One of the pilots’ log books that Croydon Airport Society has in its collection has a strange final entry. The log book is a copy of Captain Raymond Hinchliffe’s original logbook which was published by his daughter in 1986. The last entry is in the handwriting of Mrs Emilie Hinchliffe, his wife, dated to 13 March 1928 at 08.35 with himself and E. Mackay as a passenger. It comprises messages received through Mrs Garrett, spiritualist medium, and Mrs Egerton:
Left Cranwell 8.35am. Weather not too bad. Passed over Waterford 11.30. Left land at Mizenhead 1.30pm. Very cloudy and foggy. Flew over clouds. Our spirits were high. It was not until 10pm that we met bad weather. Since leaving the Irish coast had flown in WNW direction. At 10pm changed a little more North. Met terrible gale. Also back firing, through one plug missing. The gale became so bad that at midnight I decided to change my course to get out of gale, and went straight South.
Gale broke left strut and right strut cracked. Fabric torn. At 1am we knew it would be impossible to get across through the terrible gale. Decided to try and make for the Azores. But from 1am on, I knew that everything was finished. E. became unconscious. I flew due South from 1 until 3am trying to find Azores in time, but had to come down on water at 3.10am within sight of an island (Azores). Machine was buffeted about. I left machine and tried to swim to land, but failed.
As you may gather from the mention of the spiritualist medium Mrs Garrett and Mrs Egerton, this message seemed to be from ‘beyond the grave’ and given to Emilie after Hinchliffe and his passenger had disappeared on a record breaking attempt to cross the Atlantic. This flight did not take off from Croydon but Hinchillfe had operated out of Croydon since it had become the international civil airport in 1919 and the story does touch upon Croydon. To understand the supposed messages further we need to know more about Hinchliffe himself, the popularity of the spiritualist movement in the 1920s and the impact these contacts with dead airmen had
Raymond Hinchliffe was born in 1894, he attended Liverpool University and joined the Territorial Army in 1912-13. He fought in WW1 from August 1914 but in 1916 asked to be transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service, where he remained until the end of the war, fighting in dogfights and bombing raids against the enemy from a base in France in 1918. There he was shot down with a head wound in June but was back in the air in August and training new pilots. By the end of the war he had lost sight in one eye and the senses of taste and smell.
|Postcard in the collection of Croydon Airport Society|
After WW1 Hinchliffe moved into civil aviation and was of the pilots to form KLM (Royal Dutch Airline), where he was chief pilot. He then became chief pilot for Daimler Airways and was based at Croydon from 1923, where he moved to Instone Airways who were amalgamated into Imperial Airways in 1924. In the meantime Hinchliffe had married Emilie Gallisien, a Dutch secretary, and they settled in Croydon in 1923.
Hinchliffe was was a chief pilot for Imperial Airways but wanted more of a challenge in pioneering aviation routes. In 1927 American Charles Levine wanted to attempt the trans Atlantic route with Hinchliffe but the pair soon fell out over Levine’s poor maintenance, amongst other issues, of his airplane. The rich heiress, pilot and actress Elsie Mackay then offered Hinchliffe a free reign, a good fee and generous life insurance to provide for his wife and 2 daughters in the event of disaster if he would co-pilot a flight across the Atlantic with her. Hinchliffe bought a Stinson SM-1 Detroiter and named it the Endeavour. The deal was made in secrecy as Elsie’s father Lord Inchcape would stop her going if all was known. This has added to some speculation that Elsie pressurised Hinchliffe into flying in March rather than waiting for better weather in April or May or even that the pair were lovers. They set off on 13 March 1928 and were last seen flying over Ireland.
That night, one of Hinchliffe’s friends from the war, a Colonel Henderson, was on a P&O liner in the South Atlantic and had vision of ‘Hinch’ in his cabin repeating over and over again “Hendy what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I’ve got this woman with me and I’m lost”. Henderson found out 3 days later when he docked that Hinchliffe, Elsie Mackay and their plane were lost. Although Mackay had paid for the life insurance, the cheque had not cleared and so Emilie and her young daughters were potentially left penniless.
Some of the information on the seances and evidence below is from John G. Fuller’s book The Airmen Who Would Not Die, which Joan Hinchliffe describes as ‘100% accurate’ in terms of facts though interpretation of them may differ. Fuller’s book appears to show various accounts from different people of contact with the dead in the case of the R101 airship crash, the leap of Alfred Lowenstein from a plane that had taken off from Croydon Airport and the Hinchliffe / Mackay flight. Certainly the messages convinced many people, not least Emilie and later their daughter. It should be said that Fuller’s book argues for the case of the of the spiritualists and so is heavily weighted in their favour.
Emilie’s first encounter with these messages come in the form of a letter from an amateur psychic Beatrice Egerton (or Earl) and Arthur Conan-Doyle via her solicitor in Croydon. Earl used a Ouija board mainly to communicate with her son who had died in the war but received a message on 31 March saying ‘I was drowned with Elsie Mackay’ and other messages asking from a Hinchliffe to contact his wife. A few days letter Egerton got more messages from Hinchliffe and this time he gave her the address of his solicitors in Croydon and wife’s name. Convinced that Emilie Hinchliffe would not believe her alone, Egerton contacted Conan-Doyle, the famous writer and member of the spiritualist movement, and recounted the story to him so he could act as an intermediary. Conan-Doyle brokered the meeting between Emilie and the amateur medium, who met on 19 May and had her first direct messaged from Hinchliffe.
Seances tend to be considered a Victorian phenomenon and form a motif in gothic depictions of nineteenth-century culture – see the recent TV series Penny Dreadful for example. However, spiritualism as a movement was its height in terms of membership of the National Spiritual Union as well as the holding of seances with mediums in the aftermath of World War One. The 1920s and 30s saw many people believing in and trying to contact loved ones they had lost in WW1 and following flu epidemic of 1919. One of the best sources for information on this area is the Harry Price archive at the University of London, which comprises Price’s personal papers, press cuttings, films and photographs as well as books and artefacts. Price, a business entrepreneur, photographer and magician, wanted to know if there was an afterlife and so rigorously tested mediums, though he himself falsified his own history and some phenomena. He established the National Laboratory for Psychical Research.
It seems that Price could not make up his mind whether Eileen Garrett was a fraud or not. Garrett was a fashionable member of the (mainly) Irish literati based in London and in her 30s in 1928. She knew George Barnard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce as well as D. H. Lawrence and some of the ‘Bloomsbury’ set. Garrett had episodes of telepathy and clairvoyance and submitted herself to Price’s and other peoples’ tests. Although she was not a member of the spiritualist union, Garnett often gave sessions at the London Spiritualist Alliance and spoke through the voice of an ‘oriental’ spirit Uvani, who acted as an intermediary with the spirit world. Emilie wished to see if Hinchliffe would speak through another medium and Conan-Doyle recommended Garrett as a genuine clairvoyant. Her identity anonymous, Emilie visited Garrett on 22 May and took down Garrett’s messages, in shorthand (Emilie had been a secretary and later worked for Lloyd-George). What she heard shook her belief system to the core as Emilie wrote down the details of Hinchliffe’s supposed course, gave her details of a photograph of Joan (their daughter) that he carried and told her were a box of studs and documents could be found that she had mislaid. This information later apparently checked out when Emilie got home.
Eventually, after legal wrangling and public pressure in the form of newspaper support for the widow and her daughters, as well as further publicity from the mediums’ messages and high profile support of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Emilie finally received the life insurance that had been promised to Hinchliffe by Elsie Mackay. Perhaps in her grief and economic uncertainty the messages ‘from beyond’ offered more and more support to an increasingly desperate Emilie. Emile was so convinced by the mediums that Hinchliffe got as far as the Azores and, after a series of public lectures, wrote The Return of Captain Hinchliffe (1930).
Wheels belonging to the plane were washed up on the coast of Donegal in December 1928. This would appear to dispute the message ‘from beyond the grave’ that the pair had reached the Azores. However, this evidence did not dissuade EmilIe and she requested that after her death, her ashes should be scattered over the sea near to Corvu, the northern most point of the Azores that Eileen Garrett had referred to in her ‘conversation’ with Hinchliffe, so her physical remains could be united with those of her husband’s. This was carried out in 1982.
Jayne Baldwin (2008), West over the Waves. The Final Flight of Elsie Mackay. G. C. Books Ltd.
John G. Fuller (1979), The Airmen Who Would Not Die, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Derek O’Connor, ‘The Indomitable Mr Hinchliffe’, Aeroplane, September 2008, 62-66.
Joan Hinchliffe (1986), W. G. R. Hinchliffe – Aviator.