It is timely that Hull’s aviation heroine Amy Johnson is being celebrated during 2016. Not only is this year the 75th anniversary of her death, but the build-up to next year’s City of Culture is gathering pace, while the future for the city’s engineering industry looks bright as Siemens continues to recruit more than 1,000 jobs at its new wind turbine plant at Alexandra Dock.
The Amy Johnson Festival aims to raise awareness of the Hull-born aviator’s achievements as an engineer and as a woman of her time. It promises to be a unique marriage between science and culture, using art, music, theatre, sculpture and poetry both to open up new opportunities for the city’s creative artists, and also to encourage young women to consider engineering and the sciences as career choices.
This year’s celebration is not before time – to date, even though Johnson is well-recognised as one of Hull’s most famous and beloved cultural icons, the two main ‘tributes’ to her have been a statue outside the Prospect Centre that looks like it’s made out of soap, and a school that was arguably known more for its expulsion rate than its educational excellence before it finally closed in 2001. Hopefully the Amy Johnson Festival will redress the balance, and a new generation will be inspired by her vision, determination and sense of adventure.
Johnson was, of course, very much a woman in the man’s world of aviation in the early 20th century. In 1932, the year after her record-breaking flight to Australia, she said: “We women are just now on the threshold of another career which has so far been regarded as the strict province of man – that of aeronautical engineering.”
More than 80 years on, how have things changed? There are more women in engineering nowadays, but they are still vastly outnumbered, and the industry is still seen as a male-dominated environment. If the renewed interest in Amy Johnson inspires more young women to apply for jobs at the Siemens development, or study for qualifications in the sciences, that would be an incredibly positive outcome. Art for science’s sake, if you will.
But Johnson’s version of feminism was not just to tell women to shout as loud as the men; her approach was far more subtle. “To women who may sometimes feel they are not being given their dues I would like to say this: we should try not to start off in a spirit of resentfulness and aggression. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We argue and try to convince that we are just as good as any man and we are amazed when our belligerent tactics go unrewarded, when we fail to get the job and complain bitterly of inequality and injustice. Instead we should be first of all sure of ourselves on the technical side of the job and spend the rest of our energies putting ourselves over. Women are noted for talking. Well, remember that it is said that leadership gravitates to the man who can talk. Lowell Thomas once said in a speech – and how truly – that the man who can speak acceptably is usually given credit for an ability out of all proportion to what he possesses. You need not wait for an after dinner speech to try this out – try it at interviews.”
Johnson did not hold back in her passionate views on equality, and her advice to other women was down-to-earth, and practical – typical Hull attributes, some would say. “The only argument,” said Johnson, “that men can bring forward against woman’s intrusion is that of physical strength, but this seems to me very poor grounds for establishing and retaining a monopoly. After all, physical strength is purely relative – there are some women stronger than some men. In engineering there are many jobs beyond a man’s strength. What does he do? He fetches an instrument. What did I do when I found a job beyond my strength? At first I used to fetch a real man engineer, and if he couldn’t do the job he’d fetch some tool that would. I soon learned that it saved time to fetch the tool right away.”
One of the major themes of this year’s festival is ‘A Moth for Amy’, which is inspired by the series of light aircraft designed by Geoffrey de Havilland. He was a pioneering engineer, designer and manufacturer, and also a lepidopterist from a very early age. It was his passion for moths that led him to name many of his planes after the insects. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Moths were the most common civil aircraft flying in Britain, and during that time every light aircraft flying in the UK was commonly referred to as a ‘Moth’, regardless if it was de Havilland-built or not. Amy Johnson famously flew to Australia in a second-hand Gipsy Moth that she called Jason, and flew several other Moths during her career.
The festival organisers hope the Moths will have similar appeal to the Larkin Toads, which captured the public’s imagination in 2010. Like the Toads, the Moths are large fibreglass sculptures painted in colourful designs by a host of local artists, and they will be displayed at locations across Hull, and beyond, with the Moth Trail appearing from July 1 this year. The organisers said they had received almost 200 submissions from artists and, after much deliberation, they managed to shortlist them down to 130.
The festival programme will also go into schools, exploring the main themes across many curriculum areas, but with a particular focus on enthusing girls about careers in engineering. They surely will not fail to be inspired by Johnson’s drive and determination. To her, succeeding in a man’s world was about far more than just being able to do the same job. The very fight to be equal was character-building, as she once said: “I would say that women have such a struggle and uphill fight that by the time they have acquired the technical skill equal to a man’s, they have acquired something a great deal more valuable and of vast potential importance to their future employer – personality.”
Through a series of major events, exhibitions and performances – such as Da Vinci Engineered, an exhibition that juxtaposes models of Leonardo da Vinci’s flight machines with works by contemporary artists; a new show by Hull’s Ensemble 52; a telematic music performance between Hull and Kurdistan; more than 12 new commissions re-telling Amy’s story for today’s media-savvy generation; and even a spectacular weekend of international kite-flying at Beverley Racecourse – this year’s festival aims to explore a host of wider themes. These include the role of modern commercial aviation, as well as reflections on culture, society and politics in 1930 – and how things may or may not have changed today.
Johnson would no doubt have had strong opinions on modern technology; in the 1930s she said she found it “improbable” that man would ever succumb to “the machine”, adding that, “Human emotions will always rise superior to any degree of mechanisation, and we must retain the machine as a servant to do ‘the chores’ of life, leaving us, freedom to leisure, pleasure and High Thought.”
However, in this world of modern technology, it could be argued that many of us are still slaves to the machine – perhaps more so than ever before, as our computerised gadgets do our thinking for us. Engineering is about being one step ahead of this, though; engineers are the geniuses behind the technology we take for granted every day. There may indeed still be many barriers to women being equal in the industry today, but the barriers, obstacles and prejudice Johnson faced in the 1930s only served to fuel the fire of her determination.
“Progress in aviation, as in every sphere, is due to the people who believe nothing to be impossible. The course of ease is to say it cannot be done. The sceptics actually do much to further progress – they hold a pistol at the head of the dreamer and the optimist, challenging them to bring their dreams to reality.”
This year’s festival, which promises to be the perfect curtain-raiser to the 2017 City of Culture extravaganza, is certainly a challenge to artists and creators in Hull – here’s hoping it will leave a lasting legacy for both the arts and the sciences across the city.
The quotes from Amy Johnson are taken from The Woman Engineer, the magazine of The Women’s Engineering Society, of which Johnson was president between 1935–1937.
Words Sam Hawcroft