The British mainland is separated from the Isle of Wight by the body of water called the Solent. This ranges in width between being only one mile wide where Hurst Spit juts from the Mainland into the Solent along a thin 1½ mile long narrow shingle bank of land in the west, to five miles wide in the east. The Solent is at its narrowest in the west, which is the least populated area on both sides. Where it is at its widest in the east on the northern shore can be found the towns of Gosport and Lee-on-Solent and the city of Portsmouth, while on the Isle of Wight shore the Island's largest town Ryde is located.
Delivering the post and other parcels to the Isle of Wight has long been an important priority and something that people have frequently tried to find unique ways to do. The first official ferry company to the Isle of Wight1 was the Southampton, Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Limited, which can trace its origins back to 1820 when it was known as the Isle of Wight Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which goes to show that delivering the mail has been important for at least two centuries. The Southampton, Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Limited remains the longest-named company in Britain, though it is usually known as 'Red Funnel' for short. For 200 years this company and its rival - now called WightLink - have delivered goods in a largely mundane manner, by putting things on a ship on one side of the Solent and then unloading them on the other, normally in this day and age with lorries driving on and off. Since May 2019 Red Funnel have even operated a cargo-only ferry, the Red Kestrel. Yet while the Isle of Wight ferries enjoy a reputation for their ships crashing into everything, none of them have actually sunk2 making this method safe, secure, reliable – but dull.
Fortunately more exciting ways of delivering the mail have also been used.
Bang! Rocket Post
The Isle of Wight has a long and proud association with rockets, yet the Rocket Post is not one of the proudest moments. The history of the Isle of Wight and the rocket can be traced back to John Dennett, who was born at Carisbrooke in 1789. The reliable use of rockets in warfare came to the British Army's attention after 1792 during the Anglo-Myosore Wars (1766-99), when the Indian state of Myosore developed ones that actually headed in the direction they were pointed. This idea was adapted by the British and developed further by William Congreve. Rockets to his design were used for a few decades by the British army as a long-range weapon, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars including the War of 1812 where they inspired words which, when combined with the tune from a London song celebrating the joys of alcoholism, created the American theme tune. Though not the first man to conceive of the idea of attaching a line to the rocket and firing it at a ship in trouble, Dennett designed an improved version in 1823 that was modestly named the Life Saving Apparatus which was ensconced in lifeboat stations nationwide. Later in 1865 a two-stage rocket with a longer range was developed by Colonel Edward Boxer, Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal. This too was used to fire lines at shipwrecks, and he was also from the Isle of Wight.
Almost a century later the Isle of Wight was still at the forefront of rocket design. In 1954 aircraft company Saunders-Roe designed the SR-53 high-speed jet and rocket powered aircraft, with a top speed of Mach 2 and a ceiling of 55,000 feet and rate of climb of 29,000 feet per minute. This was followed by the SR-177 which had a maximum speed of Mach 2.35. Though in 1956 the Ministry of Supply placed an order, in 1957 the Minister of Defence cancelled all British fighter aircraft orders in favour of ground-launched guided missiles. The experience gained led to the Black Knight and Black Arrow rocket programme, with an Isle of Wight-built rocket successfully launching a satellite into space in 1971.
So we have seen that rockets can be useful tools for putting satellites in space and saving lives during shipwrecks, but can they help deliver a postcard from your Aunt Mabel?
So Long, Zuckers!
Shockingly enough, though it may seem a 21st Century phenomenon for an Amazon delivery person to chuck your precious parcel in a hedge, German inventor Gerhard Zucker was throwing items of post into the air in a field in Sussex and claiming they were delivered, in the first half of the 20th Century. For in the 1930s, that most rocket-obsessed of decades, Zucker proposed a plan to deliver the mail by rocket. Yet was he a visionary engineer, or a con-artist?
Gerhard Zucker's career began in Germany when he announced he could deliver items of post nine miles to Neuhaven Island and was paid to do so by members of the public who bought stamps that he sold, only to be investigated for fraud when the rocket he launched only travelled 1% of that distance. After failing to attract much interest (other than from the police) in his homeland, in 1934 Zucker moved to London where he founded the British Rocket Syndicate along with a stamp dealer. In June 1934 his first experiment in Britain took place in Sussex. He promised to deliver over 3,000 letters using his rocket, with members of the public invited to send their letters by his rocket post by purchasing his special stamps. The Post Office suspected Zucker was less interested in delivering post than making a fortune selling stamps. Nevertheless he launched the rocket up into the air, its payload came back down and then he found the letters and took them to Brighton's post office where ordinary postmen took over and delivered the letters as normal.
Sending post from the Sussex countryside to the Sussex countryside was the zenith of Zucker's rocket post career, which went downhill, or down to Earth, from here on in. He then headed to the Outer Hebrides, claiming his rocket post could keep the islands there connected with the mainland. In July he tried sending rockets over the 500-metre Sound of Scarp between the islands of Harris and Scarp, selling his stamps labelled 'Western Isles Rocket Post' at 2s 6d each. His first attempt loaded with 1,200 letters to be sent from Scarp to Harris ended in the rocket exploding on the beach. Undeterred he collected all the 793 letters that survived and added another 142 for a second attempt three days later, though this time delivering the letters in the wrong direction, from Harris to Scarp. This was more successful - reportedly resulting in the letters' scorched remains scattering like confetti, but a piece of shrapnel did actually make it all the way. The Scotland part of his story inspired a film, The Rocket Post (2004).
Lymington, We've had a Problem
With his reputation in Scotland as burnt and in as many pieces as the letters he was supposedly delivering, Zucker headed to the south of Britain and began promoting an attempt to deliver 600 items of post from the mainland at a golf course near Lymington to the Isle of Wight. This time he was told that any stamps sold would have to be attached to empty envelopes, as any post delivered would be against the Post Office's monopoly. On 5 December, 1934, he launched a rocket that was pointing at the West Wight, optimistically predicting it would land at Fort Victoria. Instead it immediately made an unexpected U-turn, headed away from the Isle of Wight and crash landed 1½ miles away inland in the opposite direction three-foot down in the mud in the middle of Pennington Marshes. The surviving envelopes were recovered, dried out and then posted normally.
The Home Office had had enough, the Government did not want rockets randomly exploding or crashing all over the place any more. The General Post Office officially believed the scientific development of rocket conveyance is of less importance to Herr Zucker and Herr Dombrowsky than the manufacture of philatelic curiosities. His habit of leaving vast quantities of gunpowder around train stations was also frowned upon. The Director of Public Prosecutions warned Zucker that there would be criminal proceedings if any more rocket launch attempts went ahead. Zucker did try and promote an even more ambitious scheme to fire rockets from Britain to mainland Europe over the straits of Dover, or possibly to Ireland, to no avail. After being imprisoned for fraud Zucker was returned to Germany, where he was arrested by the Nazis, also for fraud. Romantic rumours that during the war he was involved in adding propaganda leaflets to the V1 doodlebugs to drop over the south coast of England are, however, false; he briefly served in the Luftwaffe before being invalided out. After the war he continued with his rocket experiments, but in 1964 one resulted in three deaths and he was imprisoned for manslaughter.
It Isn't Only Cinderella who Travels in a Pumpkin
In the years to follow people found many interesting ways to cross the Solent. The Isle of Wight was where the hovercraft was invented in 1959 and Hovertravel, who take passengers between Southsea and Ryde, operate a parcel delivery service. More interestingly, in October 2013 Dmitri Galitzine travelled the three miles between Gosport to Wootton Creek in a pumpkin in just under two hours, yet he did not deliver any letters once he arrived. It would not be until September 2019 that a quirky way to deliver post was once more attempted.
The idea of a flying backpack that can be worn and make the wearer fly has inspired fiction since the Scientific Romance of Victorian England, with a real Bell rocket pack appearing in Thunderball (1965), and fictional versions appearing in films such as The Rocketeer (1991) and most recently Iron Man (2008). In 2016 these inspired British inventor Richard Browning to found company Gravity Industries and develop his own Daedalus Flight Pack, which can remain airborne for approximately ten minutes. He broke the Fastest speed in a body-controlled jet engine powered suit World Record in November 2017. That achieved, he gradually tried attempting longer challenges before, naturally, deciding in 2019 to use his invention to cross the Solent, almost 85 years after Zucker's attempt.
On Your Marks, Jet Set, Go!
Browning's aim was to fly from the Solent's narrowest point, from outside Hurst Castle and Lighthouse at the end of Hurst Spit and almost five miles south of Lymington to Fort Albert on the Island, an early-Victorian fortification. To commemorate the occasion he carried one of Zucker's stamps on an envelope. On 2 September, 2019, and travelling at 60mph, it only took him 75 seconds to fly across the Solent, and a little longer to actually deliver the letter.
There's no denying that this was an impressive stunt, but as Browning's flight required a tech team of 20 people plus the co-operation of both the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and coastguard, and the little likelihood of much correspondence limited between Hurst Castle and Fort Albert, this was a spectacular one-off, not a regular postal service.
No-one could have predicted when Browning jetted across the Solent that just a year later in 2020 Britain would be in the grip of the Coronavirus pandemic. Soon after the disease reached Britain, lockdown measures were introduced to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. The number of active ferry routes across the Solent were slashed from six to two, with only reduced car ferry crossings between Southampton and East Cowes and Portsmouth and Fishbourne sailing during the week, and with hovercraft only operating at weekends. This led to a pilot scheme in which an unpiloted UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) drone was designed at the University of Southampton to carry humanitarian aid. The drone was designed to be robust and easy to repair, with two engines, but able to fly on one, or glide if both engines failed, and also float if it makes a wet landing. It can travel at speeds up to 100mph, burning 12 litres of fuel an hour, a fifth of that of a typical manned light aircraft. It can carry up to 100kg of medical supplies up to 620 miles, so easily able to fly the five miles from Lee-on-Solent airport in Hampshire to its destination, a field at Newnhamfarm outside Binstead. This flight takes a mere ten minutes rather than the half-hour crossing between Portsmouth to Fishbourne, though the field the drone lands in is six miles from St Mary's Hospital.
The first flight on 9 May was the first time that a non-military UAV has been allowed to fly in the UK out of the line-of-sight, with the drone remotely controlled from a site five miles away. Though the scheme is awaiting Civil Aviation Authority approval, this is part of a plan for the UK's first Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system to combine drone flights with air traffic control. A four-year project was fast-tracked by the Government due to the pandemic.
Since the successful first flight the drone has been placed on standby, ready to carry PPE (personal protective equipment) and other medical equipment and supplies dependent on the requirement of St Mary's Hospital. The UAV stands ready to fly up to ten sorties a day should urgent supplies be needed.
Wrapping up and Enveloping all we Have Learnt
It may have taken almost 200 years since Dennett's invention of the Life Saving Apparatus to provide a literal lifeline to those in need, and 85 years since Zucker first proposed unmanned flights/launches to the Isle of Wight, but those visions have finally become a reality. This all goes to show how resourceful humanity can be. Regardless of whether we wish to help others, save lives, show off, prove a point, accept a challenge, commit stamp fraud or simply because there's not a lot else you can do with a giant pumpkin, our species is amazing at crossing divides in inventive ways when we really need to.