Philip Mighell was born 7 August 1893, the eldest of six children of Philip and Martha Mighell of Manor Farm, Hilliers Lane in Beddington, Surrey. His father was a farmer of some note who features regularly in the trade directories, auction reports and newspapers of the day. Theirs was clearly a farming dynasty: at the time of the 1871 census his grandfather William Cobbett Mighell farmed 300 acres and employed 18 men and boys on the land and three indoor servants at Waddon Marsh Farm, Mitcham. Philip Mighell’s mother, Martha Sadler, was the daughter of another prominent farmer from Sussex. His parents married on 8 November 1892 in Brighton when Martha was already in her thirties which may explain why their family grew quickly to six children in seven years. Philip Mighell, his two brothers and three sisters enjoyed a privileged childhood, with the family employing a cook, a housemaid and another simply described as a ‘useful help’ in the 1901 census.
Philip Mighell was educated first at Miss Ackerman’s school in Eastbourne and then spent Michaelmas term 1907 at St Dunstan’s College, Catford, before attending Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex 1908-1910. When he was seventeen years old Philip Mighall left rural Surrey for the industrialised North and a room in a boarding house at 94 Nelson Street, Crewe, where, on 8 November 1910, he began as a Premium Apprentice for the London and North Western Railway under a foreman named Roscoe: he was paid 4 shillings a week. At this date a Premium Apprentice paid £200 for a five-year apprenticeship (equivalent to over £18,000 in 2014). There were only 30 premium apprentices admitted each year and although not guaranteed a job at the end of the five years, many went on to become significant figures and lead Britain’s railways, most notably Sir Nigel Gresley, Chief Mechanical Engineer of L.N.E.R. and designer of the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard. Philip stayed at Crewe until 29 May 1913 when he was discharged having been of “good” character, “good” abilities and time keeping. He was then admitted to Hatfield College in Michaelmas term 1913 to study Theology.
Philip Mighell’s time in Durham was brief: his studies were interrupted after only one year when he was commissioned as a Signalling Officer in the 9th East Surrey Regiment on 13 November 1914. He saw action at Hooge, later transferring to 5th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps as a cadet in the Officer Training Corps, possibly learning to fly near his home at Beddington Aerodrome. He was made temporary Second Lieutenant on 19 March 1917. Philip Mighell was the observer in an RE8 A4330, a two-seat biplane that became the standard aircraft for reconnaissance and bombing during the latter part of the war, despite its reputation for being difficult to fly. On 11 October 1917 Mighell and his pilot, Lieutenant F.C.E. Clarke, were killed during an artillery reconnaissance patrol between Asheville and Gavrelle when surprised by three enemy aircraft over Farbus and Roclincourt near Arras. The engagement was described in a letter written to Lieutenant Clarke’s parents by the squadron’s commanding officer.
"It is with the deepest regret I have to inform you of the death of your son, at about 8:40 a.m. this morning. He was flying on a patrol of the front line, when he was attacked by four or five enemy scout machines. From all accounts of eye witnesses he put up a splendid fight, but being terribly outnumbered with fighting machines he was unable to escape.
It was a morning when the clouds were thick and numerous, and apparently he was just below the level of the lowest, when the enemy came down from the clouds or round them and got to close quarters before your son saw them; his observer was P. Mighell, who is now very seriously wounded and unable to move. Apparently they fought to the last, and I have nothing but praise and admiration for the way your son evidently kept his head to the last. When the first people got near he was found to be unconscious, and died very soon afterwards. He had been wounded in the neck and body, and the concussion on landing must have rendered him unconscious.
His observer had wounds in the thigh, and is now suffering from shock and probably spine fracture. I don’t think that, but for your son’s bravery and grit in sticking it to the last, his observer would have been killed outright. As it was, a bad landing was made, and the machine crashed to the ground."
Extract from a letter from the Commanding Officer, 5th Squadron R.F.C. to the parents of pilot Lieutenant F.C.E. Clarke.
German records reveal Clarke and Mighell were shot down by Vizefeldwebel Julius Buckler serving in Jasta 17 of the German Army Air Service. It was Buckler’s sixteenth out of 36 aerial victories.
Philip died of his wounds the following day, aged 24, and was buried alongside Lieutenant Clarke in the Duisans British Cemetery, Etrun, Pas de Calais, France. He is commemorated on war memorials at Hurstpierpoint College in Hassocks, West Sussex, at St Dunstan’s College, Catford, and on a plaque at Hatfield College. His (posthumously awarded) British War Medal has been sold at auction twice in recent years.
In a poignant postscript on Friday 19 October 1917 the Surrey Mirror, describing a fundraising drive for the Red Cross, reported that “Philip Mighell, of Wallington, sent a horse on behalf of the fund, and a sad feature connected with his gift is the fact that on the morning of the sale news came that his son had fallen in action in the war”.
Other members of the Mighell family served in both World Wars. Philip Mighell’s younger brother, Frederick, fought in the First World War as a transport sergeant in the Honourable Artillery Company. He was awarded the Military Medal on 26 April 1917 for bravery in the field and survived the war, dying in 1942. His father was killed, aged 74, by a delayed action bomb on 25 September 1940 during the height of the Battle of Britain: he died with a local policeman Sgt Herbert Charles Paisley whilst evacuating his home, Wend House. This bomb will have been targeted at the R.A.F. base at nearby Croydon Airport (formerly Beddington and Waddon Aerodromes, where his son Philip probably learned to fly).