Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Faces of Amy Johnson: A Woman of her Time

Amy about to board Jason in 1930
Another post by Trish Allen on Amy Johnson and the context for women, work and learning in the late 1920s:

The more that I read about Amy, the more complex she becomes! However, let’s start by putting Amy into her historical context. The experiences during World War 1 had particularly influenced women. During the war many women had been employed in factories giving them a wage and a degree of independence. Women felt more confident, hair and dresses were shorter and women started to smoke, drink and even drive cars! The “flapper” arrived!
After the war, when many women tried to find work that made use of the skills they had gained, they were vilified by the press for “taking up ex-servicemen’s jobs”. Although unemployment benefit had been introduced through the National Insurance Act 1911, women were not eligible for benefits if they refused to take up available jobs in domestic service. This forced many women back into the more traditional jobs like laundry, dressmaking and the “sweated industries”. However, some job opportunities did open up for women in new industries and professions. Following the Education Act 1918, school leaving age was raised to 14 and the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 made it easier for women to go to university and take up professional jobs as teachers and nurses, a few even qualified as doctors!

At some stage before 1922, Amy became a teacher in the primary department of a Sunday School, not that she was an enthusiastic chapel goer! (Her father was a staunch Methodist.) The Principal of her school felt she should go to University to read modern languages before she became a teacher. In 1922 she set off for Sheffield University. During this time the post war prosperity was declining and eventually there was the Great Strike of 1926. Amy would have been well aware, though she was reasonably protected from personal hardship, from scenes in Sheffield, plus her home town of Hull, of how the nation was suffering.

Aviation as a sport was very much in the news in the late 20’s. Amy had always loved outdoor sports since she was a child. The Hollywood film Wings appealed to Amy and contributed to the allure of flying. She made her first flight as a passenger on a five shilling pleasure trip and she later wrote “I would have liked to have done some stunts!”. Did this also sow a seed?

Amy took up flying in 1928 and when she joined the London Aeroplane Club at the de Havilland Aerodrome it was a disaster. Her first instructor suggested that she would never make a pilot! Fortunately she found two other instructors and she wrote home “I have an immense belief in the future of flying”. In 1930 whilst attempting to raise funds for her Gypsy Moth biplane together with petrol and oil supplies for her flight to Australia, Amy wrote to Sir Sefton Bruncker, the Director of Civil Aviation:

I wish to fly to Australia, one reason being that I am certain a successful flight of this nature, by an English girl, solo and in a light plane, would do much to engender confidence amongst the public in air travel.

Amy Johnson in 1932
Amy returns to this theme of the importance of developing and improving aviation later in life.

Throughout all her flying, Amy learned to plan thoroughly. She was meticulous in using all of her engineering skills. She twice broke the record for flying solo from England to Cape Town in 1932 and 1936. In the first flight she flew by the difficult west coast route and crossed the Sahara, flying thousands of miles of desert and jungle. An amazing achievement.


Trish Allen

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