A huge range of paper-based material is currently being repaired and conserved by a dedicated group of enthusiasts at the National Aerospace Library. Recently a large number of menus from various society dinners and commemorative events have been unearthed. These range from the opening of Manchester Ringway Airport, to RAeS annual dinners, including local branches (e.g. Brough), company events (e.g. The De Havilland Aircraft Co., Ltd. and Handley Page Transport Ltd. & Instone Air Line Ltd.) to aerospace groups (e.g. the Avro 504 Club). However, the luncheon for Amy Johnson prompted much discussion.

The “Luncheon to Miss Amy Johnson, CBE” was held on 6th August 1930 at the Savoy Hotel in London to celebrate “Her Courage and Endurance during her Historic Flight from England to Australia”. She covered 12,000 miles in nineteen days from England across Europe and Asia to Australia. Although Amy failed to beat the record, she became the first woman to undertake the journey.

Amy left Croydon on 5th May 1930 in her Gipsy Moth ‘Jason’, having neither crossed the Channel nor flown more than 200 miles at a stretch before. She traversed Europe via Vienna, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul, crossing the Bosporus and landing in Aleppo. En route to Bagdad a sandstorm forced her down in the desert, where she struggled to keep the aircraft on the ground. Amy then flew on to Bandar-Abass, Karachi and Calcutta by way of Jhansi and Alahabad. The plane was damaged when she touched down in Rangoon and the repair took two days. Having been forced down by bad weather at Singora, Amy reached Singapore on the fourteenth day. On the next leg she had to make another forced landing on the way to Sourabaya. When Amy crossed the Dutch East Indies and the Timor Sea, nothing was heard until she landed in Atamboea over 24 hours later. However, the final stage took her to Port Darwin where she landed at 3 p.m. on 24th May 1930 and took her place in aviation history.

Amy returned to England as a superstar and people crowded into Trafalgar Square to catch a glimpse of her, as illustrated by coverage in Flight dated 15th August 1930 including the picture below of the throng in Trafalgar Square.

The commemorative book in bound in white leather, contains the menu, a testimonial to Amy’s life achievements, a sonet, a list of guests, a seating plan, an area for autographs and a selection of original sepia photographs. Presumably, each of the 200 or so guests was given a copy, but it is assumed that most - if not all - have been lost during the intervening years. The cover, shown below, is from a painting by John Manning-Sanders ROI (1913-2002).

The luncheon to honour “Johnny” was organised by the Daily Mail and amongst the “youngsters” were Sir Arthur Whitten Brown and M. Bleriot, aviation heroes from earlier days. Several messages of apology were read, including one from Ramsay MacDonald offering “heartiest congratulations”. Amy was presented with a cheque for £10,000 from the Daily Mail and honorary membership of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators of the British Empire.

It seems that all the great and the good of the era attended. The guest list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the inter-war years. The following names caught the author’s eye: Harold Abrahams (Olympic Athlete – Chariots of Fire), John Logie Baird (Inventor), Capt.Woolf Barnato (Chitty Bang Bang), Capt. H R S “Tim” Birkin, Clive Dunfee and K E Lee Guiness (four Racing Drivers – Brooklands), Charles Laughton (Film Star), Ivor Novello (Composer), J B Priestley (Playright), Sir A V Roe (founder AVRO), Dr Malcolm Sargent (Conductor) and Evelyn Waugh (Author) amongst many others. The Table Plan for the top table is included below.

Also attending were a group of dignitaries from Kingston-upon-Hull, Amy’s home town, and members of her family.

Amy responded to the presentations with a brief speech of thanks, after several minutes of cheering by the assembled guests. Her opening remarks indicate the life-changing nature of her flight to Australia: “It is a most wonderful honour to me to meet such a distinguished company of people. Three months ago I would have been glad to stand in a queue to see any one of you; now I find I have the opportunity of being among you…”. Amy said she would do her utmost to be not an ‘honorary’ member, but an ‘ordinary’ member of the Guild, because she wanted to do everything she could to help aviation in Great Britain.

She commented that: “I am popularly supposed to have gone down to Croydon, jumped into the machine and said ‘Cheerio!’ without any sort of preparation.” On the contrary, she explained: “I worked for eight solid months with the engineers of the London Aero Club. I learnt navigation…and…tried to make myself physically fit…”.

She concluded that: “Flying must be a heart-and-soul job, not a pastime, and I appeal to everybody here, and to the country, to help heartily and generously in this work. The Youth of this country will join me in doing everything it can actively to further this ideal, for I think England is ready to make a decisive bid for world supremacy in the air, and if we think we can then we will. I want you all to help me, and what I can do I am going to do whole-heartedly. So let me ask for your co-operation and help”. Amy could not have foreseen the outbreak of World War II less than ten years later. However, in the context of the recent commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the recognition of the sacrifices made by the young men and women of the Royal Air Force as a whole and Amy’s ultimate demise, these are remarkably prophetic words.

In keeping with the time. the guest were given a Amy Johnson themed lunch including includes “Coeur de Romaine Amy Johnson” and, in homage to her aeroplane, Delice de Sole Jason.

A week after the luncheon, having received the CBE from the King at Buckingham Palace, Amy returned to Hull. Once again, huge crowds greeted her and she was taken on a triumphant drive, the six mile processional route being flanked by cheering people.

Amy went on to make the first flight from England to Japan in July 1931 and a record-breaking flight from England to South Africa in May 1936. The disappearance of Amelia Earhart over the Pacific the following year shocked Amy and she stopped flying for a couple of years. Amy’s return to flying was not easy, having achieved so much in earlier years. However, in 1940 she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (‘ATA’), ferrying plans to RAF bases around the country during in World War II. This ultimately led to her untimely death (aged 37) on 5th January 1941 when the Airspeed Oxford she was flying from Blackpool Airport to RAF Kidlington crashed into the Thames Estuary many miles off course.

There has been a great deal of speculation surrounding this flight and the cause of the accident. It has been said that Amy was flying a spy out of the country, possibly her German lover. Some say she was shot down by anti-aircraft guns, others say an enemy aircraft was to blame, while others believe it was an elaborate plan to fake her own death. However, it is generally accepted that the crash itself was due to a combination of bad weather and risky judgement.

Through her determination, Amy demonstrated that women could fly as well as men and female pilots didn’t necessarily need to have a rich background.

Rob Cooke
17 September 2015