Against Prevailing Winds - The Remarkable Life of Beryl Markham

By Jackie Kruper

West with the Night, the autobiography that introduced me to the extraordinary woman, Beryl Markham, chronicles her Kenyan childhood and her historic, solo flight across the Atlantic from east to west. Her captivating memoir details exciting adventures and aviation exploits; it provides insights into her philosophies and general outlook on life. Beryl’s precise observational skills are concisely translated into ornate prose; yet there are no revelations of the “private” self. Was this intentional? Through additional reading and a journey to Kenya, I began my search to learn more about this enigmatic, complex, multi-faceted woman.

Beryl Clutterbuck was born in Leicestershire, England in 1902. By 1904, the British government was offering large tracts of land to lure settlement of the East African Protectorate. In 1906, Beryl’s father, Charles Clutterbuck, a retired British army captain, seized the opportunity to move his family to British East Africa (BEA, later Kenya) with hopes of developing a horse farm and a sawmill. This new, rugged life soon lost its appeal for Clara, his wife. She and Beryl’s older brother, Richard, returned to England in October 1906. Beryl’s mother did not see Beryl for 17 years. As an adult, Beryl would often say she was orphaned at the age of four.

Beryl’s childhood was anything but typical with the stoic, military-like influence of her father and the multi-cultural influences of her early, male playmates from the Luo, Nandi, Kikuyu, and Kipsigis tribes. She spoke Swahili and mixed, tribal dialects. Her unconventional upbringing permitted freedoms to which few females (black or white) could aspire in the white pioneering of Kenya. Attempts to educate Beryl resulted in a string of tutors and governesses; each resigned after brief attempts to tame the happy, active, blond child who explored and hunted almost naked with her black friends. One governess repeatedly beat her. Throughout her life, she remained aloof in the company of women.

She managed to remain at the Nairobi European School for two terms. When she left the Nairobi school, men again dominated her existence - her father, her servants, her playmates. Beryl worshipped her father; no other man could measure up to Charles Clutterbuck in her eyes. As a result of this significant relationship in her early years, Beryl grew to rely on men to guide her throughout her life.

Beryl learned to observe everything around her through hunting and tracking. She met animal kingdom enemies daily; with survival at the forefront, she became imbued with an unnerving sense of fate. She demonstrated physical prowess in any activity she pursued. Her Nandi friends taught her to jump higher than her height. She trained horses with her father; her skill and artfulness in handling horses was considered extraordinary.

Two events in her teen years served to heighten Beryl’s feelings of deprivation and abandonment. Lady Delamere, a neighbor and surrogate mother, died in 1913. And a prolonged drought from 1916 through 1917 caused severe financial reverses for her father’s farming and milling ventures. These reverses were exacerbated by the 1920 revaluation of the rupee. Charles Clutterbuck auctioned his properties and accepted a trainer position in Peru to perhaps escape the stigma of bankruptcy. For Beryl, 18 and newly married to Jock Purves, this was a significant personal loss; she, forevermore, perceived everything as disposable. Already skilled at screening grief, anger, love and joy, she was unable to express emotional loss.

After her father’s departure, she obtained a trainer’s license, the first ever granted to a woman in Kenya, and began working as a horse trainer in earnest. In her best season, 1963-64, she trained 46 winners. By the end of her illustrious equine career, she had trained six winners of the Kenya St. Leger and six winners of the East African Derby, Kenya’s most prestigious racing event.

Perhaps she was waging a private battle with her grief at Denys’ death or survivor’s guilt. Whatever the reason, she hired Campbell Black as her flight instructor, soloed within four weeks of Denys’ death (eight hours logged) in a DH Gypsy Moth identical to Denys’ and earned her A License on July 13, 1931. Her first log book’s initial entry is dated 11 June 1931; it runs through 10 October 1934. Beryl recounted that her first solo “. . .was an emotion one experiences only once in a lifetime mingled with a kind of independence . . . I have never been able to find in any other walk of life . . . I was one with the aeroplane.”

With Tom’s support and instruction, she pursued her commercial rating and flying career with intense dedication. They shared dreams of an aviation partnership as well as personal intimacy beginning in the fall of 1931. Tom accepted a position in England and departed Kenya in March 1932; Beryl did not portend this was the beginning of the end of their relationship.

One month later, Beryl bought a blue and silver Avro Avian IV (tail VP-KAN, 2-seater, 120 hp DH Gypsy II engine). With 127 logged hours, she flew from Nairobi to London’s Heathrow Airport in seven flying days. Considering the nature of navigational aids in 1932, Beryl demonstrated uncanny navigational instincts for this flight of over 6,000 miles. This aviation feat was possibly a maneuver to regain Tom’s attention.

She flew briefly in England then returned to Kenya to become Kenya’s first female commercial pilot (September 1933). Her B License II certified her to fly the Avro Avian, the DH Gypsy Moth and the DH Dragon (twin engine, 130 hp, eight-seater). Earning this certification required that she strip an engine, clean jets and fuel/oil filters, change plugs, adjust magneto points and pass written and oral exams on theory and practice of air law (flight regulations) and navigation.

Immediately upon receipt of her B License, she flew sightseeing tours along the coast at Mombasa. From Nairobi, she flew scouting runs and courier service for safari clients; scouting for game was typically a 10-day trek, and she developed a knack for tracking behemoth tuskers. She contracted to deliver mail and supplies to gold miners at the fields of Nungwe near Lake Victoria. Beryl also carried medical supplies and instituted a forerunner of today’s air ambulance services by transporting patients to hospitals or doctors to patients in the bush. In her three years of freelance piloting in Africa, she covered a quarter million miles over extremely dangerous terrain. In fact, she always carried a small revolver and a vial of morphine.

Beryl had been seeking an aviation challenge while she was building hours with her commercial ventures. Tom had married the actress Florence Desmond in 1935, and although this caused deep emotional pain for Beryl, she clung to hopes of setting aviation records with him. In February of 1936, with plans of persuading Tom to join her in the Cape Race (London-Johannesburg-London), she auctioned her Avian to finance the trip to England. She flew to London in a DH Leopard Moth accompanied by Bror Blixen. Mussolini, at war in North Africa, strictly forbade any female to fly alone over the war zone. This was her farewell to Africa until she was into her fifties. It marked the beginning of novel and divergent chapters in her life.

How and when did planes replace horses as Beryl’s passion? The door to aviation began to open when she met the aviator Denys Finch-Hatton in 1922 at Karen Blixen’s home (author, Out of Africa). Three years later, she met Tom Campbell Black on the roadside as he repaired his plane. He was an accomplished aviator, flight instructor and managing director of Wilson Airways in Nairobi. Beryl described Tom as “. . . the happy tinker who had revived it (the plane) and jostled on his way in a nebula of dust. He . . . tossed me a key to a door I never knew was there.” After their second meeting, she referred to his plane as “that irreverent contrivance of fabric and wires and noise, blustering through the chaste arena of night.”

Beryl married Mansfield Markham in 1927 and traveled to England in December 1928 to await the birth of their child. With the marriage foundering, Beryl, almost immediately after her son’s birth, resumed her relationship with Henry, Duke of Gloucester, in London. They had “shared a romp” in Kenya in the mid-1920s. As Beryl’s indiscretions grew blatant, a spurned Mansfield threatened to name Henry as corespondent in his divorce decree. To prevent the embarrassment of having her son named in Mansfield Markham’s divorce decree, Queen Mary had her legal representatives arrange a small annuity for life for Beryl from the royal coffers. This also freed Mansfield from financial obligation to Beryl. Beryl returned to Kenya.

Denys Finch-Hatton was also in England in 1929 to buy a DeHavilland Gypsy Moth and restore his active flight status. He returned to Kenya in the Moth. Denys and his flying undoubtedly intrigued Beryl. Throughout 1930-31, she often flew as a passenger with Finch-Hatton and began an intimate relationship with him. One account indicates Beryl was to fly with Denys on his fatal flight of May 14, 1931.

Sometime that same year, Beryl was dining with a group of friends that included J. C. Carberry, an accomplished pilot and a wealthy British expatriate living in Kenya and England. He casually dared Beryl to “hop the pond” - fly the Atlantic from east to west. He would finance her voyage and provide a specially built plane if she promised to return it in time for him to compete in the Cape Race. Success with an east-to-west, non-stop flight had been elusive; several pilots, male and female, had perished in the attempt. Jim Mollison flew from Ireland to New Brunswick in 1932 in a DH Puss Moth. Amelia Earhart (1928, New York to Ireland, 15 hours) and Charles Lindbergh (1927, New York to Paris, 27 hours) had flown west to east, the more favorable direction due to prevailing winds. She accepted on the spot; this was the challenge she sought.

With expectations of a late July, early August delivery of the plane, a Percival Vega Gull, she continued to hone her piloting skills as chief pilot for Air Cruisers, Ltd. routinely flying the company’s president in a DH Dragon between London and Paris. Technical difficulties delayed delivery of the plane, which resulted in minimal time for Beryl to transition to the new plane. In addition to flying, Beryl trained as vigorously for the flight as would an athlete for competition and spent hours studying maps with Campbell Black and Jim Mollison.

At 6:50 a.m. on September 4, 1936, she departed the military field at Abingdon, England in the Vega, VP-KCC, dubbed “The Messenger.” It was two-passenger, side-by-side, with a 200hp DH Gypsy Six engine and a cruising speed of 163 mph. It was equipped with a French Ratier variable-pitch prop. Fuel was carried in six tanks, two standard tanks in the wings, and, for long-range, two in the center section, and two in the cabin (255 total gallons, 3800 mile range). There was one gauge for the standard tanks; the extra tanks had no gauges. As each emptied, Beryl was required to switch it off with a petcock and open the next one in a special sequence that maintained the plane’s balance. The panel’s meager display included a Reid & Sigrist turn-and-slip indicator, a Sperry gyro and artificial horizon and an instrument called a `fore and aft reader’ which measured rate of climb. There was no radio.

The Messenger was airborne in 1,800 feet despite the extreme fuel weight. In addition to her food supply of five flasks of coffee, one flask of brandy, a cold chicken and some dried fruits and nuts, Beryl later wrote that, as she set her course in flight, she hummed aloud the mantra Tom had stressed in her early flight training, “Variation west, magnetic best. Variation east, magnetic least”.

She crash-landed on September 5, 1936 in a peat bog on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 21 hours and 35 minutes after take-off. It was later discovered that one tank was three-quarters full; the crash was a result of carburetor ice. Enough fuel remained to have reached New York, the original destination.

Unscathed save for a gash on her forehead, Beryl greeted crowds of well wishers in Halifax and co-piloted a Beech Staggerwing to Long Island’s Floyd Bennett Field the next day. She was feted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and honored by Mayor LaGuardia. She met with executives from Paramount Pictures and contracted to teach flying techniques. Days after her triumphant flight, she received word that Tom Campbell Black had been killed when an arriving plane sliced through the canopy of his Mew Gull as he waited to depart Speke, England. Beryl sailed to England.

In July 1937, Beryl arrived in Los Angeles where she worked at fulfilling her contract with Paramount. About this time, she also met Raoul Schumacher; he would become her third husband in 1942. They explored the American southwest, sailed to Melbourne and on to Cape Town. By 1939, they returned to California. Sometime in 1940-41, they announced that Beryl had written her memoir, West with the Night, which she dedicated to her father. Houghton Mifflin published the book in May 1942. Receiving critical acclaim, it made 13 best seller lists including the New York Times.

In the late 1940’s, Beryl returned to Kenya to regain her status as a reputable trainer. She never again piloted a plane.

Throughout her life, Beryl had total disregard for money and never concerned herself with managing finances. Despite an apparently glamorous life, she was always dependent on the kindness and largesse of her friends. Her instinct was to survive no matter the cost to others. In 1981, she was brutally beaten when her rent-free bungalow at Ngong Racecourse was burglarized. Most of her few possessions and memorabilia were stolen. Beryl’s last years were a threadbare existence.

Her father, the most significant man in her life, died in 1957. Her only child, Gervase Markham, died at the age of 42 in a car accident in Paris; Beryl did not attend the funeral. Gervase left two daughters, Fleur and Valery.

East African pilot G. D. Fleming believed that, with the exception of Jean Batten, Beryl was the finest woman pilot in the British Empire. “I never saw her the worse for wear - even after a ten-hour flight…her navigation was uncanny and she could find her way anywhere. I never saw her make a poor landing even in really filthy weather.”

When Beryl departed on her transatlantic flight, she quietly whispered twende tu (I am going). As a result of complications following hip surgery, she quietly departed this earth on August 4, 1986 in a Nairobi hospital; she was 83. Her cremated remains were scattered over the Ngong Racecourse. A memorial service was held on September 4, 1986 in London honoring Beryl’s life and commemorating the 50th anniversary of her epic flight.

When I visited Nairobi’s Wilson Airport in 1992, no one in the pilots’ lounge/FBO knew of Beryl. There were neither photos nor plaques to honor this daughter and pilot of Africa. Ngong Racecourse looked weary and timeworn with Beryl’s former bungalow nestled in the cool shade of a copse of large trees. There was a poignant sadness in what I failed to find.

Originally published in Woman Pilot • January/February 2000

About the Author

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, Illinois

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