he stated that: 'he thanked the congregation for their attendance at the church. They had attended Sunday after Sunday, and he had been very much surprised. He had often wondered why they came. He thanked them for the patient hearing they had given him, and hoped they had managed to extract some good out of the very poor stuff that had been put before them’. He then preached the sermon from the 13th verse of the 12th chapter of Ecclesiasticus: 'Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; Fear God. and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man'. 

Swann had observed how the old building line on the south side of Castle St blocked the view of the gothic tracery of the famous east window of the cathedral and this he felt was an aesthetic loss to the city.  It was through his efforts that certain properties at the entrance to Castle Street were purchased in the hope of improving the sight lines towards the window by demolishing and then rebuilding the properties set back upon a new street line at that point. The local press reported in 1908 that his scheme had only been partially carried out.

It would seems likely that sometime during his Blackford or Carlisle incumbencies he made the acquaintance of Samuel Franklin Cody [1867 – 1913] pioneer of flight and Wild West showman. It has been suggested that the pair may have met through one of Cody’s cycle versus horse race challenges. Garry Jenkins in his biography of Cody says ‘At the invitation of the aviating Rev Sidney Swann, Cody flew a kite of immense square shape in the grounds of Houghton House [3 miles north of Carlisle], the residence of Henry Brooks Broadhurst’. Jenkins went on to state that this was the first authenticated flight of a man-lifting Cody Kite which was later to be of interest to the army. In his unpublished autobiography, Swann, recalling Cody’s demonstration, says that one of the upper kites broke away and he [Swann] ran after the trailing wire, just failing to catch it when it was whisked over a fence. 

Crosby Ravensworth

Swann  was inducted to Crosby Ravensworth in 1905 and there, inspired by Cody, took up his own latest craze of flying. In October 1909 he attended an Aviation meeting at Blackpool and when the Daily Mail announced a £1,000 prize for the first all-British circular flight of one-mile, Swann took up the challenge. Only 29 days after seeing his first flying machine, he had designed and built his own aircraft. In November 1909 his machine was delivered to the test ground, Aintree race course, where he now aimed at the £1,000 challenge for the first flight between Liverpool and Manchester. (The Daily Mail prize had been won in October of that year). The Mid Cumberland and North Westmorland Advertiser of 20th November 1909 commented on the Aintree trials; ‘Mr Cody is giving Mr Swann, an old friend who was interested in his kite flying experiments some years ago, every assistance in his power’. The Liverpool Courier expressed its reservations writing ‘ There is no doubt that, as soon as he is ready, Mr Swann will try to get off the earth and it is possible that his courage is greater than his experience….Mr Swann’s early attempts to fly will therefore be watched with some anxiety by his friends’. 

There followed crashes, failures, redesigns and rebuilds but no flights for the 14 stone sky-pilot. With a new Daily Mail challenge of £10,000 on offer for the first successful flight between London and Manchester, Swann set about a complete rebuild at Crosby Ravensworth. After an abortive test flight on April 27th at Mauds Meaburn [just north of Crosby Ravensworth], he had the engine sent to London for an overhaul. On July 11th 1910 he prepared for a test flight on the flattest field he could find in his parish. Peter Connon describes how: ‘the machine left the ground for a distance of approximately 30 feet before falling back to earth, killing a sheep…… At best Swann’s movement off the ground may he described as a semi-controlled leap. It cannot be accepted as true flight’. With the Daily Mail £10,000 prize won by a rival Swann lost all interest in flight. A few days after, he examined the abandoned aircraft, salvaged the engine and other valuable parts before setting the remains alight.  His son recalled: ‘when he started on making an aeroplane, it was highly experimental. One day we would have the tail behind and then on the next day decide to try it at the front. The machine was a wonderful contraption of bamboo poles braced together with wires and unfortunately the Arrol Johnson engine which he obtained was too heavy to get the thing into the air, especially as my father was nearly 14 stone. But into the air it did get, but thank God, not far; when eventually he came down in a flock of sheep he thought it was time to call it a day. Incidentally it was no easy task to find a large flat field anywhere in the parish of Crosby Ravensworth'. 

Swann was more successful in constructing a footbridge over the River Eden for Lady Valda Machell of Crackenthorpe Hall. He had declared that the tendered price for the bridge was excessive and that the job could be done by himself, at half the cost. Swann's bridge stood until washed away by floods in March 1968; the same flood carrying away the stone bridges at Appleby and Langwathby. When at Crosby Ravensworth and perhaps feeling nostalgic for the boat race, he also canoed down the River Eden to the Solway in a homemade canoe. Then in September 1911, he set a record for rowing his river skiff across the English Channel [Dover to Cap Gris-Nez] in three hours and fifty-five minutes, cutting the previous best time by three hours and twenty minutes. 

In 1912 he moved to St John the Evangelist, Levens, where once again, perhaps recalling traditional bell frames in Japan, he built just to the north of the church an attractive wooden bell shelter.  Swann commented ‘I got the three Milnthorpe steel bells which were only [fit to be] used as flower pots, for their tone was so evil. These I hung in a Japanese shed in the churchyard and [when] struck with a wooden mallet that greatly improved their tone.’ He went on to say: ‘I made a lych gate….put in new roof timbers, moved the organ down the chancel, built an organ chamber, made choir stalls, lowered the pulpit, got [Frederick] Leach to decorate the chancel, set the pews at a comfortable angle…put cushions in the seats, planted flowering shrubs in the churchyard, and generally so transformed the church that one may hardly have known it’.  Again he manifested his extraordinary energy and determination, though not much modesty.

Levens also had no burial ground when Swann arrived. He persuaded local farmers to lay out the churchyard with soil and then planted it with grass seed. Swann recalled the difficulty of encouraging the first burial: ‘A bribe of a sovereign, however, got a corpse, and once there was a gravestone there, others soon came along, for it was no longer thought to be lonely’.  At this time he became acquainted with Lady Theodosia Bagot of Levens Hall  [1865-1940], the widow of Josceline Fitzroy [1854-1913] MP, of Levens Hall, and the  daughter of Sir John Leslie Bt. [1822-1916] of Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co Monaghan and his wife Lady Constance Dawson-Damer. As Lady Theodosia had been widowed in 1913, It seems likely that in his role as a priest he had consoled her upon the death of her late husband.  She may also have been impressed by the energy and achievements, in such a short time, of a man who was fifty.

From 1914-18 he was perpetual curate at Holbrooke, Derbyshire. During the Great War he assisted the Lady Bagot with her Hospital of Friendship in Belgium, acting as an ambulance driver. For this he was awarded the order of the Roi de Belges in both 1914 and 1915. In contrast, in March 1917 he was brought before the magistrates at Matlock Petty Sessions for riding a motorbike with an unobscured acetylene lamp and also for failing to produce his license. In his own defence Swann said that that he had a last-minute call to speak to a National Service meeting after the scheduled speaker called off ill and felt it his duty to attend. He had been working all day with a motor plough and in order to get back to his ploughing at 6 o'clock the following morning, he had refused an offer to stay at Matlock and rode his cycle home. The defendant was proceeding to speak about being stopped 300 miles away from the Germans, when the Chairman remarked that this was nothing to do with the case. The defendant said he would not pay a fine and would go to prison. He then said, pointing to the constable who had stopped him: 'That young man ought to be in the trenches, instead of stopping me.'  The superintendent magistrate Clark answered: ' That has nothing to do with you, mind your own business’, to which Swann replied: 'It is very much to do with me, as an Englishman'.  Swann was found guilty on both offences and ordered to pay 7s but left the court without paying the fine. His wife, Josephine, died the following year on May 20 1918 leaving £10,000 and he moved back to the Lake counties.

He was appointed Vicar of Morland later in 1918 where he had an invigorating effect on the parish, as the previous incumbent had been there for 50 years. On arrival, he discovered that the Vicarage relied on rain water, as there was no well, so he built a water wheel which pumped fresh water up-hill from the Powdonnet Spring to the Vicarage. He next made a contrivance with hammers and wires which allowed one man at ground level to strike the 3 bells in the tower without climbing the great ladders. Swann was also the leading spirit in creating the War Memorial. All his energetic activity led to a significant increase in the congregation.

Whilst he was Vicar at Morland, the national railwaymen’s strike of 26 September - 5th October 1919 broke out. The men were campaigning against a proposed reduction in pay and he decided to blackleg as an engine cleaner.  Consequently, he was mobbed by railway workers in Botchergate, Carlisle. The men appealed to the bishop saying that they would lose all confidence in the established church if this was how their priests behaved. Swann later wrote to the local branch of the National Union of Railwaymen explaining why he took on duty at the railway shed and offering to give them as a present any remuneration he received for his efforts. The local railway committee refused to accept any such ‘blood money’.  Eight months later on 3 June1920 he married Lady Theodosia Bagot, whose Leslie forbears claimed descent from Attila the Hun !  He had by then  been appointed rural dean at Lowther by the bishop of Carlisle, John Diggle [1847-1920] but, showing his usual restlessness, he sought yet another post.

Later life

From 1921-29 he was rector of Kingstone by the Sea in West Sussex and Vicar of Lindfield 1929-37, until he retired and the living was given to the Rev Daunton Fear. Swann remained living in the village. During these later years he became increasingly erratic, although in 1934 he was belatedly elected President of the National Amateur Rowing Association. John Julius Norwich  refers to a letter from a Mrs Marjorie Crossley [a Lindfield parishioner who knew Swann] describing Swann's 'uncontrolled behaviour, ruthlessness and his final removal in a straight-jacket'. The climax had come when he decided to murder Lady Bagot (she never called herself Mrs Swann) and purposely bought a large cook's knife. The house had two staircases with heavy oak doors at the top and he was described as going upstairs and shooting the bolts behind him. The two maids fled in terror to Mr Fear, who got a ladder and entered the bedroom through the window on the street, thus saving Lady Bagot. Swann was overcome and taken away, swearing to avenge himself on Fear. After a period in an asylum, he returned to the village and knocked on the door of his house which had been let, saying: ‘I’ve been in an asylum and I want my house back’.

Theodosia died on 21 February1940 and Swann married Gertrude Elizabeth Hatchard [1863-1944] on the 7th September that year.  This third wife was the daughter of Captain Josiah Henry Hatchard RN [1829-1877] and his wife Mary Elizabeth Bright [1835-1910].  They had only lived together for two years, when Swann died on 3 August 1942, following complications after a fall from his bicycle. His obituary appeared in the Times the following day. 


  • Peter Connon, In the Shadow of the Eagle’s Wing; a history of aviation in Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway region 1825-1914, 1982 [Connon refers to an unpublished autobiography which he has seen]
  • Garry Jenkins, Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral, 1999
  • John Julius Norwich, Christmas Crackers, 1982
  • John Hodgkinson, St John the Evangelist ,1828-2004
  • Gervase Markham, Past Alive: the story of the Christian Church in Morland, 2003
  • Stephen Read and others, Levens in the Shadow of the Great War, 2020
  • David Risk, The Clergy Crosby Ravensworth 1665-2005, a directory, 2006
  • Hyde and Pevsner, Buildings of England, Cumbria
  • Material on Swann in Kendal Record Office and Carlisle Library