Against Prevailing Winds — The Remarkable Life of Beryl Markham
by Jackie Kruper
West with the Night, the autobiography that introduced me to the
extraordinary woman, Beryl Markham,
chronicles her Kenyan childhood and her historic, solo flight across the
Atlantic from east to west. Her captivating memoir details exciting
adventures and aviation exploits; it provides insights into her
philosophies and general outlook on life. Beryl's precise observational
skills are concisely translated into ornate prose; yet there are no
revelations of the "private" self. Was this intentional? Through
additional reading and a journey to Kenya, I began my search to learn more
about this enigmatic, complex, multi-faceted woman.
Beryl Clutterbuck was born in Leicestershire, England in 1902. By 1904,
the British government was offering large tracts of land to lure
settlement of the East African Protectorate. In 1906, Beryl's father,
Charles Clutterbuck, a retired British army captain, seized the
opportunity to move his family to British East Africa (BEA, later Kenya)
with hopes of developing a horse farm and a sawmill. This new, rugged life
soon lost its appeal for Clara, his wife. She and Beryl's older brother,
Richard, returned to England in October 1906. Beryl's mother did not see
Beryl for 17 years. As an adult, Beryl would often say she was orphaned at
the age of four.
Beryl's childhood was anything but typical with the stoic, military-like
influence of her father and the multi-cultural influences of her early,
male playmates from the Luo, Nandi, Kikuyu, and Kipsigis tribes. She spoke
Swahili and mixed, tribal dialects. Her unconventional upbringing
permitted freedoms to which few females (black or white) could aspire in
the white pioneering of Kenya. Attempts to educate Beryl resulted in a
string of tutors and governesses; each resigned after brief attempts to
tame the happy, active, blond child who explored and hunted almost naked
with her black friends. One governess repeatedly beat her. Throughout her
life, she remained aloof in the company of women.
She managed to remain at the Nairobi European School for two terms. When
she left the Nairobi school, men again dominated her existence — her
father, her servants, her playmates. Beryl worshipped her father; no other
man could measure up to Charles Clutterbuck in her eyes. As a result of
this significant relationship in her early years, Beryl grew to rely on
men to guide her throughout her life.
Beryl learned to observe everything around her through hunting and
tracking. She met animal kingdom enemies daily; with survival at the
forefront, she became imbued with an unnerving sense of fate. She
demonstrated physical prowess in any activity she pursued. Her Nandi
friends taught her to jump higher than her height. She trained horses with
her father; her skill and artfulness in handling horses was considered
Two events in her teen years served to heighten Beryl's feelings of
deprivation and abandonment. Lady Delamere, a neighbor and surrogate
mother, died in 1913. And a prolonged drought from 1916 through 1917
caused severe financial reverses for her father's farming and milling
ventures. These reverses were exacerbated by the 1920 revaluation of the
rupee. Charles Clutterbuck auctioned his properties and accepted a trainer
position in Peru to perhaps escape the stigma of bankruptcy. For Beryl, 18
and newly married to Jock Purves, this was a significant personal loss;
she, forevermore, perceived everything as disposable. Already skilled at
screening grief, anger, love and joy, she was unable to express emotional
After her father's departure, she obtained a trainer's license, the first
ever granted to a woman in Kenya, and began working as a horse trainer in
earnest. In her best season, 1963-64, she trained 46 winners. By the end
of her illustrious equine career, she had trained six winners of the Kenya
St. Leger and six winners of the East African Derby, Kenya's most
prestigious racing event.
doubtedly intrigued Beryl. Throughout 1930-31, she often flew as a
passenger with Finch-Hatton and began an intimate relationship with him.
One account indicates Beryl was to fly with Denys on his fatal flight of
May 14, 1931.
Perhaps she was waging a private battle with her grief at Denys' death or
survivor's guilt. Whatever the reason, she hired Campbell Black as her
flight instructor, soloed within four weeks of Denys' death (eight hours
logged) in a DH Gypsy Moth identical to Denys' and earned her A License on
July 13, 1931. Her first log book's initial entry is dated 11 June 1931;
it runs through 10 October 1934. Beryl recounted that her first solo ". .
.was an emotion one experiences only once in a lifetime mingled with a
kind of independence . . . I have never been able to find in any other
walk of life . . . I was one with the aeroplane."
With Tom's support and instruction, she pursued her commercial rating and
flying career with intense dedication. They shared dreams of an aviation
partnership as well as personal intimacy beginning in the fall of 1931.
Tom accepted a position in England and departed Kenya in March 1932; Beryl
did not portend this was the beginning of the end of their relationship.
One month later, Beryl bought a blue and silver Avro Avian IV (tail
VP-KAN, 2-seater, 120 hp DH Gypsy II engine). With 127 logged hours, she
flew from Nairobi to London's Heathrow Airport in seven flying days.
Considering the nature of navigational aids in 1932, Beryl demonstrated
uncanny navigational instincts for this flight of over 6,000 miles. This
aviation feat was possibly a maneuver to regain Tom's attention.
She flew briefly in England then returned to Kenya to become Kenya's first
female commercial pilot (September 1933). Her B License II certified her
to fly the Avro Avian, the DH Gypsy Moth and the DH Dragon (twin engine,
130 hp, eight-seater). Earning this certification required that she strip
an engine, clean jets and fuel/oil filters, change plugs, adjust magneto
points and pass written and oral exams on theory and practice of air law
(flight regulations) and navigation.
Immediately upon receipt of her B License, she flew sightseeing tours
along the coast at Mombasa. From Nairobi, she flew scouting runs and
courier service for safari clients; scouting for game was typically a
10-day trek, and she developed a knack for tracking behemoth tuskers. She
contracted to deliver mail and supplies to gold miners at the fields of
Nungwe near Lake Victoria. Beryl also carried medical supplies and
instituted a forerunner of today's air ambulance services by transporting
patients to hospitals or doctors to patients in the bush. In her three
years of freelance piloting in Africa, she covered a quarter million miles
over extremely dangerous terrain. In fact, she always carried a small
revolver and a vial of morphine.
Beryl had been seeking an aviation challenge while she was building hours
with her commercial ventures. Tom had married the actress Florence Desmond
in 1935, and although this caused deep emotional pain for Beryl, she clung
to hopes of setting aviation records with him. In February of 1936, with
plans of persuading Tom to join her in the Cape Race
(London-Johannesburg-London), she auctioned her Avian to finance
How and when did planes replace horses as Beryl's passion? The door to
aviation began to open when she met the aviator Denys Finch-
Hatton in 1922 at Karen Blixen's home (author, Out of Africa). Three years
later, she met Tom Campbell Black on the roadside as he repaired his
plane. He was an accomplished aviator, flight instructor and managing
director of Wilson Airways in Nairobi. Beryl described Tom as ". . . the
happy tinker who had revived it (the plane) and jostled on his way in a
nebula of dust. He . . . tossed me a key to a door I never knew was
there." After their second meeting, she referred to his plane as "that
irreverent contrivance of fabric and wires and noise, blustering through
the chaste arena of night."
Beryl married Mansfield Markham in 1927 and traveled to England in
December 1928 to await the birth of their child. With the marriage
foundering, Beryl, almost immediately after her son's birth, resumed her
relationship with Henry, Duke of Gloucester, in London. They had "shared a
romp" in Kenya in the mid-1920s. As Beryl's indiscretions grew blatant, a
spurned Mansfield threatened to name Henry as corespondent in his divorce
decree. To prevent the embarrassment of having her son named in Mansfield
Markham's divorce decree, Queen Mary had her legal representatives arrange
a small annuity for life for Beryl from the royal coffers. This also freed
Mansfield from financial obligation to Beryl. Beryl returned to Kenya.
Denys Finch-Hatton was also in England in 1929 to buy a DeHavilland Gypsy
Moth and restore his active flight status. He returned to Kenya in the
Moth. Denys and his flying un
the trip to England. She flew to London in a DH Leopard Moth accompanied
by Bror Blixen. Mussolini, at war in North Africa, strictly forbade any
female to fly alone over the war zone. This was her farewell to Africa
until she was into her fifties. It marked the beginning of novel and
divergent chapters in her life.
Sometime that same year, Beryl was dining with a group of friends that
included J. C. Carberry, an accomplished pilot and a wealthy British
expatriate living in Kenya and England. He casually dared Beryl to "hop
the pond" — fly the Atlantic from east to west. He would finance her
voyage and provide a specially built plane if she promised to return it in
time for him to compete in the Cape Race. Success with an east-to-west,
non-stop flight had been elusive; several pilots, male and female, had
perished in the attempt. Jim Mollison flew from Ireland to New Brunswick
in 1932 in a DH Puss Moth. Amelia Earhart (1928, New York to Ireland, 15
hours) and Charles Lindbergh (1927, New York to Paris, 27 hours) had flown
west to east, the more favorable direction due to prevailing winds. She
accepted on the spot; this was the challenge she sought.
With expectations of a late July, early August delivery of the plane, a
Percival Vega Gull, she continued to hone her piloting skills as chief
pilot for Air Cruisers, Ltd. routinely flying the company's president in a
DH Dragon between London and Paris. Technical difficulties delayed
delivery of the plane, which resulted in minimal time for Beryl to
transition to the new plane. In addition to flying, Beryl trained as
vigorously for the flight as would an athlete for competition and spent
hours studying maps with Campbell Black and Jim Mollison.
At 6:50 a.m. on September 4, 1936, she departed the military field at
Abingdon, England in the Vega, VP-KCC, dubbed "The Messenger." It was
two-passenger, side-by-side, with a 200hp DH Gypsy Six engine and a
cruising speed of 163 mph. It was equipped with a French Ratier
variable-pitch prop. Fuel was carried in six tanks, two standard tanks in
the wings, and, for long-range, two in the center section, and two in the
cabin (255 total gallons, 3800 mile range). There was one gauge for the
standard tanks; the extra tanks had no gauges. As each emptied, Beryl was
required to switch it off with a petcock and open the next one in a
special sequence that maintained the plane's balance. The panel's meager
display included a Reid & Sigrist turn-and-slip indicator, a Sperry gyro
and artificial horizon and an instrument called a `fore and aft reader'
which measured rate of climb. There was no radio.
The Messenger was airborne in 1,800 feet despite the extreme fuel weight.
In addition to her food supply of five flasks of coffee, one flask of
brandy, a cold chicken and some dried fruits and nuts, Beryl later wrote
that, as she set her course in flight, she hummed aloud the mantra Tom had
stressed in her early flight training, "Variation west, magnetic best.
Variation east, magnetic least".
She crash-landed on September 5, 1936 in a peat bog on Cape Breton, Nova
Scotia, 21 hours and 35 minutes after take-off. It was later discovered
that one tank was three-quarters full; the crash was a result of
carburetor ice. Enough fuel remained to have reached New York, the
Unscathed save for a gash on her forehead, Beryl greeted crowds of well
wishers in Halifax and co-piloted a Beech Staggerwing to Long Island's
Floyd Bennett Field the next day. She was feted with a ticker-tape parade
in New York City and honored by Mayor LaGuardia. She met with executives
from Paramount Pictures and contracted to teach flying techniques. Days
after her triumphant flight, she received word that Tom Campbell Black had
been killed when an arriving plane sliced through the canopy of his Mew
Gull as he waited to depart Speke, England. Beryl sailed to England.
In July 1937, Beryl arrived in Los Angeles where she worked at fulfilling
her contract with Paramount. About this time, she also met Raoul
Schumacher; he would become her third husband in 1942. They explored the
American southwest, sailed to Melbourne and on to Cape Town. By 1939, they
returned to California. Sometime in 1940-41, they announced that Beryl had
written her memoir, West with the Night, which she dedicated to her
father. Houghton Mifflin published the book in May 1942. Receiving
critical acclaim, it made 13 best seller lists including the New York
In the late 1940's, Beryl returned to Kenya to regain her status as a
reputable trainer. She never again piloted a plane.
Throughout her life, Beryl had total disregard for money and never
concerned herself with managing finances. Despite an apparently glamorous
life, she was always dependent on
the kindness and largesse of her friends. Her instinct was to survive no
matter the cost to others. In 1981, she was brutally beaten when her
rent-free bungalow at Ngong Racecourse was burglarized. Most of her few
possessions and memorabilia were stolen. Beryl's last years were a
Her father, the most significant man in her life, died in 1957. Her only
child, Gervase Markham, died at the age of 42 in a car accident in Paris;
Beryl did not attend the funeral. Gervase left two daughters, Fleur and
East African pilot G. D. Fleming believed that, with the exception of Jean
Batten, Beryl was the finest woman pilot in the British Empire. "I never
saw her the worse for wear — even after a ten-hour flight…her navigation
was uncanny and she could find her way anywhere. I never saw her make a
poor landing even in really filthy weather."
When Beryl departed on her transatlantic flight, she quietly whispered
twende tu (I am going). As a result of complications following hip
surgery, she quietly departed this earth on August 4, 1986 in a Nairobi
hospital; she was 83. Her cremated remains were scattered over the Ngong
Racecourse. A memorial service was held on September 4, 1986 in London
honoring Beryl's life and commemorating the 50th anniversary of her epic
When I visited Nairobi's Wilson Airport in 1992, no one in the pilots'
lounge/FBO knew of Beryl. There were neither photos nor plaques to honor
this daughter and pilot of Africa. Ngong Racecourse looked weary and
timeworn with Beryl's former bungalow nestled in the cool shade of a copse
of large trees. There was a poignant sadness in what I failed to find.
Originally published in Woman Pilot • January/February 2000