TRCH

Area NG1: UFO Sightings in Nottingham

8 March 19 words: LP Mills

In the second half of the twentieth century, the people of the East Midlands found themselves anxiously watching the stars, anticipating a war between worlds. Literature Editor LP Mills takes a deep-dive in the strange and inexplicable culture of UFO hunters that sprung up in Nottingham following World War Two.

The year is 1954. Across Nottinghamshire, people turn their eyes to the skies in awe as a mysterious object hovers overhead. Described by one eyewitness as a “flying car”, this inexplicable piece of stratospheric hardware is unlike anything the city and its residents have ever seen before. To the uninitiated eye, it is obvious that this machine, with its alien shape and its jerky movements, is from somewhere very strange indeed. Hucknall.

The machine in question was none other than the Rolls-Royce Thrust Measuring Rig, more affectionately known as the “Flying Bedstead.” This remarkable example of vertical take-off and landing aircraft was first developed by Rolls Royce at the Hucknall Aerodrome, and consisted of two jet engines suspended between a clumsy scaffold and completely lacking in anything one might consider “aerodynamic.” The pilot, bedecked in flight leathers and aviator goggles, was to sit in an uncovered seat atop the rig, no doubt dodging wayward geese while absolutely kacking themselves.

While the Flying Bedstead was far from a success, eventually crashing in 1957 and killing its test-pilot, the response of Nottingham residents to this bizarre footnote in the history of aviation is indicative of the cultural climate of post-war Britain. Starting in the 1940s, much of the world became deeply fascinated with the space that loomed, uncanny and unknowable, above their heads. By the 1950s, popular culture had become saturated with stories of little green men and flying saucers, and by the 1970s, we entered the golden age of the amateur UFO investigator.

The phrase “golden age” is perhaps misleading. While science fiction serials like Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica beamed nightly visions of extraterrestrial threats into British homes, it would be remiss to suggest that UFO investigation (known in the biz as ufology, alternately pronounced OOH-FOLO-JEE and YEW-FOLO-JEE) was a national pastime. There are few records detailing membership figures, but conservative estimates suggest that UFO hunting groups were primarily made up of a handful of passionate enthusiasts. However, such groups were incredibly well-connected, resourceful, and thorough. Newsletters published by the now-defunct National Unidentified Flying Object Investigation Society (or NUFOIS, for short) detail hundreds of reported sightings from 1973 up to 1981, ranging from your typical flashing lights floating through the sky, to more exotic and esoteric cases, such as “molten metal” objects and bewildering humming noises. NUFOIS, which was chaired by local author, editor and historian Robert W Morrell from his home on Meadow Lane, provided meticulous and often level-headed information regarding unexplained phenomena in and around the Midlands, and was well-read enough to be preserved in an impressive archive of UFO-related documents at the Central Library in Nottingham.

Another story has several reports filed with the local police detailing a mysterious orange light seen darting through the heavens that was eventually traced back to a drunken barge pilot on the Trent setting off flares.

In fact, it is quite the understatement to say how well-connected UFO hunters were in the 1970s. Without the help of the internet, NUFOIS was part of a network that regularly communicated with Nuove Realtá in Italy, the SAF Bulletin in Sweden, the German Journal für UFO Forschung, and even the New England UFO Newsletter in Massachusetts. Indeed, in a conversation with local historian and author Frank Earp (himself an avid ufologist, and author of the blog Nottingham Hidden History Team, from which the earlier story about the Flying Bedstead came from) he confessed to being investigated by an MI5 agent who was convinced the jargon-heavy lexicon and sprawling web of connectivity boasted by the ufological world was part of a Communist plot to infiltrate the West.

As is often the case, however, the salad days for UFO hunting groups in Nottingham was short-lived. While there are no-doubt ufology teams operating in Nottingham to this day, they seem to lack the coordination of their bygone peers. This decline may be due to a cultural shift from seventies sci-fi images of big-headed aliens and swirling spaceships and towards true-crime, superheroes, and other zeitgeists of the early 21st century. However, one could make the case that the decrease in popularity can be attributed to the groups themselves. A cursory scan through the Nordic UFO Newsletter, a publication that compiled findings from ufology pamphlets across the globe, suggests that Robert Morrell was considered a sceptic, whose constant questioning of the legitimacy of the UFOs cited by his cohorts lead to some tension within the community. A pamphlet published in the March of 1981 by the Northern UFO Network (or NUFON) details the controversy caused when Morrell described the previous year’s conference as “unscientific”, claiming that it was another symptom of “paranormalism sweeping through our midst.”

Morrell’s own publications further cement this cynicism. Many issues of the NUFOIS newsletter go as far as to outright state that sightings received by the organisation typically occur at night, and can usually be attributed to something as mundane as a satellite. One account describes a mysterious series of bright white lights that illuminated the sky above West Bridgford that were later revealed to be the floodlights from the City Ground. Another story has several reports filed with the local police detailing a mysterious orange light seen darting through the heavens that was eventually traced back to a drunken barge pilot on the Trent setting off flares.

As I have alluded to, the ufology craze of the twentieth century has steadily been phased out and replaced with other, more mundane interests. Since the dissolution of groups like NUFOIS (which eventually joined NUFON and other contemporaries to form the Delta Project, a website featuring entertaining articles such as The Kate Bush Mysteries: Fact or Fiction?), keen ufologists must now conduct their investigations in solitude, their meetings relegated to the shady corners of pubs and patios. But fear not, reader: for as long as there are inexplicable objects in our stratosphere, there will be vigilant Nottingham knights keeping an eye out.