EDWARD PETRE’S ambition to become the first man to fly from London to Edinburgh crashed tragically to earth at Marske-by-the-Sea. It was shortly after noon on Christmas Eve 1912.

A squall caught his monoplane, broke the wings, sent the craft plummeting 300ft as – hopelessly, helplessly – locals looked on. “His machine,” said a witness, “was several times the sport of the gods.”

Two days later it made the front page. “The tragedy cast quite a gloom over the sequestered village of Marske where arrangements for the Yuletide festivities had almost been completed,” we reported.

By that evening, the victim’s family had arrived from Essex and were put up by the local postmaster. On Boxing Day at 10.30am the inquest was held in Marske Literary Institute, the following morning Petre’s family returned south by train with his coffin and on December 28 his funeral was held at Ingatestone.

Others had also been busy. The postcard showing Marske folk viewing the wreckage is itself dated December 26.

Edward Petre was an early test pilot. “It was his ideal,” said the priest at his funeral, “that England should lead the way before all other powers in the command of the air and for this ideal he was willing to risk his life.”

Among the wreaths, just four Christmas days after his death, was one from the First New Marske Boy Scout Troop. The tribute was brief: “With deepest sympathy to our unknown but yet considered Friend.”

MARSKE, in East Cleveland, continued to fly by the seat of its pants. In November 1917, the Royal Flying Corps set up No 4 Auxiliary School of Aerial Gunnery on the sward on the road to Redcar.

Among the early recruits was William Earl Johns, future author of the Biggles novels but at the time a relatively humble pilot officer. That he later styled himself “Captain” seems to have been an interesting exercise in self-promotion.

WE Johns, it’s said, wrote off three planes in as many days – one into the sea, another into the sand and a third through his commanding officer’s back door – and is said also said to have had a number of near misses.

Many others went out with a prang. “Perhaps,” says local historian Peter Sotheran, “the trainees concentrated too much on the targets and not enough on looking where they were going.”

Johns was a trainer: those who can, do….

WE JOHNS wasn’t the only famous flyer with Marske connections. Captain Arthur Roy Brown – the man credited with shooting down Manfred van Richthofen, the Red Baron – was posted there after the First World War.

A Canadian, Brown led a flight of Sopwith Camels, won DSC and bar and is said never to have had a casualty among his fellow pilots. “If it had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow,” he said of Richthofen’s death.

At Marske he suffered a serious flying injury, spent five months in hospital and then returned to Canada where he resumed his original career as an accountant.

Could it be, wonders Peter Sotheran – of whom more shortly – that he is the unlikely inspiration for Roy “Chubby” Brown, the famously foul-mouthed fellow in the flying helmet and goggles?

“Honestly no, I’m amazed. I’d no idea,” insists the Teesside-based comedian. Born Royston Vasey, he was part of an act called Alcock and Brown before, as it were, taking off on his own.

Chubby, incorrigibly, reckons the only plane he brought down was one he threw a brick at. “It landed in Grangetown, but by the time the police got there, the kids had stolen the wheels.”

PETER SOTHERAN, a retired printer and active community champion, lives at Yearby near Redcar. We are old friends, even – how may this modestly be put – met the Queen on the same morning in December 2006.

Peter’s wife, Sue, herself received the MBE a few weeks back, for services to Girl Guiding.

Last Tuesday in Marske library he was signing copies of The Aviators’ Window – apostrophe as accurate as a Sopwith cannon – which through a new window in the parish church recalls some of those pioneering days.

Libraries are interesting places these days. That same afternoon there’s a talking group and a walking group and, had Marske a wine circle, probably a corking group, an’ all. What they don’t seem to deal much in is books.

Few formed a queue, though there was a lady who wanted him to talk to her advanced motoring group. “Lots of people will have a copy already,” said Peter. “I must have sold a dozen on Amazon to people living within 150 yards of the library. Even older people are on-line now, but they could have saved themselves £2.80.

PETER SOTHERAN was signing a second book, a history with history. Edmund Hope was Vicar of Marske – then an altogether tiddlier place – from 1909-15 – when he wrote an account of the parish.

Peter’s grandfather printed and published it and in 1975 his father, still printing, produced an updated version. Now there’s a third edition, published by Peter with proceeds to St Mark’s church.

Vicars familiarly become parish historians. The Rev Hilary Jackson, who died last month at the age of 98, wrote knowledgably of Heighington – the village between Bishop Auckland and Darlington which he served for 16 years – and of much else.

A delightful man – “faithful, God fearing, loving and much loved” we wrote on the diamond jubilee of his ordination in 2007 – Hilary was himself a son of the parsonage.

His father was for 29 years a vicar in the east end of Sunderland, two uncles were also priests in Durham diocese, his elder brother was ordained in later life and his sister became a nun.

Hilary, long retired to Darlington, admitted back in 2007 that at one point he had seriously considered throwing himself from Heighington church tower.

“I have never regretted my calling, but I had broken down with an acute sense of failure and worthlessness,” he recalled. “What if I had thrown myself off the church tower? What would that have done to the people to whom I ministered?”

Gently, he was able to smile about that period of terrible depression. “Beware,” said Hilary Jackson, “of the man who thinks he is a success.”

n Peter’s books are available on Amazon (or quite possibly from Marske library.)

...And finally, fame at last. Craig Dobson draws attention to two separate credits for these columns in Essential Reporting, a training manual for journalists.

One’s the story of the shampoo firm which claimed offices in Rome, New York, Paris and London, but operated, in truth, from a small industrial estate in Darlington.

What made that one more memorable was that the story was gained by reading the shampoo bottle in the bath.

The other object lesson, apparently, is the story of Ronnie “Rubberbones” Heslop, the first man to escape from Durham jail, and his anger that John McVicar should claim that distinction.

There’s just one caveat: Jon Smith’s book was published nine years ago. These days good news travels rather more slowly.