The 1920s and 1930s saw a huge advancement in flight engineering. With that, aviation mania swept Europe and America. Usually thought of as a male pursuit, flying planes quickly garnered fresh attention from the media as increasing numbers of women took to the skies. Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart were just two of a number of celebrated pilots who became household names due to their daring journeys.
With International Women’s Day approaching, this had us wondering; were there any records of early female pilots in the archive?
This is the story of West Sussex’s very own early female pilot, Nancy B. Birkett.
From Chichester to Shoreham
Born Edith Nancy Beynon Birkett in Chichester in 1901, Nancy grew up in a devoutly Christian household. Her father, the Reverend F. J. Birkett, served as Rector of All Saints and St. Andrews, Chichester, between 1890 – 1921. The family lived in Summersdale House, a large Georgian property on the outskirts of Chichester. With her uncle, Reverend L. B. Birkett, just a few miles away in Westbourne, the Birkett family were well settled in the area.
Yet, Nancy went on to lead a less-than-serene life.
Between 1926 and 1933 she served as Honorary Secretary of the then brand new Southern Aero Club, based at Shoreham. The club was founded in 1925 by pioneering British aviator Cecil Pashley and his then student F. G. Miles. According to the 1933 edition of Who’s Who in British Aviation, the politician and businessman Sir Cooper Rawson served as president and Pashley acted as the club’s flight instructor, tutoring its members in an Avro Avian plane.
Aged 25 when she commenced her position as hon. secretary, Nancy was part of a growing number of women post-WWI who pursued career work prior to marriage. She even took up lodgings nearer to the club for ease. As her title suggests, “Honorary” most likely meant that she didn’t receive a wage.
Many early aviation enthusiasts, male and female, came from more privileged backgrounds in the years approaching the Depression. After all, it was an expensive hobby. Nevertheless, the freedoms that developed from partial emancipation for women in 1918, and the increase in women entering the workplace, gave many the confidence to pursue traditionally male activities.
Licensed to fly
Nancy not only did work for the club, as a member she regularly partook in flights under the instruction of Pashley and Miles. Nancy worked hard to obtain her aviator’s certificate, a goal which she achieved in 1931.Two months after receiving her certificate, Nancy acquired her private pilot’s license, which allowed her to fly “all types of flying machine”. She was the first female member of Shoreham Aero Club to receive her license.
A peek into her official log book, issued to her on receipt of her pilot’s license, shows that in the two years that Nancy could legally fly (prior to her marriage in 1933) she clocked up almost 97 hours of flight time. This time-capsule of a document shows that most of these numerous flights were from Shoreham airspace, with the occasional starting position elsewhere such as Croydon.
During Nancy’s time working with the Southern Aero Club, she maintained several wonderful albums of photographs, each one filled with images of different types of aircraft and members of the club. It is within one of these albums that a photograph of Colonel Lindberg appears. Nancy has written below the image that it was taken on occasion of his celebrated flight to Paris from New York in 1927. That Nancy may have been there to take this photo tells us of her passion for aviation.
Back on the ground
In 1933, Nancy married Captain W.P.H. Gorringe, who was then serving with the 13th Punjab Regiment in India. Following her marriage, Nancy travelled extensively, perhaps as part of her husband’s career. Her passport is stamped from visits to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq, and Italy, to name a few. Her enthusiam for travel is evident, her experience as a pilot having developed an adventurous disposition.
It isn’t known if Nancy continued flying. Yet this fantastic collection of records from her aviation days still offers an insight into the opportunities available to many women after WWI. Even small collections such as these help to preserve unique stories, which in turn contribute to a wider and more balanced social history of women’s lives.
By Alice Millard, Research Assistant