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First World War: Heroic Hornchurch pilot celebrated in new play

William Leefe Robinson.  [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith] William Leefe Robinson. [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith]

Sunday, July 13, 2014
12:00 PM

Imagine flames engulfing an airship as it descends towards the ground with jubilant cheers cutting through the air from crowds witnessing the fall of an enemy machine.

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Queen’s Theatre community musicals

n The Queen’s Theatre community musicals occur biennially

n The aim is to include local residents in the life of the theatre

n 2012’s play Lighting Up the Lane marked 60 years since the attraction opened

n Its plot of love and loss was built around the birth of the theatre

n In 2010, residents enjoyed Down the River and Up the Road

n The community musicals include residents from Havering, other boroughs and Essex

n Open auditions are held each time, with lead and smaller roles available as well as backstage

This First World War scene appears to be unremarkable in its circumstances; simply another success by Britain’s pilots who patrolled the skies against the threat of the German Zeppelins.

But it is in fact an iconic moment which catapulted one man into national treasure status and Havering’s history books.

William Leefe Robinson, who was based at Sutton’s Farm aerodrome in Hornchurch, was the first British pilot to shoot down a German aircraft during the Great War and his exploits will now be celebrated in a new musical.

Queen’s Theatre in Billet Lane, Hornchurch, is staging Paper Planes, an original production to mark the centenary of the start of the war.

Left to right: Wulstan Tempest, William Leefe Robinson and Frederick Sowrey at Sutton's Farm aerodromeLeft to right: Wulstan Tempest, William Leefe Robinson and Frederick Sowrey at Sutton's Farm aerodrome

Patrick O’Sullivan, 32, the director and a member of the writing team, said: “When we finished our last community musical we started thinking about what we might do in two years time and obviously we were aware of the centenary of the First World War so we thought maybe we could tell some war stories with community links.

“I came across William Leefe Robinson, who I really didn’t know anything about, and as I researched him more and more I realised his story would make a perfect piece of theatre.”

Paper Planes will explore most of Robinson’s dramatic life, which is documented in historian Richard Smith’s book Hornchurch Streets of Heroes.

Robinson was born in Coorg, India, on July 14, 1895, one of seven children.

He began his education at the Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in Bangalore in 1903 before continuing his studies in England.

He was a student at the Dragon School, Oxford, before enrolling at St Bees School, Cumbria, in 1909 where he excelled in the rugby team and the school’s own officer training corps.

At the outbreak of war, Robinson began an officer training course at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Upon successfully completing it, he was posted to a home-bound unit in Cornwall but, frustrated by the lack of action, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

After serving with a number of squadrons, and sustaining a shrapnel wound while fighting in France, Robinson joined 39 Squadron at Sutton’s Farm in 1916.

Little did he know that his exploits on the night of September 2 would make him a national hero and recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Robinson’s action-packed war experiences provide the perfect setting for Paper Planes, which will be performed by a cast of 65.

Patrick said: “We have cast members aged between seven and 80. Everyone is enjoying it and having lots of fun, and I think they have risen to the challenge.

“Everybody really wants it to be successful.”

The play, which includes fictional elements such as a love story between Robinson and an East End girl, will explore the pilot’s time as a prisoner of war and his untimely death.

The hero survived the war, but, like millions of people across the world, succumbed to the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic.

He died on December 31, 1918, aged 24.

Patrick said: “There are bits in the play that are funny, bits that are sad and bits that are dramatic.

“We are telling William Leefe Robinson’s story to remember him, so hopefully people will go away with a bit more of an idea of who he was.”

Paper Planes will be staged between July 30 and August 2. To buy tickets, which range between £10 and £15, call 01708 443333 or visit queens-theatre.co.uk

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