From Lympne With No Return
William Newton Lancaster
Born Birmingham 14/2/1898 – Died Sahara 2/4/1933
Aviation Pioneer – ‘Murder’ – Tragedy
One of the saddest cases of an attempted record breaking endurance flight from Lympne was that of William Newton Lancaster. Bill Lancaster, as he was generally known, was born in Birmingham and emigrated to Australia prior to WW1. In 1916 he joined the Australian Army later transferring to the Australian Flying Corps. After his war service he stayed in Britain, and joined the RAF. He married in 1919, then served in India in the 1920’s. In April 1921 became Flying Officer Lancaster after promotion.
In 1927, Bill transferred to the RAF Reserve, but continued to hold his commission until April 1930. He had decided to make a name for himself by flying from England to Australia. This first flight was made in an Avro Avian, Red Rose, accompanied by Australian Jessie ‘Chubbie’ Miller, who helped finance the flight. It was at this time one of the longest flights made in such a small aircraft. They were, however, overtaken en route by Bert Hinkler in another Avian, but Bill and Jessie, the first woman to fly England – Australia, were greeted by crowds in Darwin and subsequently on their tour around Australia..
In 1928 Lancaster and Miller moved to the USA on the promise of a Hollywood movie which was never made. Lancaster then made a living selling British aero engines and Miller became an aviator in her own right.. Competing in the famous Powder Puff Derby of 1929.
In 1932, Bill Lancaster was in Mexico looking for work. At the same time Haden Clarke, an American writer, had been living in Bill & Jessie’s home in Florida to help her write her autobiography. Clarke and Jessie developed a relationship, and he convinced her to leave Bill, to marry him instead. Upon receiving this unwelcome news Bill promptly returned to Florida.
On 20th April Clarke was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Despite the gun being Bill’s own firearm, and admitting forging suicide notes found at the scene, to himself and Jessie, forensic evidence provided by the prosecution confused the jury.
Albert H. Hamilton, a criminologist with a somewhat sketchy past, provided easy to understand testimony in Bill Lancaster’s favour. Additionally, even though Bill and Jessie had dissolved their romance and partnership, she spoke in his defence, and the trial judge spoke up in his favour.
Lancaster was acquitted of murder in less than five hours of deliberation. It was regarded that although the evidence was in doubt, a main factor in his acquittal was his calm, straight forward gentlemanly demeanour in the courtroom, and the portrayal of Clarke as depressive, drug addicted and suicidal. Public opinion was also thought to have played its part in influencing the jury. Indeed, at one point the behaviour of those in the gallery became so unruly in cheering for Lancaster, that Judge Atkinson interrupted with a firm, ‘this is not a Vauderville show‘..
After the trial, Bill and Jessie returned to England, broke and without friends. Bill then decided to attempt the hotly contested England to South Africa speed record. Purchasing the Avro Avian Southern Cross Minor from Charles Kingsford Smith, he left England from Lympne Airfield on April 11th 1933. The Avian was considerably slower than other aircraft of the time, so his stops would need to be short denying him sleep, to have any chance of achieving the record.
Having been lost several times en route, and not having slept for thirty hours, and ten hours behind his flight plan, he departed Reggane on the evening of April 12th to make a 750 mile night crossing of the Sahara. The Avian’s engine failed after less than an hour’s flying, and he crash landed in the desert far north of his flight plan. Relatively uninjured, he fired occasional flares, and hoped for rescue. The air searches for him were too far to the south, and a car based search sent out from Reggane was also unfruitful. He died eight days later on 20th April. His final message written on a fuel card on the morning of the 20th April read,’ so the beginning of the eighth day has dawned. It is still cold. I have no water. I am waiting patiently. Come soon please. Fever wracked me last night. Hope you get my full log. Bill’. His body would remain in Algeria with his aeroplane for the next twenty nine years.
Fast forward to 12th February 1962, when French troops discover Bill Lancaster’s mummified body. His diary and personal effects had survived intact. The diary was returned to Jessie Miller, who allowed it to be published. The wreck of the Southern Cross Minor was recovered in 1975, and now resides in the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia. A TV mini series was subsequently made by Australian television in 1985, called The Lancaster Miller Affair.
￼ Copyright-John Simpson