Carol Baxter calls herself ‘The History Detective’ and writes about real life characters. This book is well researched from details in diaries, news reports and court transcripts. Baxter dedicates the book to Mrs Miller, noting that her many personal accounts made her ‘a writer’s dream and a reader’s delight’.
Mrs Miller, known by the nickname Chubbie, was born Jessie Maude Beveridge in 1901 in Southern Cross, Western Australia where her father had come to open a bank branch. Both her parents were children of vicars and she had a pious, narrow upbringing. Desperate to escape the restrictions of home she married Keith Miller, a journalist, when she was only 18. Losing children and the early deaths of her father and younger brother left Chubbie despondent. Shortly after Tommy’s death, her English aunt invited her for a holiday but her husband said no. Undaunted, Chubbie got a job to finance her trip.
London in the 1920s offered everything a young woman like Chubbie might want. At a party she met RAF Captain Bill Lancaster, an aviator who was planning to fly solo from London to Australia. Chubbie quickly realised that, while Bill might have grand plans, he had no practical sense of how to achieve them, so she suggested he should take her with him if she could raise the necessary funds.
To cut to the chase, Chubbie raised the money and secured sponsorship and they set off in the Red Rose on their ill-fated trip to Australia. Everything that could go wrong, short of a fatal crash, did go wrong: bad weather; engine trouble; lack of spares; and dangerous landing strips. They had left on 14 October 1927 and it was 19 March 1928 when they finally arrived in Darwin. They were well and truly beaten by Bert Hinkler who left London on 7 February and arrived in Darwin after just 16 days, smashing the previous 28 day record.
Chubbie had however, set a record, the longest flight ever by a woman, albeit as a passenger, and she was feted on their publicity tour. Just as their star was waning, Bill and Chubbie met the crew of the Southern Cross and were invited to America where a Hollywood proposal was in the offing. Although this came to nothing they spent the next 5 years in America, at times barely managing to keep their heads above water in the hard times of the Great Depression.
By this time Lancaster and Chubbie were lovers, although this had to be kept secret. It was hard enough for a female pilot to be taken seriously without the scandal that would ensue if their relationship was discovered. Chubbie was dissatisfied with their clandestine relationship and the extent of control he wanted to exercise although they were not married. For while Keith Miller had agreed to a divorce, Lancaster’s wife was a Catholic and would not consider it. When Lancaster took a job with a somewhat shady airline and was away, Chubbie began her autobiography. She was aided by a ghost writer, Charles Haden Clarke, with whom she soon became romantically involved, with fatal consequences.
I was particularly entertained and intrigued by Baxter’s detailed analysis of the trial of Lancaster for the murder of Clarke. The transcript reveals Lancaster might well have been found guilty had the prosecution and police been more thorough. They reconciled when Lancaster was acquitted and remained friends, with Chubbie doing everything she could to find him when he was lost over the Sahara in 1933.
When Lancaster’s plane and remains were found in the early 60s, he was remembered as a great aviation pioneer unlike Chubbie who, although she had been famous (or possibly infamous) in the 1930s, had been forgotten by the time she died in 1972. We should be grateful to Baxter for bringing her amazing life and achievements back to our attention.
Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Released by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: April 2017