The Aeronautical Lady of Scobitor – Winifred Penn-Gaskell was the daughter of Peter Penn-Gaskell J.P from Shanagarry in County Cork and was born on the 12th November 1874, She arrived at Scobitor sometime prior to 1930 and clearly was a woman of strong character. Scobitor is a fairly remote place in Dartmoor terms and it was he she lived alone. However, she was a globe trotter and her interests took her all over the world. As proof of her character in 1930 she was prompted to write this letter to The Western Morning News; “Sir – Would it be generally assumed correct in the modern world, that having crashed into a horse from the rear and cut her in three places (the mare pulled out sideways with a broken curb chain), the owner of the car should thus address the owner rider:- “You can’t manage your horse. You shouldn’t be on the road. Get out on the Moor.” If I had been a man I would have struck my aggressor in the face. W. Penn-Gaskell.” – April 19th, 1930. But her real claim to fame was her fascination for aeronautical memorabilia which began in 1927 by collecting “aerophilatelic materials” in other words airmail stamps. As her collection grew she began exhibiting her stamps around Europe and America for which she won many prizes. In the September of 1931 at the International Exhibition of Modern Philately in Hamburg she won a gold plaquette and a free trip on a famous Graf Spey zeppelin. This was a most appropriate prize as some of the operating costs of the zeppelin was met by the sale of special postage stamps. It did not take long for her collecting interest to expand and encompass all things aeronautical. In recognition of her philately interests she was the first woman to be added to the ‘Roll of Distinguished Philatelists in 1938. In the March of 1939 she presented a paper to the Ashburton Mutual Improvement Association called “The Beginnings of the Airmail”. In this she traced the evolving methods of postal services from pigeon lofts to balloons to airships to aeroplanes. To accompany her talk was an exhibition of photographs and some rare letters which had been carried by pigeons and balloons. Later that same year members of the Exeter and District Philately Society were invited to Scobitor and shown a selection of over a hundred of Penn-Gaskell’s “world famous” airmails, postcards and other rarities connected with pioneering flights around the world. Following tea the members were invited to look around the old manor house and its collection of antiques. Such was her devotion to the postal service that it is reputed that she was one of the few folk living on Dartmoor who had their bread delivered by post. She was also a regular contributor to the Western Morning News with various letters containing strong political views of the times. Winifred was also a chorister and church warden at St. Pancras’s Church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor inside which is a fine carved oak panel which Penn-Gaskell donated to the church in memory of her family members.
As the, by then, famous collection grew thoughts of what to finally do with it began to enter her head. Originally the Penn-Gaskell collection was offered to the Victoria and Albert Museum and for some reason they refused to accept it. So she approached the Science Museum to see if they would be interested. In 1939 the Keeper of Aeronautics, Mr. M. J. B. Davy visited Scobitor to inspect the collection and in a memo to his Director he noted; “spent six hours at her house examining her collection of aeronautical prints, drawings, paintings, books, bric-a-brac, medals, china, etc. and also her unique series of ‘flown covers’ illustrating the development of air mail from 1870. There is no inventory of the collection (except books and pamphlets, of which we have a copy) and I gathered that Miss Penn-Gaskell does not intend to make one; she is continually adding to the collection.” (online source – HERE). The main reason for having no inventory at that time was that she was still adding to her collection which she acquired from various London antiquarian dealers. Also amongst the collection was a 200 page scrapbook which contained cuttings, prints and musical scores related to ballooning, aircraft, motor cars and semi-nude wrestlers?. The book itself consists of a red, leather bound album with the title “SCRAPS” embossed in gold letter on the spine. Davy also remarked that due to the age of her house and it’s 1,050 ft altitude along with the thick walls it was very damp. This accounted for the clammy state of the books and prints despite of being wrapped. He also noted that when the time came to remove the collection an officer and the packers would have to stay at Widecombe as there were no accommodation or facilities at Scobitor.
On the 6th of November of 1949 Winifred Penn-Gaskell died at the age of 74 and was buried at Widecombe-in-the-Moor. In 1950 it was reported that her estate was valued at £20,731. In her will a bequest of the air mail stamp collection and other aeronautical memorabilia to the Science Museum at South Kensington. Additionally another £2,000 went to various horse charities. A portrait of the Earl of Peterborough was also donated to the Torquay Council for display in the borough museum. In the July of 1950 the Scobitor estate was put up for auction and included the residential house, an annex, along with 50 acres of pasture and arable lands. Today just a minute portion of the collection is on display at the Science Museum which a lot more in storage.