Document of the Month September 2018

This month's document is chosen by Sarah-Jane Wilson, our Archive Assistant for Photographic & Research.

While labelling and digitally cleaning some of the many photographic prints that we have in the Archive I came across my document of the month, a black and white image of acclaimed aviator Amy Johnson. Taken at the beginning of the 1930s when she was just starting to reach the height of her fame, it shows her with an MG in London.

Born in Hull in 1903, Amy is best remembered for becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, for the part that she played in the Second World War and for her mysterious disappearance not far from Herne Bay in Kent. She worked hard to become a pilot at an aerodrome in North London, first receiving her ground engineer's 'C' license and then her pilot's license in 1929. Amy began her record breaking solo flight on 5 May 1930, taking off from Croydon airport in her de Havilland Gipsy Moth, 'Jason'. With only limited equipment and no radio link to the ground she arrived in India after six days before flying on to Burma and later arriving in Australia on 24 May. Her arrival was met by crowds of fans and the world's press named her 'Wonderful Miss Johnson'. There was even a song, 'Amy, Wonderful Amy', written about her by British jazz musician Jack Hylton. She continued to break records during the 1930s, including a solo flight from London to Cape Town in 1933. As her fame grew she turned to modelling and her hairstyle, the 'Amy Johnson Wave', became one of the most popular of the time.

Why this document?

The photograph that I have chosen shows Amy in 1930 with an MG 18/80 Six Saloon. She was presented with the car outside the Grosvenor House Hotel in London; a personal gift from Sir William Morris in recognition of her solo flight. The vehicle even included a silver bonnet model of her beloved plane 'Jason'. This signalled the beginning of the close working relationship that Amy had with Morris Motors. In June 1931, she drove to Bexhill-on-Sea in her MG to open a new building named 'Morris House' that was designed to be a flagship showroom for displaying the finest new products from Morris Motors along with some second-hand vehicles and a space for customers to bring their cars to be serviced or repaired. Amy arrived suitably late for a celebrity of her status, declaring that her MG had given her 'excellent service' since she had received it in London.

The opening was not the only time that she was pictured with Morris cars. After landing in Australia in 1930, Amy was photographed at Moonee Valley Race Course in Melbourne waving to fans whilst being driven around in a Morris Isis Tourer. It was even written in the September 1930 edition of 'The Morris Owner' that she had a preference for Morris cars. And in the 1942 biopic about Amy's life, 'They Flew Alone', a 1930 MG 18/80 Six Mk II served as her personal car.

Amy received many awards during her distinguished career, including the 1930 Harmon Trophy, an American award for international achievements in aeronautics. In the same year she was granted a CBE in King George V's Birthday honours and was also made an honorary fellow of the Society of Engineers as, along with being an exceptional pilot, she was also a highly skilled aircraft mechanic and navigator. In 1940 she joined the war effort, delivering planes from factories to RAF bases around the country for the Air Transport Auxiliary.

Amy's final flight was supposed to be a delivery of an Airspeed Oxford to RAF Kidlington. She left Blackpool on 5 January 1941 in what would later be described as challenging winter conditions. Later the same day a ship, the HMS Haslemere, reported seeing her plane ditch into the Thames Estuary meaning Amy was miles off course. The ship set out to rescue the occupants of the plane, with several sailors convinced that they saw two figures in the water. The Captain, Walter Fletcher, made a failed attempt to save them by diving into the icy estuary; he would later die in hospital from hypothermia. Neither Amy, nor a second body, was ever recovered and theories about her disappearance have run wild since the crash. Some believe that she was on a secret mission to fly a spy out of the country, others think that she was shot down by friendly fire after giving the incorrect identification code, but most people have accepted the most plausible suggestion that the bad weather caused her to lose track of her location and, as a result, she ran out of fuel.

Despite her tragic ending, Amy will always be remembered for her outstanding aviation and engineering skills and her love of travel and adventure.

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