Captain, Royal Flying Corps: Sc.D., F.R.S.
Killed flying over Salisbury Plain, 5 October 1916, aged 37
Buried at Aldershot Military Cemetery, Plot A.K. Grave 348

Dr. Keith Lucas FRS
(Photograph courtesy of the Royal Society)
Click to enlarge

Keith Lucas was born on 8 March 1879 at 3, Glen Mohr Terrace in Greenwich, Kent, and baptised at St. Alphege on 18 April the same year. He was the son of Francis Robert Lucas, a civil engineer, and his wife Katherine Mary, née Riddle. The couple had married at St. Alphege in 1875 and already had one son, Ralph, when Keith was born. By 1881 the family was living at Park Lodge, Kidbrooke, in Charlton, Kent, where the father listed his profession in the census as Engineer Telegraph. His work took him abroad, which is probably why he seems to be missing from later censuses, though directories show him living in Forest Row — at Greenhall in 1909 and Streeter's Rough in 1918. According to Colin Strachan, author of Fair Ways in Ashdown Forest, Katherine Lucas was founder of the Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club's Ladies' Club.

In 1891 Keith was a scholar and boarder at St German's Place in Kidbrooke. An undergraduate at the time of the 1901 census, he was in Tavistock, a visitor in the household of Arthur Worthington, headmaster of the Royal Naval Engineering College.

He married sometime around 1909, as the census for 1911 shows him living with a wife Alys, born in Lichfield, and two sons, Alan and David, born in Cambridgeshire. A third son, Bryan, was born 1912. The move to Cambridge had clearly been for work, as under profession or occupation is written Fellow and Lecturer, Trinity College Cambridge. His marriage to Alice Hubbard[1], took place at Bayonne in France as a consular marriage. The bride's father was vicar to the English community, and Alice assisted her mother in running a school there. (Alice's father was living with his family at New Lodge in Hartfield in 1901. He and his family apparently travelled extensively; but he died in Coleman's Hatch in 1923.) Alys died in 1954, at Borough Green in Kent, but despite the intervening 38 years, she clearly kept her husband's memory alive, as she is recorded in the National Probate Calendar as Alys Keith-Lucas. Their two elder sons were an aeronautical engineer and university lecturer respectively, reflecting both sides of their heritage from their father. The third son was a solicitor and then an academic specialising in government. BBC weather presenter, Sarah Keith-Lucas, is a descendant of Keith Lucas.

The entry in the Forest Row Memorial book, signed by his father, who was then living at Streeter's Rough, Chelwood Gate, states that Captain Lucas was killed flying over Salisbury Plain, but he was presumably stationed at Farnborough, as the National Probate Calendar describes him as of Highfield House, Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire, and having died at Farnborough while on active service. Effects of nearly £7,000 went to his widow.

Despite this bequest, according to the website of Hilden Oaks School in Tonbridge, Alice, or Alys:

...found that she needed to support herself and her three young sons.

As a consequence, she opened a school at a property called Kenford in Tonbridge on 7 May 1919. This soon grew and transferred to Hilden Oaks. The website describes her as:

A highly intelligent woman who was exceptionally gifted; with a first-class brain and a great interest in education.

To return to Keith's own story, Farnborough Airfield began life as the army's Balloon Factory, but became the Royal Flying Corps' headquarters when it was founded in 1912. There is also some debate about the crash site, as some experts believe it may have been at Charter Alley, Hampshire, which is near Basingstoke, and so some distance from Salisbury Plain. It seems unlikely that his father would have mixed the two places up, but good information was probably hard to come by in the chaos of war.

According to the Royal Society's website, his grandfather was a Waterloo veteran, his father an engineer who laid cables worldwide, while his mother's family featured mathematicians. He was educated at Rugby and Trinity College Cambridge, where he gained a First in Natural Sciences in 1901 before going to work in New Zealand. He also did work on neuroscience, and became a lecturer in this subject in 1908. On the back of his interest in creating precision instruments, in 1906, Lucas became a director for the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1913.

At the outbreak of war, he planned to enlist in the infantry with the Honourable Artillery Company, but was persuaded instead to join the Royal Aircraft Factory, to which his skills were eminently suited. The Royal Flying Corps had already set up an Experimental Branch of its Military Wing, with bases (among others) at Farnborough and Salisbury Plain. These worked on areas including man-lifting kites, aerial photography, the dropping of bombs, aerial gunnery, observation, wireless and meteorology.

From 14 September 1914, Lucas was at the Aircraft Factory, designing and making instruments, including the creation of accurate sights for dropping bombs from planes. He also did pioneering work on what the Daily Mirror of 9 August 1916 called:

A new type of compass specially adapted for the varying conditions experienced in the result of experiments conducted since 1914.

Strachan fleshes out the story here:

On the outbreak of War, he was headhunted for the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. Soon after his arrival he got unending reports that biplanes on the Western Front were getting easily lost in smoke and clouds. He discovered that errors were being caused by vibration and the vertical component of the earth's magnetic field when an aircraft turned off a northerly course. From these observations he developed the RAF Mark II compass and a much improved bomb aiming device using gyroscopic principles.


Keith Lucas's work on aeroplane compasses
reported by the Evening Dispatch 9 August 1916
Click to enlarge

When he enlisted, Lucas was quickly identified as being officer material, and, according to Strachan, took charge of a territorial unit of about 400 men. However, as the Hampshire Aircraft Park was not formed as a territorial unit until 1916, there is some confusion here. He was sure that his experimental work would be improved by empirical experience, so he took a flying course at Upavon, Wiltshire, on the northern edge of Salisbury Plain, in order to fly himself. However, on 5 October, his plane collided with another, a B.E.2 flown by 2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey Jacques of the Central Flying School, aged 18. Both men were killed instantly. Strachan also suggests the incident took place at Charter Alley while a bi-plane was being towed out to France, but the Findagrave website places Jacques' death at Pewsey (which is near Upavon) in Wiltshire, so of necessity, Lucas must have died in the same area.

As well as being commemorated near his parents' home at Forest Row, Keith Lucas' name also appears on the memorial at Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire. He also appears on the list of Trinity men who lost their lives in the First World War, where, as well as rehearsing much information about his career, there is a quotation about the man:

for he met with indomitable quiet energy the ceaseless urgency for new developments of aeroplane design, and with self-effacing devotion examined and tested them against the practical conditions of flight.



(left) Pilot's log book   (right) Plaque at Aldershot Military Cemetery
Click to enlarge

Pam Griffiths


1)  'Alice' is the name recorded at the time of her marriage.