William Lancaster – De De Cottage
Captain William Newton “Bill” Lancaster (14 February 1898 – 20 April 1933, was a pioneering British aviator. He was born in England, but immigrated to Australia where he joined the Australian flying corps in 1916. He returned to England and joined the RAF after World War One, marrying Annie Maude Besant in 1919 and serving in India during the 1920s. (1) In 1927 Lancaster transferred to the RAF reserves and continued to hold a commission until 1930. (3) (4) He appears to have started up the Red Rose Garage in Wendover in 1923.
He decided to make a name for himself by flying from England to Australia and made this flight in an Avro Avian called “Red Rose”, with an Australian female flyer, Jessie “Chubbie” Miller who helped to finance the flight to Australia. (5) It was at the time one of the longest flights made in such a small aircraft—although they were overtaken en route by Bert Hinkler in another Avian—and the first England-Australia flight by a woman. (6) A huge crowd greeted them on arrival in Darwin, and on their subsequent tour around Australia. (7)
Lancaster and Miller both moved to the USA in 1928 on the promise of a Hollywood film which was never made. Lancaster then made a living selling British aero engines. (1)
A tempestuous relationship ensued (not without scandal, since Lancaster was already married). In 1932, Lancaster had been in Mexico looking for work. At the same time, Haden Clarke, a male American writer, had been living in Lancaster and Miller’s Florida home in order to assist Miller’s writing of her autobiography. Clarke and Miller had developed a relationship in Lancaster’s absence, and Clarke convinced Miller to leave Lancaster and marry him instead. Upon receipt of this news, Lancaster returned promptly to Florida.
On 20 April, Clarke was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. (1) Despite the facts that the gun was Lancaster’s, and that he admitted forging suicide notes found at the scene (one addressed to Lancaster and another to Miller), forensic evidence provided by the prosecution was confusing to the jury. Lancaster was acquitted of murder in just short of 5 hours deliberation. Although the evidence was in doubt, a main factor in Lancaster’s acquittal was his calm, straightforward, gentlemanly demeanour in the courtroom. Public opinion may also have played its part in influencing the jury; indeed, at one point the behaviour of those in gallery became so unruly (cheering for Lancaster), that Judge Atkinson interrupted with a firm, “This is not a vaudeville show! (5) (10)
After the trial, Lancaster and Miller returned to England. Broke and friendless, Lancaster decided to attempt the hotly contested England-to-South Africa speed record. Purchasing the Avro Avian Southern Cross Minor, he departed England on 11 April 1933. As the Avian was considerably slower than other aircraft of the time, Lancaster would have to make very short stops and get very little sleep to have any hope of achieving the record. (1) (5)
Having got lost several times, having not slept for 30 hours and being ten hours behind his intended time, Lancaster departed from Reggane on the evening of 12 April to make a 750 mi night crossing of the Sahara. The Avian’s engine failed after less than an hour’s flying, and he crash-landed in the desert far north of his expected flight path. Relatively uninjured and occasionally firing flares he awaited rescue. Searches by aircraft however were too far to the south, and a car searching from Reggane was also unsuccessful, and he died eight days later, on 20 April 1933. The crash site was discovered by French troops on 12 February 1962. Lancaster’s body had been mummified, and his diary and personal effects had survived intact. The diary was returned to Miller, who allowed it to be published. (5)
(1) Terry Gwynn-Jones Aviation History January 2000 – Online at
(2) The London Gazette: no. 32325. p. 3934. 17 May 1921.
(3) The London Gazette: no. 33155. p. 2863. 27 April 1926.
(4) The London Gazette: no. 33607. p. 3157. 20 May 1930.
(5) Love is in the Air – Times Online Records Territory
(6) Photo of crowd in Canberra, National Archives of Australia
(7) History of American Women’s Aviation Feats – 1929 Women’s Air Race: Aviation (8) History: Wings Over Kansas.
(9) Evans, Colin (2003). A Question of Evidence: The Casebook of Great Forensic Controversies, from Napoleon to O.J. p. 67. ISBN 0-471-44014-0.
(10) Great American Trials Vol 1