Words by Simon de Burton – a journalist and author based in Dartmoor, South Devon, specialising in heritage and luxury living. He writes for the Financial Times, Country & Townhouse, Daily Telegraph, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among many others.
James Purdey & Sons grew its stellar reputation by being a builder of exceptional sporting guns – but when push came to shove at the advent of the First World War, both the firm and its staff were ready to lend themselves to the cause.
More than 30 Purdey gunmakers and other employees joined the Armed Forces in the early stages of the conflict (including 17-year-old Tom Purdey), and most were given the rank of Armourer Staff Sergeant as a result of experience and expertise gleaned in the workplace.
Inevitably, however, orders for traditional Purdey guns slowed to a trickle – prompting Athol Purdey to diversify the factory and its workers into helping the war effort.
He initially designed a muzzle protector for the standard-issue Lee-Enfield rifle that prevented mud from the trenches entering the barrel, compromising both accuracy and safety.
The firm was also tasked by the War Office to fit telescopic sights to sniper rifles and, in 1915, to develop a device to clear the frequent gun jams experienced by RFC pilots, and to design and manufacture a spade-grip thumb trigger that would allow them to fire using one hand.
Perhaps the most notable wartime creations to leave the Purdey drawing board were, however, the sights – one of which was called the ‘Norman Sight’. Invented by an eponymous professor (and RFC officer) at Cambridge University, it featured a pair of metal vanes attached to the bead designed to be lined-up with a gun’s rear ring sight.
The theory behind the vanes was that they would reposition the bead to compensate for the speed and altitude of the aircraft, thus enhancing accuracy. Purdey’s factory manager, Ernest Lawrence, refined and trialled the design of the sight and, ultimately, electrified it for night use.
A Notable Development
During the final two years of the First World War, Purdey produced more than 4,500 Norman Sights – but it was another device, called the ‘Hutton Sight’, which helped to make history on 2-3 September 1916, when Lieutenant Leefe Robinson of the RFC was on patrol over Hertfordshire in his B.E.2c night fighter.
It was then that Lt Robinson spotted one of 16 craft – the wooden-framed Schütte-Lanz SL 11 – that had left Germany to carry out the largest airship raid of the war. After two failed attempts at strafing the ship with his machine gun – which was loaded with special, incendiary bullets – Lt Robinson went in for a third attempt with his last ammunition drum after three hours in the air, lining-up the airship in his Hutton Sight, pulling the trigger and this time causing a vast conflagration.
The Schütte-Lanz crashed into a field behind the Plough Inn at Cuffley with the loss of its entire crew, marking a turning point in the war on the German airships, which were previously feared to have been all but invincible.
Lt Robinson woke up the following day a celebrity and, within 48 hours, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his remarkable bravery, along with £3,500 and a silver cup. He was the first person to win a VC for action in the United Kingdom.
Returning to Audley House
“It is reported that Lt. Robinson came to visit Purdey after his heroic effort – and that his eyebrows had actually been scorched off,” says gun room manager Dr Nicholas Harlow.
“The Norman Sight was the most complicated of a whole range of sights made by Purdey, and the fact that Ernest Lawrence had devised a way of illuminating it made it ideal for hunting Zeppelin and other airships at night is remarkable – but, ironically, it proved to be the Hutton sight that helped to achieve the greatest victory... In all, Purdey built 11,887 sights of various types throughout the course of the war,” adds Dr Harlow.
An example of the Norman Sight has been incorporated into an aeronautically-themed gong which is displayed in the Long Room at Audley House – and carries a label detailing Lt Robinson’s famous exploit.