Indomitable and fearless, Connie Leathart was one of the first women in Britain to be awarded a pilot’s licence and fly over the Alps. But the aviation pioneer, who in her latter years lived quietly in Tynedale, shunned the limelight, remaining an enigma to many until the day she died.
AS a boy Colonel Michael Bell would climb into the rather flimsy wicker seat of Connie Leathart’s Bristol Grasshopper and the two of them would take to the skies to perform a series of death-defying stunts.
“We would do every stunt known to man,” said Colonel Bell. “Nothing was too challenging, but our favourites were falling leaf and loop-the-loop. I felt like I was in the middle of a boys’ own fantasy.
“My father would motor me out to the airfield at Cramlington and then watch rather anxiously as we swooped over his head, laughing with excitement! Con was utterly fearless and I trusted her implicitly. It didn’t enter my head that this rather fragile, very ancient biplane, which seemed to be strung together by string and safety pins, was actually very dangerous.”
Colonel Bell has now reached the grand old age of 100, but the memory still brings a broad smile to his face as he sits reminiscing by the smouldering fire at his home, an old manor house near Langley.
“I remember Con was always there. Our parents were great friends and neighbours. She was much older than me and I hero worshipped her. She was very plain, not much to look at, rather stout and square, but her character overrode any other deficiencies. She didn’t give a hoot about what she looked like and I rather admired that about her.
“The great passions in her life were flying and hunting. She didn’t have the best figure for riding, but she did her best. We rode out together, often, but what I loved best about Con was just sitting with her, by the fire, chatting. She just had to open her mouth and you were mesmerised. She had this rather flat voice, devoid of any emotion, which belied her wonderful sense of humour and warmth. She was funny, feisty and fiercely independent. Nothing scared her.
“Connie was a ferry pilot in the war delivering Spitfires from factories to airfields all around the world including some in very dangerous places. I would have loved to seen the faces of those rather dashing young airmen as they saw the latest Spitfire arrive, swiftly followed by a rather cumbersome Con clambering out the front seat. As a woman she couldn’t become a pilot in the war, but she would have made a great one! I have no doubt about that.”
Colonel Bell’s flying adventures with his great friend Con stopped when he went off to Sandhurst to embark on his army career. But the pair would remain great friends for the rest of their lives and the colonel was a regular visitor at her cottage in Little Bavington. “We would sit drinking whisky and gossiping about the old days. The Spitfire was such an easy plane to fly, she would say rather nonchalantly. I used to take my sons to visit her when they were little and they loved her.
“The last time I saw Con was just a couple of days before she died. She couldn’t speak then, but I saw recognition in her eyes and I am glad she knew I was there. It was hard to see her like that because she was such a vibrant person. When I think of her now it is Con, covered in mud, on her horse or Con in her flying kit, goggles and leather hat, a fierce look of determination in her eyes.”
We would sit drinking wisky and gossiping about the old days. The Spitfire was such an easy plane to fly, she would say rather nonchalantly.
Connie Leathart, with her Eton crop and steadfast gaze, was certainly determined – that much is clear. A pioneer in the world of aviation, she was one of the first 20 British women to be awarded a pilot’s licence aged just 24 – and the first outside London.
She learned to fly at Newcastle Aero Club in 1925 where she reportedly landed upside down on her first solo flight and where her instructor died in a flying accident. But Connie kept her nerve to win her licence in 1927, earning a reputation for fearlessness amid the daredevil ethos of the roaring Twenties.
She paved the way for the likes of Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson who became a great friend. Indeed Connie and Amy, who both served in the Air Transport Auxiliary, were together the night before Amy was lost in an ill-fated wartime mission.
Connie, famously, became one of the first women to fly over the Alps in a De Havilland Tiger Moth. But on the whole she was not someone who went for “firsts” or records. She just relished the sheer fun of flying and hated to draw publicity to herself.
As an invaluable member of the ATA she was posted to Number 15 ferry pool at Hamble to deliver Spitfires from Vickers Supermarine Factory at Southampton, and Airspeed Oxfords from Portsmouth to the RAF. Later she rose to flight captain and flew four-engined bombers such as the Lancaster and Halifax.
In the aftermath of war Connie undertook mercy flights for the United Nations, notably to civil war-torn Greece where, on one occasion, she was asked to deliver food to the starving inhabitants of a remote island. Ignorant of what her purpose was, the islanders were at first somewhat hostile to this visitor from the skies and reportedly advanced on her aircraft in a menacing body.
But in the no-nonsense manner that characterised all she did, Connie got down from her cockpit and told them not to be so silly. Take the food, she told them, and stop making a fuss.
A keen competition flyer, noted for her technical know-how, Connie could have been as famous as that great aviation record-breaker of the Thirties and her great friend, Amy Johnson, but she always shunned the limelight.
Today, poignantly, a concrete slab, marked only with her initials, is the only memorial to mark her grave at Thockrington Church which overlooks the windswept fells near her home. But she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way said relative, Eileen Burn, who lives near Bavington.
“She left precise instructions that she didn’t want any fuss,” said Eileen. “And we honoured that. The slab actually came from her home where she had a swimming pool built in the walled garden. It was the step she used to climb into the pool. I thought that was a lovely touch.”
Indomitable, full of spirit and unfailingly courageous, Connie’s death, at 89, was significant enough to earn a six column obituary in The Times, but to Eileen, the woman who made history was simply “Cousin Con.”
Endearingly eccentric, Connie brushed aside the idea of heating when she built her pool in her back garden and vowed to take a constitutional dip every day, no matter what the weather. “And this wasn’t Greece – it was Northumberland,” said Eileen. “But that was Cousin Con.”
Ruth Leathart, Connie’s mother, was a renowned beauty, tall and willowy, a woman of grace and elegance who must have been a little bemused by her tomboy daughter. “Ruth’s sister Beatrice was my grandmother so I knew Connie from being a small child,” said Eileen. “One of my first memories of Con is her smoking a pipe. I was stunned. I had never seen a woman doing that.”
Connie’s home in Little Bavington was not just her sanctuary. It was a home to rescued donkeys. “There was always a card with a donkey on it on the mantelpiece every Christmas from Cousin Con. She never married or had children but she loved her animals.
“I remember sitting with her by the fire, chatting away, as she smoked her Woodbines and sipped her whisky. She lived in one room which led into a tiny, galley kitchen and there was a large, black range to keep warm. She wasn’t interested in anything as trivial as home interiors or cooking. She would open a couple of tins for supper and that would suffice. But a whisky bottle was always on hand for a welcoming dram.
“I remember taking my son Jamie to see her once when he was little and she gave him a sip of champagne on a silver spoon. He spluttered and said yuk and she thought that was a hoot!”
In her later years Eileen remembers Connie struggling to climb into her Land Rover to follow her beloved hunt until a friend came to the rescue, inventing a special hoist to get her from her wheelchair to the passenger seat.
As she grew up Eileen made sure she visited Cousin Con as often as she could. “I wish now that I had asked more questions about her extraordinary life. It was only after she died and I read the obit in The Times that I realised quite what an amazing life she led.”
I wish now that I had asked more questions about her extraordinary life. It was only after she died and I read the bit in The Times that I realised quite what an amazing life she led.
Amazing is the word. Tap her name into the internet and you’ll find a few tempting snippets, not least a small cutting from the Brisbane Courier, June 17, 1931:
“Miss Constance Leathart, an English business woman and director of the Cramlington Aircraft Company, will shortly undertake a flight around Europe in a Westland and Widgeon machine. Her route will be via Ostend, Brussels, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and Budapest.”
“I don’t remember that but it certainly sounds like something Con would do,” said Eileen. “Nothing would surprise me!”