Gudgeon saves Lawrence of Arabia’s man

One of the world’s greatest pioneer aviators owes his ultimate success to a Queensland city as revealed by a little-known story which came to light recently thanks to an 1861 family bible. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.

Sir Ross Macpherson Smith served in the First World War at Gallipoli in 1915. In 1917 he joined the brand-new Australian Flying Corps and was twice awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross three times, while becoming a fighter ace.

Smith was pilot for Lawrence of Arabia (pictured above) in the Middle East including a number of daring aerial dog-fights during the war and is mentioned a number of times in Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

In 1919 after the war ended, the Australian government offered a colossal prize of £10,000 – that’s over $5 million today – for the first to fly from Great Britain to Australia. This quickly became known as the Great Air Race and gained attention around the world.

Ross Smith the pilot, with his brother the navigator, and two engineers, took off from England on the 12th of November 1919 in a Vickers Vimy aircraft and eventually landed in Darwin on the 10th of December. They took less than twenty-eight days or an actual flying time of one hundred and thirty-five hours. It was the greatest flying feat the world had seen up to that time.

Captain Ross and Lieutenant Keith Smith

The four men shared the £10,000 prize money, and the Smith brothers were knighted. But the family bible from Ipswich, Queensland, reveals that there’s more to the story.

The original owner of the bible was George Fox who was gifted the bible when he immigrated from England and arrived in Ipswich in around 1862. George and his wife Sarah wrote in there the names of all seven of their children.

Children in the Fox Family Bible

The second-youngest and probably the smallest was George Leonard Fox commonly known as “Gudgeon”.

Gudgeon became one of the best-known residents of Ipswich of his time. It was a source of pride to him that he was a native of Ipswich, and was born and bred and lived in the one house at 80 Nicholas Street all his life. It’s now a vacant lot beside the Masonic Centre.

He started life as a carpenter and among his projects was the women’s ward in the Ipswich General Hospital, the old Queensland Times building, the Goodna Mental Hospital, and the first wing of the Dalby Sanatorium.

In 1899 Gudgeon started work for the Ipswich Railway Workshops where he became known as an extremely skilled tradesman.

And that’s where fate brought Ipswich’s Gudgeon Fox and the aviator Sir Ross Smith together.

After Smith’s Vickers Vimy aircraft landed in Darwin to complete the Britain to Australia flight, it then continued south towards Smith’s hometown of Adelaide.

But a splintered left propeller and strained engine meant a forced landing at Charleville. The famous fight appeared to be finished – until Gudgeon Fox and the Ipswich Railway Workshops came to the rescue.

Gudgeon was the man mainly responsible for building a new propeller which was made from Queensland maple and finished with Docker’s varnish. Dockers was the famous British varnish manufacturers of the day.

Smith’s propeller at the Ipswich Railway Workshops

The building of this propeller was absolutely historic, it was heralded all over Australia, and brought fame to the Ipswich Railway Workshops.

It was previously thought impossible for an aeroplane propeller to be built in Australia.

Smith thought at best that he would have to wait for months until he could import a new propeller from England.

Anyway, the plane and crew did make it back to Smith’s hometown of Adelaide where he was publicly lauded. That’s where you can see the famous Vickers Vimy aircraft today – on display at the Adelaide Airport – complete with Gudgeon Fox’s Ipswich-made propeller.

Smith’s Vickers Vimy at Adelaide Airport


Photo credits:
Thomas Edward Lawrence 1919 – Wikipedia Commons
Ross and Keith Smith 1921 – Wikipedia Commons
Children in the Fox Family Bible 2022 – Jennifer Chenery
Photographs of inaugural England-Australia flight – State Library of South Australia PRG-18-9-1-44B
Smith’s Vickers Vimy at Adelaide Airport 2023 – Harold Peacock


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