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

Fortean Times - - Contents - ✒ DR DAVID CLARKE is a Prin­ci­pal Re­search Fel­low at Sh­effield Hal­lam Univer­sity, a con­sul­tant for The Na­tional Archives UFO project and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to FT.

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.


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


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).


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!”

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