Back from the grave
Apparently I had so much to cover in my report on the first half of this year, that I completely forgot to share what may be one the best aviation things I ever did!
As you may recall from ‘The Man Inside K5054’, Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers was far more than ‘just’ the test pilot who took Supermarine’s history-making Spitfire prototype on its maiden flight. Indeed, he was easily one of Great Britain’s greatest test pilots ever – second only to the amazing Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown in number of different types flown (366), for example.
So I was somewhat taken aback when I received an email in late April asking if I knew where he was buried.
Well, ‘Weybridge Cemetery’ was the obvious answer… Except, when pressed, none of my sources had any more detail to offer. And when I contacted the person who’d added Summers’ memorial details on Find A Grave, he told me his source was my article!
Okay. Now it was personal.
Weybridge Cemetery itself is a substantial graveyard in the English town of the same name. Given that it virtually overlooks the former site of Brooklands Racecourse, where early British aviation had stretched its wings before The Great War, and where Vickers Aviation was based from its foundation in 1911, it made perfect sense that Summers would be laid to rest there.
He was Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot for 22 years, after all, and flew at least 54 of their prototypes in the skies above – from wood-and-wire biplanes to heavy jet airliners.
So how could no-one know where such a hugely significant aviator was interred? And, more importantly, where was he?
First man to fly the Spitfire
Well, being on the other side of the world wasn’t about to stop me. (That would only stop me doing the leg-work myself.) I began by contacting the cemetery’s ‘owners’ Elmbridge Borough Council in hope they could simply open their records and find an answer. Surely, in these genealogy-obsessed age they got enquiries like this all the time? In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they received regular enquiries from British aviation enthusiasts and historians, asking where to pay respects to the first man to fly a Spitfire…
If I wasn’t absolutely wrong, it certainly wasn’t so simple.
Then I found a note online claiming Summers wasn’t buried in the main Weymouth Cemetery after all, but in another small Catholic cemetery in the town. Even though this information was actually incorrect, it still turned out to be best tip I could have hoped for.
It didn’t take long to locate the only Catholic church in Weybridge – Christ the Prince of Peace (CPP) – and email an enquiry to them.
With the serendipity that passes all understanding, my email was handed along to Parish Assistant Mary Lee, who assured me she knew the cemetery well and was more than happy to stroll around it in her spare time, looking for my lost aviator. Better yet, Mary Lee was on good terms with the cemetery office at Elmbridge Council and reached out to them on my behalf as well.
I couldn’t have been in better hands.
As Mary Lee ‘walked the ground’ on my behalf, her local contacts began to bear fruit and I received a note from the council’s Cemetery Section, advising that they had located Summers in the registry, and kindly providing the plot number.
They must have wondered what was up, as Mary Lee had followed up with them the same morning and Martin Hinton, who’d email me in the first place, had also been in touch. Curiosity duly aroused, Lee from the Council arranged to meet Mary Lee in the graveyard the next day to see if they could locate Mutt’s final resting place.
And locate it they did. Not IN the Catholic section, as it happens, but right next to it.
Legacy of the Spitfire
And so the great Mutt Summers, somewhat lost to aviation, has been found.
If you’d like to pay your respects to one of England’s greatest and arguably most important Test Pilots, you will find him in Weybridge Cemetery, at plot number 4359.
I was surprised and touched when I learned that Mary Lee, no aviation enthusiast, was still rather moved to locate and view such an important test pilot’s final resting place. Suffice to say the legacy of the Spitfire – all that it achieved and represents – runs especially deep in the south of England.
On the other hand, we were both somewhat disappointed at the neglected state of the grave. I would argue that Summers deserves a monument befitting his pivotal role in British aviation and history. At the very least, his memorial should be in better condition.
I may be able to help find his gravestone from 10,000 miles away but, regrettably, I can’t actually lean in and scrub it. More’s the pity.
To remember and admire
So here’s the final phase of this project: If you happen to be in visiting range of Weybridge, Surrey, I implore you to organise a few friends, a few buckets and a few scrubbing brushes, and restore Mutt Summers’ memorial to a condition worthy of his memory. (I’m not sure what special techniques or permissions you’ll need. Maybe check first.)
When you’re done, be sure to send photos so I can use ‘airscape’ to thank you on behalf of Spitfire fans, aviators and England.
If it’s worth restoring Spitfires for later generations to respect, remember and admire, surely it’s worth doing the same for the first pilot to put wind under the wings?