Sunday, July 6, 2014

Billy Bishop & The Rich & Famous

UK TOUR DAY THREE (LONDON): One spring day in 1916, Billy Bishop woke up here, in this building on Bryanston Square in Central London, where I left a dream for him this evening. Today, it's a prep school, but back in the days of the First World War it was a private home that had been turned into a temporary military hospital. The whole thing was spearheaded by one of the most famous aristocrats in England: Lady Carnarvon (the secret, illegitimate, but still-very-wealthy daughter of a Rothschild). And so, this wasn't exactly your typical military hospital. It was much more like something out of Downton Abbey. Patients were fed with fresh food from the gardens. The beds were made up with fine linen. There were butlers and footmen to serve breakfast in bed and bring the men the newspaper. In fact, the hospital helped to inspire Downton Abbey: the television show is filmed at Lady Carnarvon's country home, where she originally opened the hospital before moving it here.

Now, at this point, Billy Bishop wasn't famous yet. He wasn't even a pilot yet. The young man from Canada had started out the war as an officer in the cavalry — trained to ride his horse into the onslaught of German machine guns. Luckily, he managed to get a transfer into the Royal Flying Corps before seeing any action, but even then he wasn't allowed to fly the planes. He was an observer who sat in the aircraft as it flew over the front lines, taking notes on German positions.

He still got hurt, though. First, he got in a truck accident. Then, he was knocked out for two days after being hit in the head while working on a plane. When he recovered, he promptly injured his knee during a failed take-off: his airplane ploughed through a hedge and into a neighbouring field. On leave in London, he hurt his knee again: this time, he got drunk and fell off a gangplank. But through it all, he refused to get treatment. It wasn't until he fell down the steps of the Savoy Hotel that he finally found himself in the care of the doctors, nurses and butlers of Lady Carnarvon's Hospital for Officers.

And on that spring day in 1916, things were about to get weird. As Bishop woke from his slumber, he found one of the most famous and influential women in all of England sitting at his bedside.

Lady St. Helier was at the heart of social life in London. She was a Baroness, a writer, a philanthropist, even an alderman on the City Council. The parties she threw at her home were the place to be in the early years of the 1900s. Many of the greatest writers and most important politicians were known to be guests at 52 Portland Place: Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, David Lloyd George, W. Somerset Maugham... She even introduced Winston Churchill to his future wife — her niece — and then hosted their wedding reception.

But Billy Bishop didn't know any of that. They'd never met before and he didn't recognize her. He was Canadian; her name meant nothing to him. But she, by an exceptionally strange coincidence, knew exactly who he was.

"I saw your name on the hospital register," she explained. "And I was sure that someone named William Bishop from Canada must be the son of my friend Will Bishop. And when I looked at you, I was sure of it."

And she was actually right. At some point, while on a trip Ottawa, she'd been a guest at a reception held by the Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. For some reason, Bishop's father — who was a relatively ordinary lawyer — was also there. He made enough of an impression that years later Lady St. Helier still remembered him fondly. And when she visited Lady Carnarvon's hospital, the Bishop name stood out.

That coincidence changed Billy Bishop's life.

52 Portland Place
Suddenly, he was a very well-connected young officer. Lady St. Helier invited him to spend the rest of his time recovering at her own home (where I also left a dream for him tonight). The two became very close. Before long, she was introducing him as her grandson — and he, in turn, called her "Granny." When his father had a mild stroke back in Canada, Lady St. Helier pulled strings to get Bishop a leave from the military and a ticket on a ship back home. Thanks to her, he was able to spend a few months visiting with his father in Owen Sound and with his fiancee in Toronto. That trip may very well have saved his life: back in Europe, his squadron was being cut to pieces during the Battle of the Somme.

When he returned to England, he was still determined to become a pilot. But his application was being ignored. So, once again, Lady St. Helier pulled some strings. And before he knew it, Bishop was in flight school.

That, of course, was a stroke of luck for the Royal Flying Corps. By the end of Bishop's first week as a pilot, he'd already shot down five German planes and earned the title of "ace". A few months later, he'd been awarded the Victoria Cross, faced off against the Red Baron, and set the record for the most enemy planes shot down by any pilot from the British Empire.

Whenever he was away from the front lines back in London, he was staying at Lady St. Helier's, drinking and dancing with the most famous and powerful people in England. By the time he got another leave to visit Canada during the autumn of 1917, he was an international celebrity in his own right.

And back home in Toronto, he was wining and dining with the richest people in Canada, too. In another odd coincidence, Bishop's fiancee was the grand-daughter of our country's most famous department store mogul: Timothy Eaton. Back before the war, the Eaton family hadn't approved of the match. But now, things were different. Billy Bishop and Margaret Burden were married at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair West. By then, Bishop was so famous that a crowd of fans showed up at the church to cheer the newly weds on.

But that same fame meant the end of Billy Bishop's career as an ace. He was so famous that the Canadian government was beginning to worry about what would happen to morale if he were ever shot down. And so, they decided to ground him. He was ordered away from the front lines. Bishop — who, by his own admission, had developed a thirst for blood — was deeply disappointed. But he had no choice. Now, Billy Bishop was famous. But he'd never fly a plane into action again. 


Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here. I'll be posting lots more during the trip! And you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too.

There are photos of Lady St. Helier here and here. You can read a bit more about Bishop and the Baroness thanks to Google Books here and here and also a little bit here. There's more about Lady St. Helier here and here. And about her connection to Churchill here. Or her other famous friends here. Plus, there's some info about Bishop's London-born pilot son here.

A dream for Billy Bishop outside the former hospital

A dream for Billy Bishop outside 52 Portland Place

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