THE RETURN OF THE SILPHO MOOR SAUCER
It has been called the UK’s first undisputed ‘crashed’ flying saucer and it is a strong contender for the title of ‘Britain’s Roswell’. But for 60 years the truth about a strange object found on the North York Moors has remained shrouded in mystery. That
It has been called the UK’s first undisputed ‘crashed’ flying saucer, but for 60 years the truth about a strange object found on the North York Moors has remained shrouded in mystery – until
DR DAVID CLARKE found the remains of the Silpho Saucer...
efore the credits roll in the 1981 blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark, an exasperated Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is told by officials from US Army intelligence that the recovered Ark of the Covenant is somewhere safe and will be studied by ‘top men’. In the final scenes the Ark, described in the movie as a radio used by the prophet Moses to talk to God, is shown being stored in a giant government warehouse among countless other crates.
Whilst Raiders is avowed fiction, director Steven Spielberg drew directly upon UFO folklore in his idea of a secret hangar where the powers that be hid fragments of spacecraft, ancient aliens and other fortean oddities. 1 The cinematic legend riffs on unsolved mysteries like the ultimate fate of the wreckage from the object that ‘landed’ on a ranch near Roswell in 1947 and, by implication other cases, such as the strange metal object, shaped like a flying saucer, that was found by three men on the North York Moors in northern England one night in November 1957. What both have in common with other crashed airship and saucer tales is the presence of unfamiliar hieroglyphics etched, or drawn, upon the metallic remains, which finders interpret as evidence they are ‘not of this Earth’. In the case of the miniature saucer on Silpho Moor, the mysterious circumstances in which it was found could easily have been used in the plot of a Cold War spy novel or provided a case file for Mulder and Scully.
COLD WAR FEARS
Context is, of course, everything; and the story broke in the Yorkshire newspapers just weeks after the launch into Earth orbit of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Sputnik was tracked by the giant Jodrell Bank radio- telescope in Cheshire, which moonlighted as the UK’s first early warning radar, and when news of the Soviet Union’s breakthrough came it was greeted with a flood of UFO ‘sightings’ across the world, along with claims of alien contact. 2 The enigmatic Silpho Saucer appeared in the midst of this mini-flap – and then vanished without trace.
The story entered the public domain on 9 December 1957 when the Yorkshire Post revealed how “a mystery object” shaped “like a large flattish spinning top”, 45cm (18in) in diameter and weighing 15kg (33lb), had been found on the moor northwest of the town two weeks earlier. Scarborough businessman Frank Dickenson claimed he and two friends were driving up Reasty Hill near the village of Silpho at night when his car stalled and they saw “a glowing object in the sky” that appeared to fall to the ground on a ridge above Broxa Forest. Initially, Dickenson used a nom de guerre, Frank Hutton, to avoid identification, as did the others.
According to his story, Dickenson then left the car with his torch, climbed a steep bank and found the metallic saucer lying in a patch of bracken. But as he returned along a footpath to alert his friends, he passed a young couple walking toward the scene. When the three men returned to search the moors, the object was gone.
Dickenson was so desperate to get it back that he placed a classified advert in the Scarborough newspaper. This was answered by someone claiming to be the mystery man on the moor, who initially demanded £200 in £1 notes. The local newspaper said Dickenson later handed over just £10 (£200 in today’s money) in a night-time exchange for the metal object, which was hidden in an old lentil sack. He then asked his solicitor, Anthony Parker, who was known to have an interest in UFOs, to examine it at his home at Scalby. Parker, using the pseudonym Antony Avendel, told the press he advised Dickenson to turn it over to the Air Ministry and said: “I do not think it is a flying saucer and I do not believe such things come from outer space.” 3
Photographs taken by Manchester UFO researcher Dr John Dale, later published in Flying Saucer Review, show the copper base of the object was inscribed with hieroglyphs that Parker had initially compared to the Russian alphabet. 4 The object appears to have been constructed in two sections, with a copper bottom and a top section made from layers of laminated metal that at some stage had been hand-painted with a white substance.
The copper base of the object was inscribed with hieroglyphs
A MESSAGE FROM ULLO
Later that December Parker and Dickenson were joined by Philip Longbottom, a Scarborough café proprietor, who had offered his services “as an ex-electrical and mechanical engineer” to help them open this curious object and examine its contents. Working together, the trio split open the two halves, which appeared to have been stuck together with a greyish substance resembling cellulose filler, but they were thwarted by the presence of an iron rod, the thickness of a pencil, “which ran through a sort of white metal bearing in the top half”. This was drilled out. Inside the cavity they found a heap of ash, pieces of fused glass and a tightly rolled cylinder of copper. The latter had “a coil of hollow tubing wrapped around it”.
When opened and cleaned, a tiny booklet was found to consist of 17 sheets of thin copper foil fastened at one edge. Even at this stage the trio said they were sceptical, as the inconsistent placing of charred material inside the artefact suggested the
object’s creators wanted to make it appear that the object had been exposed to high temperatures. Writing in FSR, Longbottom said he found the booklet was engraved with more of the phonetic-type symbols that were present on the copper base of the object. This utilised a moderately simple code whereby phonetic sounds were used to match the repeated symbol ‘T’ drawn at different angles within a circle. Longbottom went on to devote “100 hours” to deciphering the message, using the letters on the base of the object as a ‘key’. The astonishing 2,000-word statement that emerged claimed to be from an alien called Ullo, with later text appended by an apparently female companion called Tarngee. 5
Jenny Randles summarises the contents in her account of the Silpho Moor mystery. 6 It begins with “I write this message to you friends on the planet of the sun you call earth (sic)” and warns humans not to travel into space because the speed and acceleration required would prove fatal. The Silpho device is described as an “old damaged space probe vehicle” that was part of a renegade mission to Earth after the aliens’ ruling council had decreed there should be no contact, because of humans’ misuse of atomic weapons. They preferred to wait until we were no longer fighting each other to make contact, adding ominously: “You will improve or disappear.”
But attempts by Ullo and Tarngee to inject humour into the rather po-faced message point to a more down-to-earth source for its authors. The latter, for instance, says there are “four women for every man” on their world, adding “there is no reason to remove clothes to find measures”. The message also critiques early rock music, noting “some is better than we can make” but “much is howling as in pain”.
Even FSR’s editor, Brinsley le Poer Trench, later to become Lord Clancarty, found the message difficult to believe, especially as it dismissed the stories of contactees such as George Adamski, popular at the time, as hoaxes. This did not deter believers such as Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, who led the RAF during the Battle of Britain during WWII, whose Spiritualist beliefs led him to publicly proclaim his belief in flying saucers. In 1959, Lord Dowding reveals, he had “actually held and examined” the Silpho object, which he described as a “a miniature pilot flying saucer”. He added that he was convinced it was a genuine artefact from space and the hieroglyphics it contained “were unlike any language known on Earth”. 7
Jenny’s account reveals that Dr John Dale arranged for tests to be carried out on the remains of the object in a laboratory at Manchester University. These revealed the saucer’s outer casing was primarily made from lead and the copper foil was triple laminated and “unusually pure [in] that the normal tin and nickel impurity content (one part per 10,000) was completely absent from the sample within this disc”. Nevertheless, the metallurgist, who wished to remain anonymous, concluded it could not have arrived on Earth from space as there was no evidence it had been exposed to air above the temperature of 150°C (320°F).
LOST AND FOUND
From 1960 the trail went cold, and for decades afterwards UFO enthusiasts drew a blank in their quest for the missing saucer – although one story claimed it ended up in a scrapyard or had been on display in a fish and chip shop in Scarborough. But for more than half a century the missing pieces of the puzzle have been sitting inside a tin cigarette box at the Science Museum Group’s archive, more than 200 miles away from the wild moorland where they were found at the height of the Cold War.
In November 2017 I presented a paper on the British Ministry of Defence’s UFO files to a gathering of scientific archivists at the museum’s Dana Centre in South Kensington. During the conference proceedings one of the archivists tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was aware that “bits of a flying saucer kept in a cigarette tin” had been gathering dust in the museum’s closed archive for decades. I soon discovered the
tin was part of a collection of papers donated to the Science Museum by former research fellow Charles Gibbs-Smith, who was wellknown in the 1960s for his pro-UFO beliefs.
An appointment was made to examine the Gibbs-Smith papers. They revealed how the remains of the ‘Silpho Moor Object’ were sent by a ufologist in Essex to theVictoria and Albert Museum in London for examination by experts in 1963. Unfortunately the paper trail did not reveal how the remains travelled from Scarborough to Brentwood, or the fate of the larger sections of the miniature saucer. But the surviving specimens included a fused section of the metal and plastic from the outer casing, a length of hollow copper tubing and tiny pieces of foil from the booklet that was translated by Philip Longbottom in 1958.8
The museum passed them to the Natural History Museum for analysis, but their conclusions (see ‘An examination of the Silpho debris’ on p44) added further to Gibbs-Smith’s suspicion that the saucer was an elaborate hoax by persons unknown. The prank, if such it was, was just the first in a long series of similar UFO-themed hoaxes in the UK that include the six miniature flying saucers discovered in locations across southern Britain in September 1967. These convincing devices triggered a national alert, with police and army bomb disposal teams scrambled to investigate. Peace was restored when it was revealed as a rag-day fundraising stunt by apprentices from the Royal Aircraft Establishment and Farnborough Technical College (see John Keeling’s article in FT228:32-41 for the full story).
But if the Silpho Saucer was a simple hoax then why did the culprits never confess? And were Dickenson, Parker and the others involved from the start, or mere innocent dupes? In 1988 the Scarborough Evening
News tracked down what it called “the last surviving member of the three-man group” involved in the controversy. Frank Dickenson, then aged 75, maintained he did see a red light fall from the sky before he discovered the object on the moors. “I don’t know if there was a deliberate hoax involved,” he said. “But I don’t believe the object came from space.” 9
Inquiries with veteran Scarborough journalists drew a weary response. Retired news-editor Mick Jefferson recalled that “after all the hue and cry had died down the [Scarborough] Evening News exposed the whole thing as an elaborate hoax that got very much out of hand. The ‘saucer’ was made from a domestic hot-water cylinder in a small back street garage.” He added: “Earnest UFO enthusiasts haven’t always been too pleased to get this old news from me. I’ve been allbut accused several times of being part of an international Establishment cover-up – which has at least given me a laugh.” (10)
FT columnist Jenny Randles refers to the Silpho story as “the UK’s first undisputed crashed saucer” and possibly “the most costly and well organised hoax that has ever taken place in Britain”. But the motivation of the perpetrators remains a mystery. They never seemed to gain from it and whoever had it built “spent considerably more than the £10 the finders reportedly paid for it”.
The last words should go to Frank Dickenson, who told a reporter in 1988: “Wherever it came from, I’d say it was something that had been fashioned by human hands”.
LEFT: A headline from the Scarborough Evening News, 9 Dec 1957. FACING PAGE: Reports from the Yorkshire Post (top) and the Northern Echo, 9 Dec 1957.
ABOVE: In 1958 the Flying Saucer Review published photos of the “mysterious, small, saucer-shaped object” and the hieroglyphics found on its base and in the “copper book” inside it. BELOW: The hieroglyphs, as seen in the Yorkshire Post on 9 December 1957.
ABOVE: Dr David Clarke “holding a piece of a crashed flying saucer. I never thought I would get to say that!”