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American sisters Elizabeth and Jane du Bois were inseparable. And as they were in life, so they proved in death in a horrifying tragedy at Upminster which made headlines around the world. In 1935 commercial air travel was in its infancy and the privilege of a wealthy few.  But the aircraft were often far from luxurious and those described as ‘airliners’ were often little bigger than a modern light aircraft.

On Thursday 21 February 1935 the du Bois sisters arrived at Stapleford Tawney airfield near Abridge. The airfield still exists today and is used by small aircraft. It can be seen from the M25 between junctions 27 and 28. It opened in 1933 as the Essex Aerodrome and was used by Hillman’s Airways who offered flights to Paris and other European destinations on de Havilland Dragon biplanes.

Jane du Bois was 20 her sister, Elizabeth 23.  They were the daughters of Coert du Bois, the United States Consul-General in Naples. The girls had travelled all their lives and had acquired a reputation for a love of partying. They were well known in London and Paris and their friends were, as one newspaper put it, “renowned for the hectic measure of their pleasures”. Both sisters drank whisky, often in large quantities.

They arrived at Essex Aerodrome by coach from London with a single piece of luggage and paid 20 guineas for all six seats which they had booked the previous day on the 10am Hillman’s Airways flight to Paris. They told staff they would be joined by four companions.  A short time later one of the sisters went to the Hillman’s office and made a telephone call. She returned saying their friends’ car had broken down and they wouldn’t be flying.  The subsequent investigation found no trace of the call or their travelling companions.

The plane took off at two minutes past ten with just the pilot and the du Bois sisters on board. A few minutes later, over Gidea Park at a height of around 3,000 feet, the pilot turned to the girls and assured them the turbulence they had experienced on take-off was over.  One of the sisters replied ‘all right’ and asked that the flap in the cockpit door should be closed because of the draught.  The pilot did so leaving the girls alone and unobserved in the cabin.

A short time later two gas fitters, George Watling and Tom Collins, working on Park Drive in Upminster, were excited by the rare sight of a commercial airliner passing overhead.  As they peered upwards an object fell from it. It hit the ground with a tremendous thud behind some nearby houses. On reaching the spot they were horrified to find the object which had plunged to earth was in fact two girls with their arms entwined around each other. The du Bois sisters had fallen thousands of feet to their deaths.

On board the aircraft the pilot was unaware of the tragedy which had unfolded behind him.  He was over the Channel before he opened the cockpit door to speak to the girls.  To his disbelief he saw the cabin was empty.  He immediately turned round and returned to Stapleford Tawney where the investigation began.

Police arrived and near the door of the plane they found a single lady’s shoe. On a seat were two books, some cigarettes and a small bottle of whisky partly empty. In another part of part of the plane was a suitcase, two pairs of gloves and two handbags.  In one of the handbags were two sealed letters – one addressed to the girls’ father, the other to their mother.  It was these letters that held the key to the mystery. They were handed to the coroner and their contents remained secret until the inquest a few days later.

Stapleford Airfield, formerly Essex Essex Aerodrome

To be continued – The Inquest

© David Dunford, Essex Hundred Publications