DAVID CLARKE sifts through the latest batch of UFO files released by the National Archive
A collection of miscellaneous UFO files were opened at Britain’s National Archives in June. DAVID CLARKE picks out the highlights from a mixed bag of fortean oddness. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE PLAYGROUND KIND
“We were playing at netball in the yard with Mrs Williams and she was showing us how to throw the ball into the net when I saw an object high in the sky.” In immaculate handwriting, tenyear-old Gwawr Jones reported her UFO experience in a letter addressed to the Commanding Officer at RAFValley in North Wales.
The letter, endorsed by her teacher, arrived with a collection of drawings showing an identical flying saucer, produced by her school pals. “I shouted at the others and they looked up and saw it,” her account continued. “It had a black dome on top and a silver cigar-shaped base. It was travelling smoothly across the sky in a northerly direction. It remained in our sight for about three minutes. Then it went behind the only cloud in the sky and reappeared again for about one minute, then disappeared.”
Gwawr was one of nine youngsters, aged eight to 11, who saw the silent object from Rhosybol School in Anglesey, North Wales, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 16 February 1977. Their teacher, Mair Williams, told the Western Mail: “It was a really bright afternoon and the object was flying very high towards Bull Bay… I took the children back into school, separated them and then told them to draw what they had seen. It was really astonishing – their drawings were all similar. I never believed in these things until I saw this!”
Their extraordinary story was one of dozens that reached the Ministry of Defence’s UFO desk, S4 (Air) in 1977. 1 A covering note, from RAFValley, adds “[we] can offer no positive explanation or identification.” Viewed in isolation, this story would appear much like the other 435 sightings logged by the British government half a century ago. But with the benefit of hindsight it is just one of a previously unnoticed cluster of eerily similar experiences reported by small groups of unrelated schoolchildren, in the space of six months.
What on Earth, or off it, was going on? Earlier on the same day, 16 February, a report reached MoD from David Hunt, science master at Penlee secondary school in Plymouth. Here four boys and one adult independently reported seeing “a cigar-shaped UFO above the school playground” that flew horizontally before it climbed into cloud and disappeared. 2 Then, one lunchtime in October, 1977, 10 Cheshire children, aged seven to 11, saw an elliptical UFO hovering in trees beside
the playground of Upton Primary School in Macclesfield, before it rose into the sky and vanished. Their teacher, Mrs Hindmarsh, reacted in much the same way as her colleague in Anglesey. She ushered the children inside and asked them to draw what they had seen, separating them to ensure that no copying took place. The youngsters used pencils and coloured crayons to produce the images that ended up in a MoD file that remained closed until 2006. 3 Their drawings are so clear and striking that I selected them as one of the highlights in my new book on UFO art from the National Archives, to be published in October. 4
In this case, their teacher passed the dossier of artwork to Cheshire Police and Air Traffic Control at Preston and the MoD’s UFO desk. In his covering letter the police officer said there was “a remarkable similarity in these sketches with regard to the UFO and its location between two trees”.
What sparked off this mini-flap? What inspired youngsters of a similar age, from across the UK, to look into the sky and see unidentified flying objects moving above their schools and playgrounds? The arrival of Close
Encounters of the Third, and the media hype that accompanied its release, was a whole year away. George Lucas’s original Star Wars movie opened in UK cinemas in December 1977, some months after this mini-flap. I was 10 years old in 1977 and my introduction to ufology came not from movies but from the TV screen. In May, BBC1 ran the Hugh Burnett documentary Out of this World in a prime-time slot that was my first exposure to flying sorcery. Burnett’s programme included interviews with UFO witnesses and contactees, plus classic footage from around the world. Elsewhere on TV, the year opened with the fourth incarnation of
Doctor Who, Tom Baker, grappling with the Robots of Death on a distant planet.
But I suspect a more immediate inspiration for the spate of playground UFO sightings came from the childrens’ peers – via mass media reports from the socalled West Wales flap or ‘Welsh Triangle’ as it was dubbed by the tabloids (see FT200:24-25). Early in February groups of children
at three Welsh primary schools reported UFO sightings, but only the story from Broad Haven primary school was widely covered by the media, with the youngsters interviewed live on national television at the scene. In this case a group of 15 children, mainly 10-year-old boys, saw a shiny cigar-shaped UFO on the ground – not in the sky – in fields behind their school during their lunch break on Friday, 4 February 1977.
It was raining at the time and the boys were playing football when someone pointed out the object, partially hidden by trees and shrubs. Two of the group said the elongated object had a silver dome with a flashing light on the top. Six of the group said they saw a tall man dressed in a silver space-suit standing beside the UFO. Evidently scared, the children ran back to the school but were not initially believed by the adults. After school finished, groups of youngsters went UFO spotting and later, supported by their parents, they visited the local police station.
Drawings made by the children were sent to the MoD and the originals are today preserved in a scrapbook at the school. This archive includes a contemporary account from the school diary, written in the third person by head-teacher Ralph Llewellyn, who became the focus of a media scrum. It reveals that he interviewed 15 children separately on Monday, 7 February, and examined their drawings and notes. The drawings are often described as “remarkably similar” but although made independently they were not produced until three days after the sighting, so the children had the entire weekend to discuss what they had seen.
Nevertheless, Mr Llewellyn concluded they were telling the truth: “After allowing for variations and embellishments [the head-teacher] is loath to believe that the children are capable of a sustained sophisticated hoax; that they did see something they hadn’t seen before he is prepared to accept. He himself, while seeking a natural explanation of the incident, is prepared to keep an open mind on the subject”.
ABOVE: Children from Broad Haven primary school hold up drawings of what they saw in February 1977. LEFT: A drawing by one of the young Macclesfield witnesses.
ABOVE AND BELOW: Drawings by children from Upton Primary School, Macclesfield. BOTTOM: A letter to the childrens’ teacher from the Ministry of Defence.