For those of us brought up watching Hancock’s Half Hour on television during the early 1960s, one of the classic episodes must be ‘The Radio Ham’. The scene opens with Hancock at the controls of his new amateur radio station, idly tuning the knob into various frequencies and conversing with other ‘radio hams’ around the world. Suddenly a voice cuts across the wavebands with the words, ‘Mayday’, ‘Mayday’. Tony Hancock looks at the set quizzically and says, ‘Mayday, Mayday, that was weeks ago, it’s the middle of June now.’ The voice is that of a sailor in the Indian Ocean whose boat is sinking and who requires help. Galton and Simpson, the scriptwriters, created a very funny half-hour ‘sitcom’ based around this famous distress call, perhaps ignorant of its association with Selmeston.
Just to the right of the entrance to St Mary’s Church in Selmeston, is a memorial tablet with the words:-
1st March 1962.
In Memory of our Beloved Frederick Stanley Mockford aged 64
Air Radio Pioneer and Originator of the Distress Call ‘Mayday’
Searching the Internet for references to Frederick Mockford and the ‘Mayday’ call, you soon discover a website dedicated to the Mockford family, which has been placed there by a relative, Catherine Wickins, who lives in Chichester, West Sussex. We are indebted to her for her help with this article.
Frederick Stanley Mockford was born in 1897 and after leaving school became a Morse Code operator for the London Brighton and South Coast Railway. At the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered for the newly formed Royal Flying Corps, and was sent to France with the first wireless telegraphy unit. In 1917 Wireless Officer Mockford was put in charge of the installation of two-way radio telephones in all aircraft, and training in their use. No. 141 Squadron (Home Defence) was the first to have one of these. At the end of the war he became an official in the newly formed Air Ministry and helped in the early development of wireless services for civil aviation. He was the first examiner of candidates for the air operator’s licence, and in 1923 he became the senior radio officer at London’s Croydon Airport, once the landing place for two famous flying pioneers, Charles Lindburgh and Amy Johnson.
Mockford attended many international air conferences where aircraft communication was discussed. He invented the alphabetic code used commonly today by the emergency services, such as A for Alpha, B for Bravo and C for Charlie. He also wanted to find a distress signal that could be used swiftly by a pilot who needed urgent help. The Navy’s distress call was SOS, which could be tapped on a Morse key, but this sounded blurred when spoken into an early microphone. Much of the air traffic flying into Croydon originated from France, and the flyers often used the term ‘M’aidez’, literally meaning ‘help me’. Mockford decided to adapt this into something all English-speaking people could understand; the result was ‘Mayday’. In 1923, the Book of Wireless Telegraphy identified ‘SOS’ as the international distress call. In 1924 it identified both ‘SOS’ and ‘Mayday’. In 1930, Frederick Mockford joined the Marconi Company, and three years later became the assistant sales manager. Two years on he became the manager of the company’s aircraft department, and then the deputy general manager. In the Second World War he was the personal assistant to the chairman, while he continued working on war contract negotiations. Two years after the war ended he was appointed commercial manager, and stayed in this post until retirement. He was a council member of the Electronic Engineering Association, a founder member of the Radio Industry Council, a member of the Institute of Navigation, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Frederick Mockford received no honours from the British Government but he was made a Knight of the Order of the Falcon (an Icelandic award of merit).
No one will ever know how many lives have been saved by Mr Mockford’s suggestion, but should you hear it, you will now probably be better informed than Hancock was!