IN St Andrew’s Church, Spennymoor, the large wooden war memorial has the names of 140 men painted in gold. From Abley to Young, it says they are the names of “those who died in the great war and who were connected with this parish”.

In the Bs at the bottom of the first panel is the name of E Boyle. Unlike practically all of the other 139 names, he wasn’t in the military and he didn’t die in the trenches.

His death, as we touched upon in Memories 386, was far more extraordinary than that – and now John Grainger, of Spennymoor, has helped fill in more of his pioneering aeronautical life.

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Edwin Boyle was born in Weardale Street, Spennymoor, in 1895, the first of three children of Robert and Catherine. Edwin went to Rosa Street School and the family was connected to St Andrew’s Church.

But in 1901, mother Catherine died, and father Robert moved the family and his mother to Stella, which was part of Blaydon on the south bank of the Tyne. Robert worked as a miner and his mother, Jessie, was listed as a housekeeper – presumably she had the job of looking after the children.

In 1907, the family moved to Mile End in London, where Robert is believed to have worked for a mission church – at one point, he is described as a “Church of England scripture reader”.

Edwin, though, was reading all about planes. In his early teens, the Government became aware that he was producing some interesting aeronautical designs, and after he left school, he joined Whitehead Aviation. It was a new company that was set up to supply the War Office with planes for the Army as, bizarre as it may seem, the Admiralty had all the established aeroplane manufacturers supplying its Royal Naval Air Service.

In 1916, Whitehead Aviation produced a prototype for a single-seater fighting scout biplane – it was still thought that the main use for air power in battle was reconnaissance with the pilot lobbing out a few bombs as he flew as an afterthought. The company called this plane the Whitehead Comet, but on the factory floor it was known as “Boyle’s Scout” apparently because it was designed by 21-year-old Edwin.

Boyle’s Scout was never cleared for take-off – in fact, there is no evidence that the prototype even left the ground – and Edwin turned to other aeronautical challenges. He tried to “perfect a contrivance whereby pilots and observers might safely land from a machine while in flight, should an accident occur mid-air”.

This was a static line parachute, as the ripcord had yet to be invented. The parachute was attached to the plane by a line. The man jumped and as he fell, the line went taut and pulled the parachute open. Finally, the line snapped, allowing man and chute to land safely.

There were lots of difficulties with early parachutes. They were very heavy and bulky in the tiny cockpit of a biplane, so pilots didn’t like them, and they really only worked if the plane kept flying horizontally. If it went into a spiral, the line would become wrapped around it, causing the chute to fail.

And the authorities did not want their fliers bailing out wily-nily. They wanted them to stay in the cockpit and try to prevent them from crashing – planes were very expensive bits of kit. Consequently it wasn’t until the very end of the war that the RAF accepted the need for a parachute.

So Edwin was a pioneering parachutist in early 1918 when he tested his invention by throwing dummies out of a plane. When they drifted to ground safely, the next obvious stage was to find a live human guinea pig. Edwin clearly had faith in his ideas and so volunteered himself.

Captain Arthur Payze, who was the Whitehead test pilot, took him up on July 15, 1918 in a London & Provincial biplane. At 400ft over the capital, Edwin clambered out onto the wobbly wing where there was a special launching seat. He clipped on his line, and jumped.

“He went over the side in the ordinary way, but the parachute casing gave way instead of remaining on the machine,” said Capt Payze later. “This was caused by the breaking of a hook, and Boyle fell to the ground and was instantly killed.”

Because Edwin was a civilian, he doesn’t feature on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, even though he was as much a victim of the First World War as any soldier. It is therefore good to learn that he is commemorated in the church closest to his home in the first years of his life.