The Story of the Death of Leonard Williams: The Amesbury boy who was hit by an aeroplane (twice)

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

On 19th May 1912, a young man living in Amesbury became probably only the second spectator to be killed by an aeroplane in England. Leonard Williams who like hundreds of others had gathered at Larkhill to watch the flying being carried out at that time. Larkhill was in preparation for the Military Aeroplane Competition for the War Office. This competition was to establish the best aeroplane specification for army requirements.

We can imagine the excitement of the crowd and especially of a fifteen year old lad, as they viewed these early aeroplanes; some of which which flew surprisingly well and others which sometimes lumbered into the air and others that didn’t.It was about seven in the evening when lieutenant A. E. Burchardt-Ashon of the 4thDragoon Guards took off in his Bristol tractor biplane. He had been in the air for a matter of minutes and had flown over Amesbury. He returned to Larkhill flying ground and made a successful landing, when suddenly and without warning the plane accelerated into the crowd of spectators. Many managed to flee the approaching plane and some laid flat on the ground allowing the plane to to pass over them. Several people were injured, including another young man by the name of Harry Maggs who received serious wounds to the head and back. Maggs was taken to Bulford Military Hospital where he eventually recovered and lived into old age.

Others injured included two soldiers: Gunner Ratcliffe of the 48thBattery RGA and Gunner Packer of the 70thField Battery RHA. These soldiers were both quite severely injured, one having a broken collar bone. Some women were bruised and shaken but one small child called Wootton was completely run over by the plane and apart from a little bruising escaped unhurt. The pilot of the machine was ejected during the collision and was unhurt.

On impact with the crowd the plane was halted and the propeller dug into the ground causing the machine to flip and land upside down. By 7.15pm, a doctor had been called and pronounced Leonard dead at the scene.The photograph right shows the inverted plane after the incident. The crowds apparently having dispersed.

Leonard was born on 29thOctober 1896 in Dover. Kent, to George and Annie Williams of 2 Hubert Cottages. George Williams was a poulterer at the time, but by the census of 1911 , the Whole family were living in Amesbury at 7 Avon Buildings where George is now known as a Fried Fish Merchant.

Leonard was working as a Shop Assistant at H Moore Bootmakers in Salisbury St. Amesbury and in the photograph below taken before WW1 it is just possible that the young lad on the left is in fact Leonard.

The inquest into Leonard’s untimely death is interesting historically, giving us an insight into the world of aviation at that time:


One of the first things we notice is the intense interest in aviation there was at this time; this is not surprising given the novelty that aeroplanes were at that time and that they were flying in a fairly remote area where we can envisage that nothing much of any consequence happened in daily life. The crowd at the event where Leanard was killed was said to be in the hundreds, and later that year at the Military Aeroplane Competition at Larkhill, the crowds were in the many thousands.



The inquest into Leonard’s untimely death is interesting historically, giving us an insight into the world of aviation at that time:

One of the first things we notice is the intense interest in aviation there was at this time; this is not surprising given the novelty that aeroplanes were at that time and that they were flying in a fairly remote area where we can envisage that nothing much of any consequence happened in daily life. The crowd at the event where Leanard was killed was said to be in the hundreds, and later that year at the Military Aeroplane Competition at Larkhill, the crowds were in the many thousands.

We should remember that in those early days of aviation, the concept of health and safety was near to non- existent. It is apparent that there was no crowd control on that day, which was a weekend and flying was private tuition. Previously during Air Corps training, military police were present in an effort to manage the crowds, but on this day there was nothing. The only signage was to proclaim the enclosure around the aeroplane sheds to be “Private Property”. One witness said that technically, the people spectating on that day were trespassing. The inquest goes on to say that the gathered crowds were in the habit of running towards the aeroplanes as they alighted. This is apparently what happened on that day and that together with the plane accelerating unexpectedly along the ground after landing, were the contributing factors in the accident. It is noteworthy that in photographs of the same site later in the year, signs are apparent which read “Danger; keep back during flying”.

There are accounts of a certain early aviator at Larkhill actually taking delight in demonstrating his planes manouverabilty by taking off towards the crowd from a distance of 50 yards and and only pulling the machine into the air at the very last moment.

The inquest attributed no blame to the pilot of the aeroplane and a verdict of “Accidental Death” was announced by the jury.

Leonard was buried in the Amesbury Cemetery and his gravestone was paid for by the Government, but this is not the end of the story. Thirty years later in 1943, a variant prototype Supermarine Spitfire (JS318) from Boscombe Down, having engine problems crashed in the cemetery destroying several graves including Leonard’s. The place where the graves were destroyed is shown in the picture below.

It was reported in the local press that money was again forthcoming from the Government to provide another headstone, although there is apparently no record of this grave. The records for the cemetery were partly destroyed by fire in 1969.

There is though a fine memorial to Leonard in the Church of St Mary & St Melor Church Amesbury, in the form of a bronze plaque which according to the script was placed there by Amesbury friends.



Words by Terry Grace, Amesbury History Centre

You can read the 1912 inquest HERE

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