by David Clarke & Andy Roberts (published by Fortean Times 286, April 2012)
Jim Templeton died on 27 November, 2011. His name will mean little to all but the most ardent students of British ufological history. But the photograph he took in 1964 will be familiar to most Forteans and has been reproduced numerous times on TV and in books and magazines during the past 48 years.
Although the photo depicts a strange space-suited entity rather than a UFO it nevertheless remains one of the most puzzling Fortean images ever taken. Though the photo itself is often claimed to be a hoax the circumstances that surround it are frequently used to justify the existence of shadowy, MIB-like, government agents.
Carlisle fireman Jim Templeton had a passion for photography, and on 24 May 1964 took a photograph of his eldest daughter on the Solway Marshes, the strip of land on the south side of the Solway Estuary, separating England from Scotland. When he collected the processed film the shop assistant said, “That’s a marvellous colour film, but who’s the big fellow”. Jim was baffled until he took a close look at the photographs. On one print, apparently standing just behind his daughter’s head was a large figure dressed in a ‘spaceman’ suit. Jim knew there had been no-one else around at the time he took the photograph and immediately had the negative tested by contacts in the police force and with the film’s manufacturers, Kodak. Both said the image had not been tampered with and could not account for what the Cumberland News began to call the ‘Solway Spaceman’.
The photograph was soon on the front page of the local newspaper and within days Jim and his daughter became media celebrities as the image was flashed round the world. But the price of this involuntary fame and attention was high. Jim’s daughter was taunted and bullied and he had to take his daughter out of school for a while because her nerves were suffering.
The Ministry of Defence showed no interest in the case until the Cumberland News contacted them for their opinion. The MoD said they would be pleased to analyse the photograph, but when Jim discovered they required the original film and camera for analysis he refused and no official file exists to show they pursued the matter any further. Whether or not Jim was just being cautious in refusing to supply the original film and camera for analysis or whether he had good reason for not letting them out of his hands is a matter for speculation, especially in view of information that has arisen in recent years. A strange event then took place which has convinced many UFOlogists that the MOD were interested enough to covertly send a pair of secret agents to investigate the bizarre photograph.
Later that summer Jim was visited at the Fire Station by two men. They were dressed entirely in black and drove a brand new black Jaguar car, unusual garb and transport for the times. They asked to be taken to the place where the photograph was taken. Jim queried their identity and was shown a card bearing an official crest and the word ‘Security’. They told him, ‘We’re from the Ministry, but you don’t need to know who we are. We go by numbers.’ Jim noticed the pair referred to each other as ‘nine’ and ‘eleven’. Their obvious lack of knowledge of the area and inability to pronounce local place names led Jim to conclude they weren’t local people. Once they reached the marshes Jim said the following conversation took place: “Pull up on here. This is where the photograph was taken.’ They asked, ‘Can you take us to the exact spot?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ So we walked across, and I said, ‘This is where the photograph was taken.’ One looked at the other, and the other looked at him and said, ‘This is where you saw the large man, the alien?’ I said, ‘No, we didn’t see anybody…I never saw anybody.’ ‘Thank you very much,’ he said, and he walked away.” In a somewhat bizarre conclusion to the encounter, the two men drove off, abandoning Jim to walk a mile to the nearest garage for a lift to Carlisle. Jim Templeton never saw the mysterious Men In Black again.
This case has become a cause celebre in ufology, and has featured in a number of books and articles within the context of a Government cover-up. Analysis of the paper trail surrounding the case demonstrates how fact has become entangled with fantasy, with the result that another layer of confusion has been added to the MIB mythology. When the authors questioned Jim Templeton in 2001 he told us he firmly believed the mystery visitors were sent by the British Government. He has also made this statement to UFO to other writers and researchers in recent years. Jim’s mysterious visitors have been tied in with all kinds of spurious events in an attempt to keep the idea of government MIB-type agents alive. For example, Jim’s photograph has been linked to an anomalous ‘figure’ that was supposed to have appeared on a Blue Streak missile firing range at Woomera in south Australia. The link with Solway Firth appeared to be that Blue Streak missiles were developed and tested at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria. They were part of a British missile system designed to be used as the first stage of a satellite launcher.
According to a Wikipedia entry a Blue Streak launch at the Woomera range, using Cumbrian-built weaponry, had to be aborted the day after the Solway Spaceman photo was taken ‘because two large men [were] seen on the firing range…technicians at the time did not know about Templeton’s sighting until it appeared on the front page of an Australian newspaper…and they said the figure in Cumbria looked the same as the ones they had seen on the monitor at Woomera.’
Templeton repeated this story when interviewed by Jenny Randles for a BBC2 documentary on Tales of the Paranormal (1996). He said the Australian technicians had claimed the figures were ‘exactly the same type of man: same dress, same figure, same size as in the original photograph.’ The mystery appeared to increase when, as part of the research for the programme, Jenny searched UFO files from 1964 held by The National Archives. There she found letters from members of the public referring to both the ‘Cumberland spaceman’ and to a ‘mysterious object’ captured on film during the rocket launch. But there was no trace of the can of film referred to in the archives. Had it been removed by the Men in Black?
The mystery also gripped MP James Fraser who, following the 1996 TV show, asked MoD what had become of the ‘missing’ film. Files released by The National Archives in 2010 revealed that inquiries by the UFO desk discovered the film in question was neither secret nor ‘missing’ (DEFE 24/1983/1). It was in fact part of a British Pathe newsreel and the original is held by the Imperial War Museum. Stills from the film were widely published by newspapers and the British magazine Flying Saucer Review shortly after its release. It shows a rocket test on 5 June 1964 and the ‘mysterious object’ visible in the sky beside the launch pad is clearly the result of a classic lens reflection. The film ‘Blue Streak – Two, One, Zero! 1964’ can be viewed at the British Pathe website here.
Research published at www.cumberlandspaceman co.uk reveals there were two aborted rocket launches at Woomera the preceded the test shown in the British Pathe footage. The first, on 25 May, was halted due to ‘bad weather’, the second on 2 June was aborted due to a systems fault. One of these events must logically be the source of the ‘spaceman’ rumour overheard and spread by Jim Templeton. But there is no contemporaneous record, either from a newspaper or official source, that refers to the appearance of a ‘spaceman’. There were, however, lots of stories about a ‘UFO’ – actually a lens flare – spotted on the film of the 5 June rocket test.
The most straightforward explanation is that the story combines two separate events into one ‘urban legend’ which has subsequently spread like a virus through the UFO grapevine and is still reproducing itself almost 50 years later. But the bottom line remains, as Australian UFOlogist Bill Chalker concluded, ‘…there would appear to be no links between the Solway photograph and the 5 June 1964 Woomera footage. Case solved.’
No real evidence of any connection between these events, or indeed proof that a similar ‘figure’ was ever seen at Woomera, exists. UFOlogists have never let UFO fact get in the way of UFO fiction and an air of mystery still pervades these claims. The story of the Solway Spaceman has become a UFOlogical legend. But there is another much more interesting view of the story and one which, while it may not solve the case entirely, could, once and for all, cast reasonable doubt on Jim’s claims that the photograph and the MIB story is genuine. Contemporary newspaper records from 1964 reveal that Jim Templeton took a very different view of the matter shortly after he had taken the infamous photograph. In September that year his story of the MIB visit reached the national media and journalists asked the Carlisle police for confirmation that Jim has been quizzed by the security services.
Detective Chief Inspector Stanley Armstrong told the Cumberland News: ‘I know nothing whatsoever about this meeting. I don’t know who the men were and I have told Mr Templeton that he should have taken the number of the car and reported the incident to the police.’ After the police became involved Jim clearly wanted to play down the significance of the ‘meeting.’ He told the paper: “It all looks like a leg-pull to me. I’m sure the men were not security agents and I have no idea why they should want to pass themselves off as such.”
Jim Templeton was a very sincere man but it seems that his interpretation of what took place on the lonely Solway Marshes in 1964 has, like so many elements of the UFO mystery, been coloured by what the media and UFO writers have wished to be the truth. In 1964 British UFOlogy was in the doldrums. The great days of the 1950s saucer scares and contactees, when flying saucers made news headlines on a daily basis, were long gone and both flying saucer enthusiasts and media alike were looking for any story that would keep flying saucers in the public eye. The Solway Spaceman photograph did just that and paved the way for British ufology’s great re-invention in 1966 when the so called Warminster Phenomenon began.
That leaves the photograph itself. However the sceptics decry it as being a hoaxed photo no one has actually been able to prove how it was faked. A detailed photographic analysis carried out in 1997 by Roger Green of Bradford University concluded that the image was, “…a composite made using some superimposition technique.”, but failed to demonstrate exactly how the composite and been achieved. And of course Kodak’s analysis claimed the photograph was genuine and had not been tampered with. Neither can we prove that Jim Templeton faked the photograph himself but there is evidence that he enjoyed playing practical jokes. For example he told us that he had created a faked five pound note for amusement only weeks before the photograph was taken, to demonstrate his photographic skills. Templeton took the film for processing locally where, he said “everybody in the developing department knew me.”
Perhaps, in trying to perfect his photographic techniques, Templeton did create the ‘spaceman’ photo or perhaps, knowing of his liking for practical jokes and eager to play one on him, it is not inconceivable that someone in the processing labs tampered with the film to create the ‘alien’ image. Within days the image was world famous. That, coupled with the fact that Jim’s daughter was upset because of all the attention she attracted, would make it impossible for Jim to confess to a hoax or for someone to say ‘sorry, Jim, it was just a joke’. This is exactly what took place in other celebrated UFO photographic cases, where the instant fame achieved by the pranksters later prevented them from making a full confession and the stories became cemented as ‘fact’. Subsequent retractions years later were either dismissed by media and UFOlogy or fudged by the witnesses themselves to minimise embarrassment.
So who were the Jim Templeton’s mystery ‘MIB’ visitors? Former incumbent of the British government’s UFO desk, Nick Pope believes that there may be ‘Walter Mitty’ types among the civilian population who are prepared to impersonate MOD officials in order to speak to UFO witnesses for their own reasons. Evidence for such individuals is well documented in the MOD files. And there, the story ends, for now. Jim is gone, but his story and photograph live on. The Solway Spaceman is an iconic image from a simpler time. A time when people believed you if you said you were from ‘the ministry’ and when the photograph of a ‘spaceman’ held untold potential for the human race. For some, it still does.