Jean Batten by Philippa Jane Ballantine
Published on: October 1, 2000

This is a cached copy of the two files

Jean Batten- Part One

Jean Batten- Part Two

Hard for the modern New Zealand woman to imagine not being able to pursue her dream, but in the early decades of the last century it took determination and strength to do so. Only these types of individuals were able to break out of the mould and achieve things that would forever mark them apart.

One of those was the aviatrix Jean Gardner Batten. An enigma who single mindedly, and sometimes in ways that others did not approve of, set out to get her place in the history books. Her end may not have been heroic, but remained true to her nature.

On the 15th September 1909 Jean was born in Rotorua. Her parents Frederick and Ellen already had two boys, but had lost another in infancy. They named her Jane after a grandmother, but eventually she became Jean. A tiny and ill baby, Jean received more than her fair share of attention from her mother, something that was to last throughout their time together.

Ellen herself was a fascinating woman, a committed feminist, with strong views on many things including nutrition and healthy living. It was also she that pinned a picture of French aviatrix Louis Bleriot next to her daughters bed. It was immediately apparent she was committed to seeing Jean reach her potential- if she knew it or not.

The family moved to Auckland when Jean was four, but with the outbreak of war came the departure of Frederick to fight at the front. With the fall of the family's fortunes Jean had to change schools, and they had to subsist in a succession of doss houses.

But all was not rosy again with her father's return. Ellen it seemed had enjoyed having no one to answer to but herself. They only lasted together a year, before splitting up permanently. Jean of course chose to live with her mother, but Frederick funded her enrollment into a proper ëladies college'.

Jean was an excellent student, driven by her mother, and won many prizes at school. And she was not only intelligent, like her mother she was becoming beautiful. However she was not someone that socialised easily, and throughout her life many said she was difficult to know, and capable of being quite cold.

With the end of school Jean seemed about to become a secretary, like many of her era, but in May 1927 Charles Lindbergh's solo crossing of the Atlantic fired her imagination. She suddenly knew what she wanted to do- fly. Of course she'd never done it before, but that was no hurdle to Ellen's determination.

She took Jean to Sydney where she flew with Charles Kingsford Smith in his plane the Southern Cross. That set the seal on her daughter's ambition, now she wanted to not only fly, but to be famous for it.

Never one to hold back, Ellen took Jean to London, where she gained her 'A' License at the London Aeroplane school. And from there it was straight on in an attempt to break the solo flight record from England to Australia, set only that same year by English woman Amy Johnson.

However funds were almost non existent. They tried to raise money back in New Zealand, without any luck. It was during this period that Jean quarreled terribly with her brother John in London. He had become a reasonably successful actor, but after their argument, they never spoke again. Perhaps he too was getting in the way of Jean's ambition.

The only way Jean could see to reach her goal was to attract some corporate sponsorship, and to do that her commercial pilots license £500 was required. A young New Zealand pilot Fred Truman, was in love with Jean and wanted to marry her. She took his money, gained her license, and left him. He was not to be the last that this happened to. It seemed wherever she went Jean would leave a trail of broken hearts.

Now she needed a plane. Young Englishman Victor Dore, provided the money for her first de Havilland Gipsy Moth, and Jean was off to Australia to break that record. Two sandstorms over Iraq forced her to land, but each time she went on. However engine failure caused a crash in Karachi, but Jean survived undaunted.

Back she went to Doree, asking for another plane. Once her told her he wouldn't, he didn't last long. However she had attracted the attention of the Castrol Oil company, who agreed to sponsor her and bought her another Gipsy Moth. So in April 1934, leaving behind her new finance stockbroker Edward Walter, Jean set off for Australia again.

This was also not to be. Outside of Rome the plane ran out of fuel and flew amongst radio masts. Jean bought the plane down with great skill, and though injured, survived.

But giving up was not in her vocabulary, she flew the plane back to England repaired it, and flew out again on May 8. Third time was the charm. She reached Darwin four days ahead of Amy Johnsons record, and became an instant celebrity. New Zealand and the rest of the world fell in love with this beautiful, brave and poised aviatrix. Everywhere she went there were crowds.

Poor Edward- Jean had fallen in love with Australian airline pilot, Beverley Shepherd. And when she broke off her engagement with him to get engaged to the Australian, he was so miffed her sent her the bill for the wings of his aircraft she'd used to repair her Gipsy Moth with.

Jean was still not content though, she needed more challenges. In a Percival Gull 6, she flew from England to South America in November 1935, thus becoming the first woman to fly the South Atlantic solo. Even more impressive considering she only had a watch and a compass to guide her.

Her fame increased. Along with Amelia Earhart she won the Harmon International Trophy for the most outstanding flight by a woman in 1935, an award she later won for herself in 1936 and 1937. In addition she received the Royal Aero Club's Britannia Trophy, and was the Daily Expresses five Woman of the Year in 1935.

However much she seemed to enjoy the attention, it appears she was never entirely comfortable with it. She and her mother retreated to almost hermit like existence in England. Only emerging to receive her CBE, and in 1936 to make her greatest achievement. One that would give her place in New Zealand's heart.

Jean Batten spent her whole life being unconventional. Starting from small town New Zealand, she had in a short time become her countries favourite daughter. In 1936 she cemented her place in the history of the nation with her World beating trip from England to New Zealand a distance of14,224 miles, which she made in 11 days 45 minutes.

It was the first direct flight from the United Kingdom to New Zealand, and her record would remain unbroken by any other pilot for fourty four years. It was also the fastest flight between Australia and New Zealand, and fastest between England and Australia. On 16th October 1934 she arrived in Auckland, where a crowd of thousands had gathered at Mangere airport.

Everyone acknowledged that it was an amazing feat, and displayed her real skill in navigation. There were no GPS systems in those days, all Jean had was a map, compass and watch to guide her. However it had been a wearing experience on her, and during her tour of New Zealand, Jean suffered a nervous breakdown.

After spending some time recuperating at Franz Joseph, Jean and her mother went to Sydney in February 1937 to meet up with Beverley Shepherd her fiancee who was also a pilot. But tragedy was still all around Jean and the day she arrived Shepherd was killed in an airplane accident. Shattered by grief the women retreated and it was not until October of that year that Ellen could pursuade her daughter to fly again.

But when Jean returned it was in spectacular style. She flew from Australia to England in 5 days 18 hours,. It was a new solo record for any pilot either woman or man, and Jean became first person to hold simultaneously England and Australia solo records in both directions.

It was however to be her last long distance flight. The sun had begun to set on Jean's fame. Even in 1938 when she published her second book, My life, there was little interest, and it was savaged by the critics.

War was in the air once again, and Jean was involved in fundraising campaigns for the war effort, and was even commissioned into active service- but she never flew again. It was apparently during this time that Jean fell in love again with another RAF pilot, but this was as tragic as her other love affairs. He was killed in action.

With the end of the war, Jean and Ellen still lived together in a number of places around the world, until Ellen was forced to finally abandon her daughter. Jean's mother died in 1965 at the respectable age of eighty nine at San Marcos, Tenerife. It was the worst blow for Jean- and she told everyone that she would not leave her mother, even in death, and bought an apartment in Puerto de la Cruz.

Just as she had before, Jean almost disappeared, losing touch with friends and family. She descended into more reclusive behaviour, writing in her journal, swimming and keeping her face hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat.

But Jean still had a surprise under that hat. In 1969 she made a comeback on the international circuit. A miniskirted, black haired Jean flew back to London wanting to take up her place in aviation once more.

Most people had presumed she was dead, and she didn't get as much attention as she might have wanted. So she returned to New Zealand, and despite using an assumed name she was discovered by the media. She showed how fit she still was by doing high kicks for them.

However Jean still couldn't leave Ellen forever, she went back to Tenerife. As unconventional as always, Jean still had marriage proposals and an affair in her 60s. But when she returned once more to New Zealand, this time with blonde hair, people began to suspect her finances were troubling her. The prime minister Robert Muldoon got her a state pension.

But Jean had almost completely dissolved into eccentricity. She left Tenerife in 1982, briefly returned to England to stay with her publisher, and then moved to Majorca.

On 8 November 1982 she wrote to her publisher, and that was the last anyone heard. For five whole years no one knew what had happened to her. Her bank account was untouched, and her mail was piling up for her, but in 1987 the truth was finally discovered.

Jean Batten died 22 November 1982 from a dog bite she'd received on her daily walk. The wound had become septic, and the infection had gone to her lungs. Jean however wouldn't let any of the staff at her hotel call for the doctor. She died quite needlessly, and her relatives were not informed due to a bureaucratic bungle.

Jean Batten who had been feted around the world was buried in Palma cemetery in a paupers' mass grave. Although she'd stipulated in her will that she should be interred at Auckland International Airport, this was impossible now, but her name is remembered there in the new terminal.

Jean Batten was a real character, whose drive, and an amazing ability with aircraft were unique. She belonged to that golden age of aviatrixes, but set herself apart from the others by her ruthless determination. She was not only beautiful, she was also unique.

Back to main essay