LOOKING BACK: Colourful life of a Sussex aviator

Joel Hammond ready to take to the skies in his Britannia aircraft
Joel Hammond ready to take to the skies in his Britannia aircraft

Joel Joseph Hammond had a most colourful life, writes Kevin Gordon. He was born at Wanganui, New Zealand, and went to Wellington University.

Joel was not an academic, so in 1906 at the age of 20 he decided to make his fortune and travel.

Ethelwyn Hammond ... 'I am especially fond of motoring, aviation and shark-catching'

Ethelwyn Hammond ... 'I am especially fond of motoring, aviation and shark-catching'

First he went to Alaska to be a trapper but that didn’t work out, so he then travelled to the

Klondike Goldfields in Canada to be a prospector.

He didn’t strike gold but was soon taken up by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus where he worked as a cowboy – his horsemanship bringing him considerable fame.

The Circus travelled throughout Europe and it was probably when it came to England that Joel met his wife to be, 20-year-old Ethelwyn Wilkinson. She was born in Seaford in 1887, the daughter of William and Ada Wilkinson.

Joel Hammond in the uniform of the Royal Flying Corps

Joel Hammond in the uniform of the Royal Flying Corps

Her father was a builder and they lived in the High Street. Ethelwyn and Joel married at St Leonard’s Church, Seaford, on November 19 1909.

Whilst travelling in France, the newly married Joel saw Louis Bleriot’s new aeroplane and being very much an ‘action man’ was soon flying them.

He learned to fly in Reims and on October 4 1910 Hammond was granted an Aviators Certificate by the Royal Aero Club (based at Piccadilly in London)

He was only the 32nd person to be issued with a pilot’s licence in the UK.

A a representative of the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, he took one of the planes, a Bleriot monoplane called Britannia, back home to New Zealand and was the first person to fly in that country and was employed by the Government as their first pilot. He was also one of the first pilots in Australia and in February 1911 flew between Melbourne and Geelong and made the first cross-country flight in that country. He later flew from Perth to Sydney – a remarkable distance bearing in mind that manned flight was just six years old.

During this time Ethelwyn was carried as a passenger and became the first woman in Australia to fly.

On 22nd April 1911 she was interviewed and said, “I always feel quite comfy when I am in the bi-plane with my husband.

“When we start it is only like being in an ordinary passenger lift which has started a little bit quickly.

“It is a delightful experience … I am especially fond of motoring, aviation and shark-catching.”

The land that Joel and Ethelwyn flew onto is now on the site of Sydney Airport.

The following year Ethelwyn and Joel moved back to Sussex and Joel got a job with the Eastbourne Aviation Company.

He was a flying instructor and flew exhibition flights from their airfield which was situated off Lottbridge Drove (just opposite to where the Eastbourne Tesco Superstore is).

He soon became a popular man – Flight Magazine in October 1912 reported that “Mr Hammond has taken a holiday and so has disappointed many people anxious to see his wonderful exhibition flights.”

He obviously kept his impish streak as it is reported that he buzzed golfers by flying over Willingdon Golf Links, that he raced a train and even took a 12-bore shotgun with him to fire into flocks of sea-birds.

In 1914 he was back home in New Zealand demonstrating his Britannia aircraft at the Auckland Exhibition.

His flights were a huge success and people paid to have their photos taken in a mock-up of the aeroplane flying over the city.

I suspect that Ethelwyn was not with him on this occasion because it reported that on 28th January he decided to take a young actress, Esme McLellan of the Royal Pantomime Company, as a passenger.

She was staying in the same hotel as him and afterwards wrote an account of her 20-minutes flight.

This perceived scandal caused the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company to dismiss him and his aeroplane was grounded.

One wonders if Ethelwyn, back in England, ever got to find out.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Hammond returned to London and joined the Royal Flying Corps.

Joel flew on many dangerous missions over battlefields for reconnaissance work. Because of his skills he was soon promoted to Captain.

He was such a talented pilot that when the USA entered the war, he was asked to go to America to promote War Bonds – as a sort of official stunt pilot.

On September 22 1918 he attended the “Fourth Liberty Loan War Bond Drive Air Display” at Greenfield but on his return his Bristol F2B Fighter struck a tree close to the Indianapolis Speedway near Annapolis in Maryland and he was killed.

Thousands of people attended his funeral when the coffin was draped in the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes and a firing squad fired over the cortege.

Captain Hammond was cremated and his remains were stored at the Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, in the mausoleum built for the owner of the speedway, Carl Fisher.

His ashes remain there to this day. At the time of his death, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists Ethelwyn’s address as Airedale House, Seaford.

This was in Cinque Ports Road (now Upper Broad Street)She had moved back home to live with her parents.

Ethelwyn did not remarry. Our very own aviator and shark-catcher died aged 64 in Hailsham in 1951.

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