“The Garbo of the Skies”

jean batten statue auckland airport1

Statue commemorating Jean Batten, New-Zealand born aviator of the 1930s. Image: Su Leslie 2018

It’s almost a year since I was inspired by Anabel at Glasgow Gallivanter (in Hidden Histories, a guest post at Retirement Reflections) to search out public commemorations of women’s achievements in my home city of Auckland.

My initial post focused on the ways Women’s Suffrage has been remembered in public art around the city, and since then I’ve only managed a (quite accidental) post about the botanist Lucy Moore who has a park and stormwater pond named after her in Warkworth, north of Auckland.

So today I bring you aviator Jean Batten (1909-1982) who, during the 1930s made a series of record-breaking solo flights, including a return flight from England to Australia (1934), the first flight by a woman across the South Atlantic (1935), and ever direct flight from England to New Zealand in October (1936). She made her last long-distance flight in 1937, returning to England from Australia.

She retired from flying, aged only 28 and spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity, living and traveling, first of all with her mother, then alone after the latter’s death in 1966.

The last anyone heard from Jean was in November 1982, when she wrote to her publisher in London, letting him know her new address in Majorca.

It took until September 1987 for researchers to learn that she had died alone in a hotel within weeks of arriving in Majorca, and had been buried in a mass pauper grave. She had suffered a dog bite, and refusing treatment, died of a pulmonary abscess at the age of 73.

jean batten statue auckland airport2

Detail, statue of Jean Batten, aviator, located outside the International Terminal, Auckland Airport. Image: Su Leslie 2018

Jean Batten left New Zealand in 1929, and only returned as an occasional visitor. In recordings I’ve heard of her speeches and interviews, she sounds terribly British, and I’m not sure how much her Kiwi origins were public knowledge.

But her achievements, in an overwhelmingly male field of endeavour, were considerable and she deserves to be recognised and celebrated.

The International Terminal at Auckland Airport (where the statue above is located) is named after her, as are streets in in Auckland, Christchurch, Mount Maunganui, Wellington and Rotorua. The Jean Batten Building (in Jean Batten Place, Auckland) no longer exists, but the facade has been incorporated into the high-rise constructed on its site. She has had a primary school named after her, and in her hometown of Rotorua, another statue is sited at the airport.

The title of this post is taken from the 1988 television documentary titled Jean Batten: the Garbo of the Skies, directed by Ian Mackersey, who in 1991 published a biography with the same name. It was the research team working on Mackersey’s documentary that uncovered the mystery of Jean Batten’s death.

You can also find more information about Jean Batten at Te Ara: The Encylopedia of New Zealand and NZEdge: The Global Life of New Zealanders.

23 thoughts on ““The Garbo of the Skies”

  1. Like Garbo, it sounds like she was quite reclusive. While I was impressed with her achievements, it was amplified when I realized how young she was. Interesting that she gave up flying in her late 20s. I’m sure there is a story in there somewhere. Such a sad ending though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the war was a major factor in stopping the long-distance “challenge” flights. Apparently she was offered a chance to fly (non-combat) during the war but declined as they wouldn’t let her use her own plane. She worked in a munitions factory instead. I get the impression that while her mother was alive, they were reasonably sociable. She certainly made a couple of quite public trips back to NZ. Her death was tragic — apparently entirely preventable if she’s sought treatment for the dog bite.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love these history related posts of yours, Su! Jean Batten’s life sounds so interesting especially for that day and age. But how sad she died such a lonely death. The statue looks wonderful, I like that weathered style. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much. I really want to do more and am hoping to make time over the next few weeks. I have my sights set on the first female mayor in the British Empire (and the second ever), who was elected in the first election at which women could vote. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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