Story: Batten, Jean Gardner

Page 1 - Biography

Batten, Jean Gardner

1909–1982

Aviator

This biography was written by Ian Mackersey and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

One of the great international aviators of the 1930s, Jean Gardner Batten was born on 15 September 1909 in Rotorua, the only daughter of a dentist, Frederick Harold Batten, and his wife, Ellen (Nellie) Blackmore. She was christened Jane after her grandmother, but soon became known as Jean. She had two elder brothers; a third had died in infancy. On the wall beside her cot Ellen pinned a newspaper picture of the French pilot Louis Blériot, who had just flown the English Channel – a statement that her newborn daughter's generation would be capable of similar achievements.

A tiny and frail baby, Jean enjoyed special nurturing and was fussed over by the whole family. Her mother, a tall, handsome woman, was a thwarted actress with strong feminist views. Domineering and possessive, she was obsessed with healthy living and instilled in her daughter nutritional habits that she was to embrace all her life.

In 1913 the Batten family moved to Auckland, and at five Jean was enrolled at Melmerley Ladies' School in Parnell. The family's life was disrupted by the First World War, during which her father served on the western front. With the loss of his earnings they fell on hard times and were forced to live in a succession of cheap and shabby lodgings; Jean was moved to a state school. Nevertheless, Ellen gave her daughter's welfare and development high priority. At an early age she encouraged her to become a high achiever in a masculine world, something Ellen had wanted to do herself. She also took Jean to Mission Bay to watch the Walsh brothers' flying boats, in which pilots were being trained for war service.

By the time Fred Batten returned to Auckland in 1919, Ellen had grown used to being head of the house and was reluctant to relinquish the role. There were soon bitter quarrels and, around 1920, they separated permanently. Jean went to live with her mother, with whom she would develop a close and intense relationship. Funded by her father, she was sent as a boarder to the Ladies' College in Remuera, where she excelled, winning prizes in many subjects. Although she had now become a healthy and beautiful young woman, she acquired a reputation at the school as a loner: a highly intelligent, solitary person whom few could warm to.

At the end of 1924, soon after her 15th birthday, Jean enrolled at a secretarial school and began to study the piano and ballet with a view to performing professionally in both. However, in May 1927 her ambitions dramatically changed. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh's solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, she yearned to fly, an ambition that her mother encouraged. In 1929 Ellen took Jean to Sydney and arranged for her to fly with the Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith in his tri-motor Southern Cross. The experience made her more than ever determined to become a pilot – and a famous one, competing on equal terms with men.

Early in 1930, having sold her piano to pay the fares, Jean Batten sailed with her mother to England. She learnt to fly at the London Aeroplane Club and gained her 'A' licence in December. Almost immediately she began to plan a solo flight from England to Australia, in an attempt to break the 19½-day women’s record set earlier that year by the English pilot Amy Johnson.

As Jean and Ellen were then barely subsisting on a £3 a week allowance from Fred, the goal did not seem immediately attainable. Describing it as an ambition that had to be gratified, Jean went back to New Zealand with her mother to raise money, without success. She then returned to London alone to stay with her brother, John, who had established himself as a successful film actor, starring in major features in Hollywood and England. Unfortunately, they quarrelled and Jean walked out; they never spoke to each other again.

Hoping to attract a corporate sponsor, Batten decided to train for a commercial pilot's licence. To fund the 100 hours' flying this required, she borrowed £500 from Fred Truman, a young New Zealand pilot then serving with the Royal Air Force. He wanted to marry her, but Jean had no intention of doing so. When she gained her 'B' licence in December 1932 she walked out of his life, making no attempt to repay him. Instead she turned to Victor Dorée, the son of a prosperous English linen merchant, who was also infatuated with her. He borrowed £400 from his mother and bought Jean a de Havilland Gipsy Moth.

In April 1933 Batten set off from England in an attempt to beat Johnson's time to Australia. It proved a frightening experience. Caught in a sandstorm over Iraq, she lost control and went into a spin. Recovering just in time, she landed in the desert and spent the night sleeping under the wing. The next day, over Balúchistán, she hit another sandstorm and was forced down again. On resuming her flight she suffered engine failure and wrecked the aircraft trying to land near Karachi. Miraculously, she crawled out uninjured.

Back in London, where she and her mother were now living in seedy bedsitters, Jean tried to persuade Dorée to buy her another plane. When he refused she ended the relationship. She had meanwhile turned to the Castrol oil company, whose head, Charles Wakefield, was impressed by her grit and glamour. He agreed to sponsor her, buying a second-hand Gipsy Moth for £240. Batten, now engaged to London stockbroker Edward Walter, set off in April 1934 on her second attempt to fly to Australia. It also ended in disaster. On the outskirts of Rome she ran out of fuel in the dark and flew into a maze of radio masts. Lucky to survive, she crash-landed with great skill, almost severing her lip.

Still refusing to give up, Batten had the Moth repaired and flew it back to England. She borrowed the lower wings from Walter's own aeroplane, and just two days later, on 8 May, she set out again. This time she made it to Darwin in 14 days 22½ hours, shattering Johnson's record by over four days. Overnight she became a world celebrity.

In Australia and New Zealand (which she visited by sea) Jean Batten was lionised. Rewards and lecturing brought sudden prosperity, and large crowds followed her wherever she went. She revelled in the adulation, impressing with her poise and speaking ability. In every speech she highly praised the support and encouragement of her mother, Ellen, to whom she had sent a much-quoted cable: 'Darling we've done it. The aeroplane, you, me'.

In Sydney towards the end of 1934 Jean fell in love with an Australian airline pilot, Beverley Shepherd. When he proposed, she broke off her engagement to Walter, who was so angry he sent her a bill for the wings he had lent her. She flew the Moth back to England, thus becoming the first woman pilot to fly from England to Australia and back. In London she now began to move in the upper levels of society. Her achievements were saluted by the newspapers, and the international aviation community showered awards upon her.

In search of a new challenge, Batten made another spectacular solo flight. She bought a new cabin monoplane, a Percival Gull 6, for £2,000, and in November 1935 flew from England to South America. It was a brilliant feat of navigation. With only a watch and compass she made the 1,900-mile trip from West Africa to Brazil with uncanny accuracy, establishing world absolute records for the ocean crossing and the overall flight. She was the first woman to fly herself across the South Atlantic.

In Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay Batten was fêted by presidents, deluged with gifts and mobbed by crowds; newspapers dubbed her 'the flower of the sky'. More honours followed: she won the Royal Aero Club's Britannia Trophy and, with Amelia Earhart, was jointly awarded the Harmon International Trophy for the most outstanding flight by a woman in 1935 (she was to win it outright in 1936 and 1937). The London Daily Express named her one of its five women of the year.

Back in England, Jean and Ellen rented a cottage near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and disappeared from public view. Not even their family in New Zealand knew where they were. The secretiveness of Jean's life had now begun to attract media attention, despite her brief appearance at Buckingham Palace to be invested as a CBE. However, in October 1936 she emerged from seclusion to make the longest of all her great journeys: the first ever direct flight from England to New Zealand.

On 16 October, 11 days 45 minutes after leaving England, Batten's Gull arrived at Mangere aerodrome, Auckland, where she was greeted by a crowd of 6,000. But her phenomenal reserves of stamina were nearly exhausted. In the middle of a demanding lecture tour she suffered a nervous breakdown. The tour was abandoned and she went off to recuperate at Franz Josef. In February 1937 she returned to Sydney to be reunited with Shepherd, whom she was to have married later that year. However, the day she arrived he was killed in an air crash. Her grief was profound. She and Ellen again went into hiding, staying at a Sydney beach for many months.

It was not until October that Ellen persuaded Jean to get back into the air. She flew the Gull from Australia to England in 5 days 18 hours, establishing a solo record (for pilots of either sex), and becoming the first person to hold simultaneously England–Australia solo records in both directions.

This, at 28, was Jean Batten's finest hour. It was also her last long-distance flight. Quite rapidly she was to fade from public view. In 1938 she completed her second book, My life ( Solo flight had been published in Sydney in 1934). However, it was not well written and received a number of critical reviews. During four crowded years Batten had frequently credited herself with a significant contribution to the development of the empire air routes, but in truth she had arrived on the scene too late. Major airlines by the mid 1930s were already operating routinely. What she could genuinely claim, however, was a heightened interest in air transport that her brave and widely publicised journeys had helped to create.

In England Jean and Ellen resumed their close, interdependent life together, moving about the home counties from one secret address to another, while Jean embarked on lecture tours of Europe. She was in Sweden, where she was rumoured to have had an affair with a count, shortly before war broke out in September 1939, and received special permission to fly her Gull back to England through German airspace.

Unlike Amy Johnson, who was killed while serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary, Batten did not fly during the war. She offered her services, as long as she could fly her Gull, but when this was refused she declined to join the auxiliary. The Gull was requisitioned by the RAF and Jean, after a few months as an ambulance driver, spent three years working on the assembly line in a munitions factory at Poole, Dorset. Around 1943 she joined the National Savings Committee's team of lecturers, travelling Britain to raise money for the war effort; she was said to have been one of its most effective speakers. She also fell in love again, with an RAF bomber pilot identified in her unpublished memoirs only as Richard. They had apparently planned to marry after the war, but he was killed on a mission over Europe.

In 1946 Jean and Ellen went to live in Jamaica. Few among the expatriate community ever met them, and they made friends selectively; one was Noël Coward. In 1953 the Battens returned to England and began a nomadic motor tour of Europe that was to last seven years. It was not until 1960 that they finally took root, buying a villa in the small Spanish fishing village of Los Boliches, near Málaga. They lived here quietly for six years, until, at the end of 1965, they set off on what was to have been an extended winter holiday to Madeira, the Canary Islands and North Africa. However, on 19 July 1966 Ellen died in Jean's arms at San Marcos, Tenerife; she was 89.

Jean became ill with protracted grief. Declaring that she would not leave the island without her mother's bones, and now approaching 57, she bought a tiny apartment in Puerto de la Cruz. She had lost touch with all her relatives and years of isolation had left her with few close friends. On Tenerife, which was to be her home for 16 years, she kept to herself, typing her memoirs, swimming alone each day in the harbour and walking about the town, always shielding her face under a wide-brimmed hat.

Her depression lasted more than three years. At the end of 1969 she made a dramatic return to public life. With a face-lift, hair dyed jet black and wearing a miniskirt, Batten flew to London and re-immersed herself, amid much publicity, in the aviation world. Many people had believed her dead. Most, over 30 years on, had now, to her disappointment, never heard of her. In 1970 she flew back to New Zealand, booking into an Auckland motel under an assumed name. Discovered by the media, she was fêted and photographed, demonstrating her fitness at 61 by doing high ballet kicks.

Back on Tenerife Batten was too restless to settle. Her apartment there now became a base for 10 years of world travel. She claimed to have received two fresh proposals of marriage in her 60s and had a brief affair with a company executive in New Zealand, where she returned in 1977 with her hair now startlingly dyed blonde. Friends suspected that she was in financial distress and appealed to the prime minister, Robert Muldoon, who arranged an immediate state pension. The truth was she had assets of more than £100,000.

Early in 1982, now growing increasingly eccentric and self-absorbed, Jean decided to leave Tenerife. She sold her apartment and, leaving Ellen's remains on the island, returned to England, where she stayed with her publisher and his wife. In October she flew to the Spanish island of Majorca, where she intended to buy an apartment and live out her final years. On 8 November she wrote to her publisher; it was the last anyone was to hear from Jean Batten.

For five years her whereabouts remained a mystery. Mail accumulated at her London bank where her account was untouched. In September 1987 the sad truth emerged: she had died in Palma, Majorca, on 22 November 1982, aged 73. She had been bitten by a dog on her daily walk and the wound had become septic, spreading infection to her lungs. She refused to let the staff of her small hotel call a doctor, and died quite needlessly of a pulmonary abscess. As a result of a bureaucratic bungle the New Zealand government and her relatives had not been notified. On 22 January 1983 she had been buried anonymously in Palma cemetery in a paupers' mass grave.

Jean Batten was the finest woman pilot of the golden age of aviation. She brought great honour to New Zealand and a perfection to her flying that kept her alive through many frightening crises in the air. Utterly fearless, she sometimes took huge risks and flew in dangerous weather conditions, but she was an exceptionally accomplished navigator. Her superior skills made her a more professional pilot than her better-known colleagues, Johnson and Earhart. Behind her beauty lay qualities of ruthlessness and determination that were unique among her women pilot contemporaries. Although her intense relationship with her mother isolated her, Jean Batten’s spectacular achievements owed much to Ellen’s powerful driving force and skilful management of her daughter’s life.