From our present era of celebrity cynicism and intrusive 24-hour rolling news, the story of Jean Batten seems improbable at best. But 80 years ago there were plenty of things that one just didn’t like to ask about a beautiful, celebrated and single young woman…
Jean Batten in her prime
This story begins in the upmarket Remuera district of Auckland, from whence hailed some of New Zealand’s finest exports including the racing driver and constructor Bruce McLaren and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hilary. Jean Batten was born here, the daughter of a dental surgeon, in 1909 and later attended a girls’ boarding school where she was inclined towards ballet and the piano.
The Batten parents separated when she was still a young girl, prompting her mother to push her young daughter towards feminism and high achievement in preference to personal relationships. As even her most sympathetic biographer, Ian Mackersey, points out: she gained tremendous beauty in adolescence but became a ‘loner: a highly intelligent, solitary person whom few could warm to’.
At the age of 19 Batten decided that she wanted to be a pilot, prompted by the wave of excitement that followed Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic. This clearly tallied with her mother’s expectations, and thus the older woman gladly complied with her daughter’s request to contact Australian record-breaking hero Charles Kingsford-Smith to request her first experience of flying. Kingsford-Smith was clearly happy to oblige, and so the remarkable Miss Batten travelled to Australia and there had her first flying lesson in his famous Fokker record breaker, The Southern Cross.
In 1930 mother and daughter moved halfway round the world to London. Here, Jean was able to gain access to the thriving social whirl of sporting aviation while learning to fly at the London Aeroplane Club. Her aim was to qualify as a pilot and attempt to beat Amy Johnson’s new record from London to Australia, but to do so she would need a sponsor – and to gain a commercial sponsor she needed a commercial pilot’s licence.
Salvation came in the form of Fred Truman, a young New Zealander who had moved to England to join the Royal Air Force. He had savings of £500 and this was enough to pay for a commercial licence – after which Batten broke off the ‘romance’. While Truman nursed a broken heart, Batten became involved with another young pilot, Victor Doree, who in turn borrowed £400 from his mother and bought her a de Havilland Gipsy Moth formerly owned by HRH the Prince of Wales.
In this aircraft Batten made her first attempt on Johnson’s record in 1933, but the flight ended with a crash in Karachi. Batten returned to London and asked Doree to buy her another aircraft – but he refused, and broke off their relationship. Fortunately for Batten, the Castrol oil company had taken notice of her, and it presented her with a brand new Gipsy Moth to try again in 1934.
Once again Batten crashed, this time in Italy. She returned to London and repaired the Gipsy Moth with parts from the similar aircraft of another new suitor – stockbroker and amateur aviator, Edward Walter. On May 8 1934 again she set off and on this occasion she made it to Darwin in 14 days 22 hours and 30 minutes, taking a full six day’s from Amy Johnson’s record.
While in Australia, Batten met and fell in love with an Australian airline pilot, Beverley Shepard. This did not go down too well with her fiancee, Edward Walter, who promptly sent her a bill for the repairs to her aircraft. By now, however, Batten’s success meant that she could afford to both settle her bills and buy a new Percival Vega Gull monoplane. With it, in November 1935, she became the first woman to fly across the South Atlantic during her record-breaking flight from England to Brazil in just 61 hours and 15 minutes.
Jean Batten’s record-breaking Gull photographed in the 1950s
A year later, Batten flew her Gull from England to Australia in just six days to obliterate her own record. She stayed in Australia waiting for good weather and then made the six-hour hop to New Zealand – her total time of just over 11 days being good enough to stand as a record for 44 years. Nevertheless, the relentless pace of her life took its toll and Batten suffered a nervous breakdown.
She set off to be reunited with Beverley Shepard in Australia, only to be greeted by the news that he had been killed in a crash on the day she arrived. Batten was inconsolable, and disappeared from view for eight months. When she re-emerged, Batten flew the Gull back to England from Australia in just five days, becoming the first person ever to hold the record flying time between Britain and Australia in both directions.
This was to be her final record-breaking flight. Batten remained in Britain and was active in raising funds for the RAF during World War 2, then spent the peacetime years travelling the world with her mother. They lived a curious life, moving mainly between islands in the Caribbean and Mediterranean where they would live in hotels or in cheap property.
When her mother died, in 1965, Jean was bereft and became a recluse. Then, to the amazement of the world, she reappeared in 1969, looking fit and healthy – indeed a good deal younger than her 60 years. She was still beautiful, still a star and for a decade she toured television studios and lecture halls while making the most of the social opportunities available – before disappearing again without trace.
Not until 1986 was she discovered. While living in seclusion on Majorca in 1982, Batten was bitten by a dog. The wound had become infected and, refusing treatment, she had died from lung failure. Not knowing who she was, the authorities had buried her anonymously in a pauper’s grave on the island.
In her will, Jean Batten requested that her body be taken to London for cremation and her ashes carried to Auckland to be interred at Auckland International Airport. Due to the nature of her burial in Palma this was not possible, but her memory remains alive at Auckland’s airport in the Jean Batten International Terminal, where her celebrated Percival Gull hangs from the ceiling over the passengers who now daily follow the trail she blazed with such determination.
In October 2008 a musical called Garbo of the Skies written by Paul Andersen-Gardiner and Rebekah Hornblow had its inaugural performance in Opunake by the Opunake Players at the Lakeside Playhouse. The remarkable story of Jean Batten lives on…
Batten’s aircraft today takes pride of place in Auckland’s international airport