One of the early airlines to operate scheduled European flights from North-East London and on the borders of Essex (Stapleford Aerodrome to be exact) flourished from 1934 to 1939. It was known as Hillman Airways and was started by a bus and coach operator in the region, Edward Henry Hillman. They operated twin-engine DH Rapides and Dragons and one of their regular destinations was Paris. And it was on one of these flights that a tragic event occurred which, although we believe we know the reason behind it, we can never be sure why it happened as it did.
It occurred on February 21st 1935. The 10am flight to Paris with Captain John Kirton at the controls was scheduled to carry two American sisters, Jane and Elizabeth du Bois and four friends. Kirton was already acquainted with them as he had flown them to Stapleford from Le Bourget two days before.
However, when the sisters, daughters of the American Consul General in Naples, arrived at Kings Cross, where they would be driven to Stapleford in one of Hillman’s coaches, they informed the agent that they would be the only passengers on the flight and handed over the full amount of £21. They had only one piece of baggage between them.
The girls sat in the rear two seats of the de Havilland Dragon and soon the aircraft was turning south for Paris. Not long after take-off the pilot was asked if he could close the door between the cabin and cockpit. As the plane was experiencing a fair amount of turbulence and there was no cabin attendant in those days, he asked them to wait until he could attend to it.
The aircraft was crossing the English Channel before Kirton was again able to check up on his passengers. To his horror he discovered the cabin was empty and the fuselage door loose. Upon inspection, it was found that it was only being held closed by the force of the slipstream. He could not leave his seat, so he radioed the nearest airport which was Croydon. He informed them of the situation and turned around to head back to Stapleford.
Meanwhile on the ground, two gas fitters, George Watling and Tom Collins were working on a bungalow in Park Drive, Upminster, when they noticed an object fall from the sky after hearing an aircraft go overhead. After a short search, they discovered the bodies of two young girls lying face-downwards in Rushmere Avenue. They were still holding on to each other.
The police launched an investigation. A search of the aircraft cabin revealed a suitcase, two handbags, two pairs of gloves, a shoe, cigarettes, sealed letters and an empty flask of whisky. It was the contents of the letters and one in particular that led the investigation to the conclusion that the young women had committed suicide. One letter, written jointly by both women to their parents was read out at the inquest.
We have never explained things to you as we should. There has always been so much doubt and worry. You have been kind to us and forgiven as much and you will forgive us this as you must have felt a little of what we did when we heard of the flying boat crashing up.
Do you remember Charles telling us about corridors? The one before us seems pretty straight. Charles was engaged to another girl, but he was going to break it off and we should have been married this summer probably. There will never be anyone else for me.
We heard of his death in Paris on Monday, quite casually. We came to London the next morning. We did not want to see anyone. Comfort mother with all your strength.
I think she will feel it was right as we do. Our love is with you now, God Bless You.
Betty and Jane”
The newspapers traced the flying boat crash to one that had been reported a week earlier in Sicily in which Flying Officer John “Charles” Forbes and Flight Lieutenant Henry L. Beatty had been killed along with seven others.
Jane, 20, and Elizabeth, 23, were both cremated in London on the same day as the inquest verdict of suicide.