24 May 1930: Amy Johnson reaches Australia

'Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not knows no release from little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings....''

From 'Courage' by Amelia Erhart (1897-1937)

Just a little bit north of Bridlington in Yorkshire is Sewerby Hall which has a beautiful garden, a little animal park and a room dedicated to the memory of the great British aviatrix Amy Johnson.  Amy’s reputation is often eclipsed by that other great woman flyer, the American Amelia Erhart, and like her, a passion for flying lead to an untimely death.  Amy Johnson died in 1941 and her greatest achievement had been her single-handed flight to Australia eleven years before.

On the 24th May 1930 Amy Johnson touched down her little Gypsy Moth aeroplane in Darwin in the Northern Territories. She was twenty six and she had just flown alone from Britain with a thermos flask and a packet of sandwiches. It took nineteen days to fly 11,000 miles in a tiny plane made of wood and canvas. She had no proper maps except what she had been able to buy from Stanfords, the map shop in Covent Garden, and no arrangements to be met on the ground when she needed to refuel.

Johnson had hoped to beat the world record for flight time to Australia but she failed and had to be content to be the first woman to make the flight.  Johnson had to buy the Gyspy Moth herself and only after much effort did she manage to get Lord Wakefield the founder of Castrol Oil to sponsor some of the cost. Fortunately she did win £10,000 from the Daily Mail for completing the flight. Not bad for a middle class girl from Hull who had only been flying for two years.

On the journey to Australia, Amy nearly crashed into a rock face in the Taurus Mountains, and she did crash into a playing field in Rangoon and tore the canvas wings of the plane on bamboo shoots in Java, she went missing over the shark infested waters around Bali and hit an ant hill in Atamboea. It was a miracle she arrived at all. Amy Johnson set off as an unknown legal secretary with a passion for planes and thanks to Pathe News arrived in Australia a celebrity.

Amy was risky and racy, awkward, brooding and driven. But she was a pioneer and like all pioneers she didn’t give a tinker’s damn what people thought of her. A play written about her recently describes her as a 'rambler, hockey player, mechanic, lover and celebrity..... as much of our time as she was for her own.'

There were other solo and joint flights after Australia, and like her short marriage to fellow aviator Jim Mollinson not all were successful.  Then in 1940 she was asked to join the A.T.A. - the Air Transport Auxilliary.  During the Second World War this civilian unit delivered military planes from factories and airfields to their operational aerodromes.

In January 1941, in thick cloud, Amy Johnson flew an Airspeed Oxford plane from Blackpool for delivery to Oxfordshire.  When she ran out of fuel over the Thames estuary - miles off course, she ditched the plane in the water and jumped out.  She was hit by the propeller of a rescue boat and her body was never found. When her flight bag was recovered at the scene, the officers of the rescue boat realised to their horror who had died. The bag is now in the little museum in Sewerby Hall. She was only thirty eight.

Amy's daring flight to Australia was an important psychological boost for a colony that normally could only reached after months at sea.  In his book ‘Spitfire Women', Giles Whittell says ‘Australia adored her. It was for having shrunk the world more vividly and definitively than a strutting male action hero could ever have. Here was the girl next door, (sunburned and overtired, it was true) whose next door was Hull.'

Not posh, definitely pushy, and the very sort of heroine a pioneering young country and a depressed old one wanted as a pin up.

So I've been thinking about what to cook. If you read Neville Shute's book 'A Town Like Alice'; Australian food in the 1930s and 40s seemed to consist mainly of huge steaks served with a fried egg on top, washed down with copious quantities of beer.

The most prominent Australian cookery book of the early twentieth century was the 'Theory of Cookery' by Amy Schauer which went into 12 editions. Amy Schauer taught cookery at the Brisbane Technical College and during the 1914-18 war gave courses in basic field, camp and invalid cookery. She became an outstanding influence on the education of Queensland girls and I daresay contributed to the staunch baking tradition which still persists in Australia.

In all the hospitality she received in Australia Amy Johnson must have been treated to some of the other Amy’s recipes, so here are her date scones.

Date scones

250g self raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter
70g chopped dates
1 small egg, beaten
150ml milk
 Oven  200c

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a food processor, add the butter and blitz until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Turn into a bowl and stir in the chopped dates.
Mix the egg and milk together and stir into the flour mixture to make a soft sticky dough.  Turn this out onto a lightly floured surface, it's very sticky so I pressed it flat with floury fingers. Cut the dough into about 8 squares or 12 rounds, brush tops with a little milk and place on a baking tray. Bake about 10-15 minutes or until golden.

'Death is a matter of mathematics.
It screeches down at you from dirtywhite nothingness
And your life is a question of velocity and altitude
With allowances for wind and the quick, relentless pull
Of gravity....'

From 'Death is a Matter of Mathematics' by Barry Amiel (dates unknown)


Christine Natale said...

Excellent, Liz!

I am always amazed and grateful to find out about people that the history books have left out.

For our American "Memorial Day" I will be remembering Amy Johnson and all of the unsung women heroes who have brought us to the freedom that women enjoy today, mostly without firing a shot!

Helen Hoyle said...

Fascinating and beautifully written article on Amy Johnson, Liz. What a tragic end to an exceptional life.
Thank you! - Helen Hoyle

Liz Woods said...

Thank you both!. After I posted this, my cousin Jane told me that her Dad, my Dad's first cousin, saw Amy take off from Hull when he was in his pram...

Helen Hoyle said...

That's amazing - what an interesting link with the past!