Joan Parsons

Joan Parsons was born in Parkeston, Dorset on 8th October 1906, the daughter of Rev. Randolph Cecil Parsons, a descendant of the 2nd Earl of Rosse. Little is known of Joan’s early life but the family came to live at 19 Avenue Road, Leamington, when her father retired from his last parish in Warwickshire. What is known is that Joan was a musician and piano teacher. In the early 1930’s advertisements appeared in the Leamington Spa Courier as follows: “MISS JOAN PARSONS, L.R.A.M. (PIANISTE). Pupil of Mr Evelyn Howard-Jones. Is open to Public and Private Engagement and home visits.”

The 1930s were heady, enticing days for would-be aviators. When an inheritance came Miss Parsons’ way, she used it to learn to fly at Bonniksen’s Aerodrome in Harbury Lane, gaining her Royal Aero Club Aviation Certificate in September 1933. Five years later, Joan spent more of her inheritance on a Miles Sparrow Hawk plane, with the aim of flying to Cape Town.  Having told her parents she intended to visit friends in Reading, on 7th May she embarked on her epic journey across Europe and Africa.

Her outward flight took her over France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, but it was not without problems. A crash-landing heading towards Cape Town on 24th May meant that the plane had to be dismantled, and pilot and plane loaded into a railway wagon for a 20-hour train journey to Cape Town, where it took nearly 5 weeks to rebuild the plane.

Miss Parsons’ flight home started on 1 July 1938, as she retraced the route of her outward trip. On 4th July she made a forced landing at Uga, a village where she bathed in the river, watched by local children. On reaching Egypt, she took a different route home, via Libya and Tunisia, Sardinia and France.

The intrepid Miss Parsons landed at Reading on 9th August, but bad weather prevented her immediate return to Leamington where a civic reception was planned. She finally arrived home on 11th August and so ended her epic journey.

In August 1939 Joan gave a 20-minute interview on Midlands Radio BBC about her daring feat.

During the 2nd World War Miss Parsons spent a brief time, a mere month, in the Air Transport Auxiliary delivering new planes. She hit the local headlines once more in May 1940, when The Leamington Courier reported a letter she had written to makers of Spa Water Toffee, M S Moore & Co, telling them that she lived on the toffee throughout her epic flight, and giving Moore & Co permission to use her name in advertisements if they wished, as she believed RAF airmen flying night raids in Europe would benefit from a supply of the toffee.

Joan hit the headlines again in November 1943, when she appeared in Court: “Joan Parsons, was fined £5 to-day at Leamington, Warwickshire, for failing to comply with a Ministry of National Service direction to work in an aircraft factory.”  It appeared that after being at a factory bench for two days, Miss Parsons wrote to the firm complaining that she had been molested by a labourer. (He tickled her under the arm.) This so played on her nerves that she could not continue, and she left, declining to return for fear of further aggression. The letter was signed, “Joan Parsons, Leamington’s airwoman of African fame.”

The complaint was considered grossly exaggerated. The labourer was a reputable workman, who was trying to keep her happy. In evidence, Miss Parsons said her father was a clergyman and the labourer was a “rough man” who irritated her and was very objectionable. She added that she had been treated very well abroad, and in Africa she had been looked on as a goddess.  The Goddess, as reported above, was fined £5. Miss Parsons resumed advertising music tuition in the local press, until January 1947, when she moved to 12 Addicott Road, Weston Super Mare.  She continued to advertise and teach music, dying at Addicot Road on 20th September 1989, shortly before her 83rd birthday.

Barry Franklin