Noel Pemberton Billing (31 January 1881 – 11 November 1948), sometimes known as Noel Pemberton-Billing, was an English aviator, inventor, publisher, and Member of Parliament. He founded the firm that became Supermarine and promoted air power, and held a strong antipathy towards the Royal Aircraft Factory and its products. He was noted during the First World War for his populist views and for a sensational libel trial.
Early life and aviation
Born Noel Billing in Hampstead, a residential suburb in north London, Billing ran away from home at the age of 13 and travelled to South Africa. After trying a number of occupations, he joined the mounted police and became a boxer. He was also an actor when he took the extra name Pemberton. He fought in the Second Boer War, and was at the Relief of Ladysmith, but was later invalided out.
Billing then returned to England in 1903 and used his savings to open a garage in Kingston upon Thames. This was successful, but he became more interested in aviation, which was then in its infancy. An attempt to open an aerodrome in Essex failed, so he started a short-lived career in property, while studying to become a lawyer. He passed his exams, but instead moved into selling steam yachts. Convinced of the potential of powered aviation, he founded a flying field with extensive facilities on reclaimed marshland at Fambridge in Essex in 1909, but this ambitious venture did not prosper, British aviation activity becoming centred at Brooklands. In 1913 he bet Frederick Handley Page that he could earn his pilot's licence within 24 hours of first sitting in an aircraft. He won his bet, gaining licence number 683 and £500, equivalent to more than £28,000 in 2010, which he used to found an aircraft business, Pemberton-Billing Ltd, with Hubert Scott-Paine as works manager, in 1913. Billing registered the telegraphic address Supermarine, Southampton for the company, which soon acquired premises at Oakbank Wharf in Woolston, Southampton and started construction of his flying boat designs. Financial difficulties soon set in, but the onset of World War I revived the fortunes of the business.
In 1914, Billing joined the Royal Naval Air Service and in October was granted a temporary commission as a lieutenant. He was involved in the air raid on Zeppelin sheds near Lake Constance made in November 1914. He was able to sell his share in the aviation firm to Scott-Paine in early 1916, who renamed the firm Supermarine Aviation Works Limited after the company's telegraphic address.
In Parliament, Billing consistently advocated the creation of an air force, retaliation against German air raids, that action be taken against war profiteering and that action be taken to lessen the influence of Germans in Britain. In asking awkward questions of the government he was usually supported by Arthur Lynch.
Following a disagreement over Parliamentary procedure and with Billing refusing to sit down while "Germans are running about this country" Billing was ejected from the House of Commons and suspended as an MP on 1 July 1918.
He resigned his seat in 1921 by accepting the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead, citing that the House of Commons had been rendered "unwholesome and unfair" by Lloyd George "at the instigation of a camarilla of International financiers".
Advocacy of air power
During World War I he was notable for his support of air power, constantly accusing the government of neglecting the issue and advocating the creation of a separate air force, unattached to either the British Army or the Royal Navy. During the so-called "Fokker scourge" of late 1915 and early 1916, he became particularly vocal against the Royal Aircraft Factory and its products, raising the question in typically exaggerated terms once he entered Parliament. His prejudice against the Factory and its products persisted, and was very influential. He called for air raids against German cities. In 1917 he published Air War and How to Wage it, which emphasised the future role of raids on cities and the need to develop protective measures. His own eccentric quadraplane design for a home defence fighter, the heavily armed and searchlight-equipped "Supermarine Nighthawk", was built in prototype but had insufficient performance to be of any use against Zeppelins.
Publishing and libel trial
In late 1916 Billing founded and edited a weekly journal, The Imperialist. The journal supported his Parliamentary campaigns, and also advocated equal voting rights for men and women, and electoral reform.
The journal was renamed Vigilante in 1918 to reflect his campaign for a Vigilance Committee.
In 1918 Captain Harold Sherwood Spencer became assistant editor and the journal was increasingly left in Spencer's hands. John Henry Clarke and Henry Hamilton Beamish began to write for Vigilante, and promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, claiming "the British war effort was being undermined by the "hidden hand" of German sympathisers and German Jews operating in Britain". The journal included attacks on "Jews, German music, Pacifism, Fabianism, Aliens, Financiers, Internationalism, and the Brotherhood of Man". There is no evidence that Billing himself was antisemitic.
The journal's most famous articles were largely written by Spencer, but under Billing's name, in which it was claimed that the Germans were blackmailing "47,000 highly placed British perverts" to "propagate evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia." The names were said to be inscribed in the "Berlin Black Book" of the Mbret of Albania. The contents of this book revealed that the Germans planned on "exterminating the manhood of Britain" by luring men into homosexuality and paedophilia. "Even to loiter in the streets was not immune. Meretricious agents of the Kaiser were stationed at such places as Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner. In this black book of sin details were given of the unnatural defloration of children ... wives of men in supreme positions were entangled. In Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of the state were threatened". He publicly attacked Margot Asquith, wife of the prime minister, hinting that she was caught up in this. He also targeted members of the circle around Robbie Ross, the literary executor of Oscar Wilde, who supported and introduced homosexual poets and writers.
He published an article, "The Cult of the Clitoris", which implied that the actress Maud Allan, then appearing in a private production of Salome organised by Ross, was a lesbian associate of the conspirators. This led to a sensational libel case, at which Billing represented himself and won. Lord Alfred Douglas, a former lover of Oscar Wilde, testified in Billing's favour, as did Billing's mistress Eileen Villiers-Stuart. Villiers-Stuart claimed to have seen the "Black Book" and even asserted in court that the judge, Charles Darling, was in the book.
Billing's victory in this case created significant popular publicity.
Billing later indicated he had never believed such a book existed but that the whole matter had been "to frighten off those in prominent positions whose sexual tastes could have led to them being blackmailed by German agents".
It has been claimed by the writer Michael Kettle in his book Salome's Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century that that Maud Allan libel case was part of a plot by generals to stop Lloyd George from making an early peace with Germany.
While air power was his main overarching concern Pemberton Billing's primary political campaign was for the establishment of a committee of nine Independent politicians who would watch over the government in the House of Commons. He was highly critical of party politics believing it was a "disease" which made all governments "corrupt"., The name was explicitly in reference to the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance.
He then created a Vigilance Society to stand in the elections. The Society was disbanded in 1919 as Billing became disillusioned with Spencer, Beamish and Clarke.
After the war, he suffered increasingly from health problems, which contributed to his temporary retirement from politics in 1921. He dramatically resigned his seat in Parliament, urging his constituents not to vote in the consequent by-election. However, he continued to remain active writing literary works and producing films. In 1927, Billing wrote a play, High Treason, inspired by Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. It was a sci-fi drama about pacifism set in a future 1940 (later changed to 1950), when a "United States of Europe" comes into conflict with the "Empire of the Atlantic States". In 1929 Maurice Elvey made a film of the play, using the same title. It was released in two versions, one silent and the other an early "talkie", but neither proved successful.
He stood again for East Hertfordshire in the 1929 General Election.
World War II
In 1941 Billing attempted to return to politics, seeking to replicate his success during World War I as a critic of the conduct of the war. He advocated the defeat of Germany by bombing alone, and the defence of Britain by a system of spaced light-beams directed upwards, which would confuse enemy bombers. Billing also proposed a post-war reform of the British constitution, arguing that general elections should be abolished in favour of a rolling programme of by-elections and that a new second chamber should be created, appointed from representatives of trades and professions. He also argued that there should be a separate "Women's parliament" dedicated to "domestic" matters. He stood in four by-elections, most notably in Hornsey; however, he was unable to win a seat in parliament at any of them.
In 1922, Billing patented a recording system intended to produce laterally-cut disc records with ten times the capacity of existing systems. Billing's "World Record Controller" fitted onto a standard spring-wound gramophone, using a progressive gearing system to initially force the turntable speed down from 78 rpm to 33 rpm and then gradually increase rotational speed of the record as it played, so that the linear speed at which the recorded groove passed the needle remained constant. This allowed over ten minutes playing time per 12-inch side of Billing's special "World" records, but the high cost of his long-playing discs (10 shillings apiece, or nearly $29 today) and the complexity of the playback attachment prevented popular acceptance. A further musical invention, the "Duophone" unbreakable record, appeared in 1925, but was discontinued in 1930 as its material rapidly wore out needles and most Duophone recordings were made by the obsolete acoustical process.
In 1936, Billing designed the miniature LeCoultre Compass camera. In 1948, he devised the "Phantom" camera to be used by spies. It never entered production, but its rarity led one to sell for £120,000, a record price for any camera, in 2001.
Representations in literature
Novelist Pat Barker's award-winning World War I trilogy – Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road – was set against the backdrop of Billing's libel case, with several characters mentioning his ominous black book. The middle novel, in particular, deals with the psychiatric treatment of soldiers torn between patriotism and pacifism, and between homosexuality and heterosexuality.
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), p21
- The Flying Ground at FambridgeFlight 20 February 1909
- According to the UK National Archive's currency converter, £500 in 1910 would have the equivalent purchasing power of over £28,000 in 2010.
- "No. 28953". The London Gazette. 27 October 1914. p. 8635.
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), chapter 7
- McKinstry, Leo. Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend. London, UK. John Murray Publisher. 435pp. ISBN 978-0-7195-6874-9
- A Challenge in the Trenches The Times 25 July 1917
- Hansard SUSPENSION OF MR. BILLING HC Deb 01 July 1918 vol 107 cc1410-2
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), p159
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), p112
- Erin Carlston, Double Agents: Espionage, Literature, and Liminal Citizens. Columbia University Press, 2013.ISBN 0231136722 (p. 34)
- Angela K. Smith, Gender and Warfare in the Twentieth Century: Textual Representations. Manchester University Press, 2004. ISBN 0719065747 (p. 63).
- Gay Wachman, Lesbian Empire: Radical Crosswriting in the Twenties. Rutgers University Press, 2001. ISBN 0813529425 (p. 15)
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), p113
- Air Minded: Air power & British Society http://airminded.org/biographies/noel-pemberton-billing/
- "Noel Pemberton-Billing, a flamboyent right-wing MP and owner of the Imperialist newspaper, had published an article by a Captain Harold Spencer in January 1918 in which Spencer alleged he had seen a "black book" at the Castle of Prince William of Wied".Philip Hoare, Noel Coward: A Biography of Noel Coward Simon and Schuster, 2013. ISBN 1476737495 (pp. 70–1)
- Philip Hoare, Oscar Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century., Arcade Publishing, 1999, p.40; see also Kettle, Michael. Salome's Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century, London: Granada, 1977.; Jodie Medd, "'The Cult of the Clitoris': Anatomy of a National Scandal," Modernism/Modernity 9, no. 1 (2002): 21–49
- Tammy M. Proctor, Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War, NYU Press, 2006, p.44.
- Paxman, Jeremy Great Britain's Great War, pp. 245-248
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), p134
- The Imperialist no.31, May 5, 1917
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), chapter 15
- Markku Ruotsila, British and American Anticommunism Before the Cold War Taylor & Francis, 2001 ISBN 0714681776 (p. 154).
- Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Labour 1920–1924: The Beginning of Modern British Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.459
- High Treason https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018996/
- Stoney, Barbara Twentieth Century Maverick The Life of Noel Pemberton Billing Bank House Books (2000), pp 203-204
- Kevin Jefferys, The Churchill Coalition and Wartime Politics, 1940–1945. Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN 0719025605 (P.144)
- Chris Cook, John Ramsden, By-Elections in British Politics, Routledge, 1997, pp135-6
- "Compass II 1937". Early Photography. Retrieved 25 April 2017. "The camera was designed by Noel Pemberton Billing and manufactured by Le Coultre & Cie in Switzerland."
- Barbara Stoney, Twentieth Century Maverick. East Grinstead: Manor House Books, 2004.
- Barry Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule: British Air Strategy 1914–1939, London UK, Croom Helm, 1976
- Hoare, Philip, Wilde's Last Stand: Scandal, Decadence and Conspiracy During the Great War, Duckworth Overlook, London and New York, 1997, 2nd ed., 2011. (concerning Pemberton Billing's trial for criminal libel).
- James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War. Stroud: Sutton, 2002.
- Pemberton-Billing, Noel, Air War: How to Wage It, with some suggestions for the defence of the great cities, Portsmouth UK, Gale & Polden, 1916, 74pp
- Kettle, Michael, "Salome's Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century" 1977
- PortCities Southampton: Noel Pemberton-Billing
- Airminded: Noel Pemberton-Billing
- Pemberton Billing
- Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs
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