On August 6th 1931, at about 13.30, an exhausted Jim Mollison landed his Gipsy Moth biplane on the beach at Pevensey Bay; by the next day he was one of the best known men in the Empire.
He had set off from Wyndham in Australia on 29th July at 1 a.m. He travelled 1180 miles north, to Java. Twenty minutes after landing, he was refuelled and was off again, to land on a scrubby field in Batavia. By now he had travelled 1730 miles in one day. This was the longest journey that any individual had flown in one day. It was therefore the kind of achievement which the newspapers were learning to call a “record”. At midnight he took off again this heading into the dark night towards Singapore. At one point he saw a liner: otherwise he had only the noise of the engines and the sight of the fuel gauge to occupy him. He landed at Singapore with just two gallons of fuel in his tank.
And so it went on: up the coast of Malaya, to Rangoon. Monsoon weather here forced Mollison to have six hours sleep, then he was flying across the Bay of Bengal to Calcutta. He flew over the holy site of Benares and made his way to Karachi. All this time, he was attracting little attention. The Times had a couple of single-paragraph items about the “Australian airman” who was attempting to fly to England. Mollison landed at Basra, but had to make an unscheduled landing in the desert to find the directions to Alleppo. The local Bedouin were suspicious at first, then helpful. After another day's flying day he was approaching Athens. By this stage, The Times was giving him several paragraphs and had established that he was a Scotsman from Lanark. He was enjoying an average of two hours sleep each night, but by now he realised that his cherished “record” was possible. He raced to Rome and was so confident of success that he stopped for a meal. He had lost his goggles and was almost deaf from the noise of the aircraft's exhaust.
At Paris he ran into another small difficulty – he needed petrol and had no money. Fortunately a manager from Imperial Airways was there to help. Mollison had not slept since Alleppo, and was keeping himself going with caffeine tablets. The weather was appalling, and Mollison decided that he could not get to Croydon. He flew over Le Touquet and aimed for Lympne in Kent, but was soon lost in the clouds. When he saw some white cliffs, he knew that he was over England: he sought a spot to land and descended to the beach at Pevensey Bay. He had flown single-handed from Australia to England in under nine days.
After landing at Pevensey Bay, some locals and holidaymakers helped him to find a more suitable field for a take-off. Just after 16.00, he was preparing to land at Croydon, where he was welcomed by a crowd of pressman and a boxing kangaroo. Now he was famous.
Aviators were the heroes of the day. Solitary and heroic and with astonishing resilience, they also touched down in wild and romantic places. The record-breaking flights in flimsy planes guaranteed headlines. For Lord Wakefield – who had provided Mollison with his plane – they meant publicity for the British aviation industry.Other observers were not so impressed:
Of the flight itself,there is little to say. It was accomplished in record time because the Gipsy engine kept on running, because Mollison's navigation was good, and because he went practically without sleep and did a good deal of night flying. As has been known to happen before. (Flight Magazine August 14, 1931)
But Mollison was feted in London and New York, and could lead the life he had always wanted. “I am a night bird,” he once said. “Life and enjoyment begin when daylight fades. Cocktail bars and clubs,music, beautiful women— that’s living. Daylight comes to me as an interval for sleeping until an afternoon drink helps to bring on another evening.” His autobiography was called “Playboy of the Air”.
Mollison had joined a select band of aviation heroes. There was of course, an even more famous aviation heroine, Amy Johnson. She and Mollison married in 1932 and the press were delighted. The match was was perfect for the publicity machine, and the two of them set about devising new aviation records: in 1933 they flew together from Wales to New York and had a ticker-tape reception in Wall Street. But marriage did not last long or end well. It has sometimes been assumed that the match was a simple career move on Mollison's part: certainly he did not halt his relationships with other women. Nor did it limit his drinking. He was known as “the Flying Scotsman” but those close to him called him “Brandy Jim”. Mollison had always been quick with his fists, and a manager from the Grosvenor House Hotel was reported as saying ” We've had the most awful night here. Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson had a fearful row and he's beaten her up. The bathroom looks like a slaughterhouse.” The marriage officially ended in 1938.
Mollison kept flying, and – like Johnson – flew in a non-combat role in WWII. Both of them flew in the Air Transport Auxilliary. Johnson died in 1941 after baling out of aircraft. Mollison had at least one close escape, when his plane was shot up, but survived the war. In his later life, his flying licence was revoked because of his alcoholism. He died when he was 54: the official cause of death was pneumonia, but unofficially it was thought to be alcoholic epilepsy.
What happened in Pevensey
It is certain that Mollison experienced bad weather, found the white cliffs and looked for a place to land. According to one source, he thought he was landing on smooth sands, and was surprised to find that he was on shingle. In August, however, the shingle near the Crumbles is covered in green vegetation – sea-kale and horned poppies – so it is more probable that he thought he was landing in a field. It was not a field, of course, and he was lucky to land safely. When he landed, the plane tipped forward dangerously: it “almost tipped onto its nose”, according to a contemporary source. A later source says that it “tilted slowly forward onto its nose”. More recently, we hear that Mollison was “trapped vertically in the cramped cockpit”.
Mollison's Plane on the field in Pevensey. (NB Mollison is not in this picture.)
At first it was reported by an agency that he had arrived at 14.30, but this was an error. To add the the uncertainty, an evening paper in the Midlands was able to provide a up-to-the-minute but fictional eyewitness account of the event. They quoted a Mr Mear who apparently kept a grocery store in Pevensey Bay. At about two -o-clock, Mr Mear had seen a red aeroplane circling the area then landing. In fact, Mollison's aeroplane was black, and we have not been able to locate a Mr Mear in Pevensey Bay (owning a grocery store or otherwise).
Later reports settled for 13.30, but the official records suggest few minutes earlier: The Advertiser and Register, Adelaide, Saturday August 8th 1931 said that Mollison had been less than accurate: he had landed at 13.40, but "Mollison made sure when he landed at Pevensey Bay Sussex yesterday, that he would be credited with the best possible time, for when he came down on the beach he got the local authorities to sign a declaration that he had descended there at 1.25 pm."
On landing, Mollison met some children. According to several newspapers, he introduced himself saying “I am the Australian airman.” This is unlikely, since Mollison was Scottish, so we may believe the biographer who quotes him as saying “Where's the nearest telephone , laddie?” Mollison had a “rather polished Oxford accent” rather than a Glaswegian one, so we should not be misled by the “laddie”. (To hear Mollison speaking at Croydon, use this link: Mollison Kangaroo)
For this first encounter, we rely upon the evidence of one of the children, George Inson. George would seem to have been four years old at the time of the encounter. George recalled that under his trenchcoat, Mollison was wearing a grey lounge suit and had scuffed brown shoes. George led Mollison to the house of a Mrs Goodwin and Mollison made his phone call to Croydon. We cannot trace a Mrs Goodwin in Pevensey Bay at the time.
At about this time, Mrs Nick Prinsep became aware that something was going on. Under her stage name of Anita Elson she was a well known performer in musical comedies, and had married Val Prinsep's son. She was staying at the family home on Pevensey Bay (The Boxes), soon to be replaced by the Prinseps' modernist home Sandcastles. The plane had landed about 200 yards west of her house The event was recalled by Ethel Wood, who worked as a caretaker for the family. Mrs Prinsep jumped into her Bentley and raced down to the Goodwins' house. She then took him to Pevensey Bay for a meal and allowed him to have a sleep before completing his flight. By this stage, of course, the record was secured.
The gathering crowd meanwhile set about dragging the plane to a more appropriate place, a field belonging to Arthur Tompsett. This event was extensively photographed, presumably because holidaymakers were equipped with cameras. At about 15.30, Mollison returned to the plane and – with the assistance of the young men in the crowd - took off for Croydon. Other events reported at the time or since included cups of tea, being driven to the Bay by a clergyman and refuelling the plane. What we would love to know is the name of the restaurant where Anita took Mollison.
Mollison The Flying Scostman David Luff 1993
Straight on Til Morning the Life of Beryl Markham, Mary Lovell, 2012.
To hear Mollison speaking at Croydon: Mollison Kangaroo
Pictures: Amy and Mollison, 1938, public domain; Pevensey, ownership unknown.