Alexander Adolphus Dumphries HENSHAW
7th Nov.1912 – 24 Feb.2007
Although not a Newmarket native, this extra-ordinary man chose to spend his retirement here in Newmarket.
The son of a wealthy businessman, Alex Henshaw was born at Peterborough on November 7, 1912, and educated at Lincoln Grammar School. On leaving school his father bought him a motor bike, reasoning it would be safer than flying, however Alex learned to fly in 1932 and his father bought him a De Haviland Gypsy Moth. By 1934 he was invited to enter the King’s Cup air race in his Miles Hawk, one of the youngest ever, but that ended with him ditching in the Irish Sea.
The next year, flying an Arrow Active he was performing and inverted loop when the engine exploded and he had to bail out, believed to be one of only two parachute descents he was forced to make.
After breaking the record for a flight to Cape Town and back, on the outbreak of war he volunteered ot the RAF but whilst waiting for processing he was invited to join Vickers as a test pilot, which he accepted. A short spell with Wellingtons and boring admin work he quit and at the instigation of Jeffery Quill, chief test pilot at Supermarine he moved to Castle Bromwich.
Here he soon became chief production test pilot on Spitfires and Lancaster’s. In 1940, he married Barbara, the widow of Guy, Count of Chateaubrun. He flew over 2,300 Spitfires during the war, more than 1 in ten of those built. Whilst also testing over 300 Lancaster’s he achieved the remarkable feat of barrel-rolling the four engined heavy bomber.
One hairy escape was crashing his Spitfire between two houses, tearing off both wings, the engine and prop finishing up on a kitchen table while Alex remained sitting in the cockpit section, bruised but not seriously injured. He was technically an RAF Sergeant Pilot in order that if needs be he could fly a fully armed Spitfire in defence of the factory, something he never actually had to do,
When the war ended, he resumed private flying as a hobby and worked in South Africa for two years as a Technical Director of Miles Aircraft before returning to this country. He took over the running of the family farming and holiday business from his elderly father, which had been left in shambles owing to the war.
Alex had the job of re-construction along six miles of Lincolnshire coast, which included an 18-hole golf course. Today a residential estate in Sandilands bears the name Henshaw for the main avenue, and all the roads, closes and streets are named after the various aircraft he flew.
Up to the time of his death in February 2007 Alex lived in a charming cottage, Abborfield, in Fordham Road Newmarket, surrounded by paintings, photographs, trophies, awards and other mementoes of a brilliant flying career. Among them was a photograph of him chatting to a cigar smoking Winston Churchill.
Alex suffered a great loss when his wife Barbara died in 1995, ending a partnership lasting 58 years. “She was everything to me”, he recalled, “wife, best friend, and mentor”. Alex lived in Newmarket for 22 years and considered it a delightful town (it was where he used to meet Barbara, the Countess de Chateaubrun) but admitted that he hadn’t much interest in horseracing. He wrote three books, ‘The Flight of the Mew Gull’, ‘Sigh for a Merlin’ and ‘Wings over the great Divide’ top sellers in their time.
His memories inevitably returned to the great pioneering days of the nineteen thirties when unfettered by today’s restrictive legislation young adventurers could push the limits of endurance of men and machines. Surely it was this spirit that saved our country from defeat in the crucial aerial battles of World War II. We will remember him as the great survivor, not only of the years but of many daring adventures during a long and exciting life.
On the left- May 2003. Alex Henshaw at 90, with Ben and Purdy prior to his visit to St James’ Palace to be presented with the Air League of Great Britain’s highest award by the Duke of Edinburgh.
23rd. March 2005. Alex, aged 92, took over the controls of a dual seat Spitfire flying from Duxford. “It brought all the memories flooding back”, he said. “Those young men went into combat with only five or six hours flying experience in it. If it had not been for the Spitfire, Britain would not have survived. It has been such a privilege flying one again today.” His wife died in 1997 and Alex lived on at Abborfield, Newmarket with his dogs Purdy and Ben.
Alex also took a great interest in promoting “air-mindedness” in young people, for which he was presented the Jeffery Quill Medal in 1997 by the Air League.
In his 90th year, without the aid of notes,he gave a wonderful presentation, in London to commemorate 100 years of flight. During the evening Prince Philip invested him as a Companion of the Air League.
March 5th, 2006. 93-year-old Alex once again piloted a Spitfire, during a flight of the legendary aircraft over the old Supermarine Works at Southampton to mark the 70th anniversary of the first Spitfire taking to the air. His co-pilot afterwards revealed that Alex was competent at the controls and could have landed the plane had it not been for prohibitive insurance conditions. Alex said that ‘it was no different to operating a car’ but it was his last flight in a Spitfire and ‘a wonderful experience’.
He not only donated his entire private collection of paintings, books and artifacts to the RAF Museum, Hendon, he also donated enough funds to employ a full time Curator to catalogue and promote the collection!
Unheralded Awards: – In his youth Alex received a Royal Humane Society award for saving a boy from the River Witham, and in 1953, he was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery following his rescue work during the great floods.
Alex died on 24th February 1997, aged ninety-four.
Green, Peter and Ken Ellis. “Alex Henshaw.” Flypast, No. 310, May 2007.
Henshaw, Alex. Flight of the Mew Gull. London: John Murray Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 0-7195-3740-1.
Henshaw, Alex. Sigh for a Merlin: Testing the Spitfire. London: Crecy Publishing, 1999 (2nd Revised edition). ISBN 978-0-94755-483-5.
Henshaw, Alex. Wings over the Great Divide: Cirrus Associates (S.W.); Revised edition edition (1 August 2004) IBSBN 978-1-90280-719-5
Riding, Richard. “A Truly Remarkable Aviator.” Aeroplane Monthly, Vol. 35, No. 5, May 2007.