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Heritage: Celebrity airwoman flies in to Elm Park

PUBLISHED: 15:00 30 November 2019

Jean Batten at the controls of a Concorde in 1979. Picture: PA

Jean Batten at the controls of a Concorde in 1979. Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

Prof Ged Martin recalls how Elm Park turned out to cheer a famous woman pilot

Elm Park was built in the 1930s by Costain, the builders, who aimed to create a "garden city" of 35,000 people, with schools and shopping centres.

As well as donating Harrow Lodge Park, Costain opened the Elm Park Hotel in 1938. (It's now shops). By 1939, with 2,600 houses completed, the suburb was about one-third built.

To sell Elm Park, Costain used modern promotion tactics, including "events" with celebrity appearances.

That's how 5,000 people turned out to welcome Miss Jean Batten in March 1938.

The company had organised a house-furnishing competition, and they needed a big name to present the prizes.

The 1930s were a golden age for aviation. It was also an era when women were carving out new roles. Female pilots - "aviatrixes" - broke through gender barriers. One day in 1930, Yorkshire woman Amy Johnson climbed into her tiny plane and took off from Croydon airport. Nineteen days later, she landed at Darwin in northern Australia, 11,000 miles away.

American heroine Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic solo in 1932.

Jean Batten was the third of the trio of famous flying females. Born in New Zealand in 1909, she moved to England when she was twenty and trained as a pilot.

She bought her first plane with a £500 loan from a man who hoped to marry her. A second admirer borrowed £400 from his mother to fund her purchase of a larger aircraft.

Jean Batten wanted to beat Amy Johnson's time to Australia. Her first attempt ended in a sandstorm near Karachi. Second time, she ran out of fuel and crashed in Italy. She's been criticised for taking advantage of men to finance her adventures in the air.

But who else was she to exploit? Hedgehogs? Tortoises? Men controlled money and power. When the aviation industry held a banquet in her honour, she was the only woman present!

By 1934, she was engaged to a third boyfriend, a stockbroker and amateur pilot.

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Returning from Italy, she took the wings off his plane to make her own machine airworthy again. I wonder what a psychiatrist would say about that!

On her third attempt she reached Australia, breaking Amy Johnson's record by four days.

Everybody wanted to meet the beautiful and resourceful Jean Batten.

At Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) "was wonderfully charming, and with her sweet smile and gracious manner immediately put me at my ease". Jean also met "little Princess Elizabeth".

Our future Queen was eleven years old. "She has a charm of her own, and with a delightful gesture brought her pet terrier into the room to show me." Her Majesty still loves her dogs.

No wonder Elm Park turned out in force for this superstar of the skies. One schoolboy remembered her looking like a film star.

The President of the Residents' Association proudly told Miss Batten that New Zealand soldiers had been cared for at a convalescent hospital in Hornchurch during the First World War.

Welcoming her, local MP John Parker predicted that Elm Park would become "a happy family of 30,000 people".

Miss Batten found this amazing, remarking that the whole of New Zealand contained barely one million people. It was an odd comment: she'd lived in Auckland, a city of almost 100,000.

This was Jean Batten's first visit, but she delighted the crowd by adding that "she had many times flown over Elm Park".

This was probably true: she would have used the runway at nearby RAF Hornchurch as a visual navigation aide.

Indeed, after inspecting the households that had entered the furnishing competition, she visited the RAF station.

I hope none of the airmen fell in love with her. She never married.

The Second World War put an end to her long-distance solo flights. But Jean Batten should remain a role model for girls.

There were no glass ceilings for a woman with her own aeroplane.

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