Amy Johnson (1903-1941), the famous English aviator shown in the image above, was the first woman pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia. Either solo or together with her husband, Jim Mollison, she set many long-distance flying records in the 1930s. She died tragically young, before reaching the age of 40, when the Airspeed Oxford she was flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), reportedly ran out of fuel, and crashed into the Thames Estuary. Although Amy had bailed out her body was never found.
Amy Johnson was a 2-term President of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), for the years 1935/36 and 1936/37, and had been a member of WES before that. Before and during the years of her Presidency she corresponded frequently with the Honorary Secretary of WES at that time, Caroline Haslett. A file of this correspondence has recently been uncovered in the archives of WES which are held in the IET Archives. This correspondence has now been catalogued at individual letter level with almost all of the letters being transcribed as part of the description. Each of the 85 letters and paper items has also been digitised. Amy is shown below, with Caroline Haslett in the background, addressing the 1935 WES Annual Conference.
Contents of the correspondence
The first of Amy’s letters to Caroline, dating from 9 June 1932, shows her generosity by saying, “use my name on the programme by all means – in fact make whatever use of it you can”. This is the only letter in the correspondence which Amy has signed as Amy Johnson (letter shown below). Amy was to marry the aviator Jim Mollison the following month in July 1932, and thereafter signed her letters sent to Caroline as Amy Mollison (Amy was to divorce Mollison in 1938 and soon afterwards reverted to her maiden name).
Amy spoke on several occasions to WES members. On one such occasion at an ‘at home’ held at the Club, 20 Regent Street, Monday 10 December 1934, Amy gave an address covering the reasons for the Comet failure (in the October 1934, England to Melbourne air race), lessons of the race, and the ground organisation needed in England – the full 9-page typescript annotated address can be found with this correspondence. At another meeting in January 1935, a debate was held on the topic, ‘that record-breaking flights no longer serve a useful purpose’. Not only is this fascinating given that Amy, who held many such records, was proposing the motion, but also because her husband Jim Mollison was opposing the motion!
A photograph of Amy, her husband Jim, and Caroline is shown below.
It is clear from the letters and their content that a close relationship formed between Amy and Caroline, beyond the relationship of just President and Honorary Secretary. The early letters from Amy all begin ‘dear Miss Haslett’, but by the time of the last letters in the correspondence, dating from 1937, Amy begins her letters ‘my dear Caroline’ and some of the content of the letters is of a more personal nature not just about the administration of WES.
This personal insight can be seen in a handwritten letter from Amy, dated 13 January 1937, sent from Val Mont, Glion sur Montreux, Switzerland, where Amy had been sent by her doctor to rest (letter shown below).
In the letter above Amy reveals her personal concerns by saying;
“I have been thinking a great deal about our talk about Lord Wakefield. It seems to me so strange that the man to whom I owe the most in the world should still be addressing me as ‘Mrs Mollinson’. I don’t really know him at all & have never even met Lady Wakefield. I sent them flowers for Xmas as I usually do & had such a funny cold note of thanks saying that ‘Lady W thanked me for the flowers’ & never mentioned himself.”
It was Lord Wakefield together with Amy’s father who funded the purchase of Amy’s plane G-AAAH, a second-hand de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth which she had named Jason after her father’s business trade mark. By sad coincidence Lord Wakefield died just 10 days after Amy Johnson in January 1941 and both were commemorated in a tribute issue of the Woman Engineer, the WES journal, in March 1941, the cover of which is shown below.
This Amy Johnson / Caroline Haslett correspondence, catalogued as NAEST 92/13/1, can be consulted in the IET Archives at Savoy Hill House.
The archives of WES also contain the ‘appreciation’ written by Caroline Haslett shortly after her death which The Times was interested in publishing. In that tribute to Amy, Caroline said of her,
“All the world knows of Amy Johnson who at the age of 22 flew solo to Australia ten years ago, but it is perhaps those who knew her more closely who were able to appreciate her gifts and abilities, the generosity of her mind, her modesty over real achievement, her unquenchable spirit which, with her keen wit and boundless humour, must have carried her through times of tedium as well as of horrific experience. Whatever Amy did she did it with zest and relish. The sparkle and vigour of her personality communicated itself to all who came into contact with her…..”
Given the above it is very fitting that the new roof terrace in the refurbished Savoy Place will be named the Amy Johnson roof terrace in her honour.