Today (January 5) in London History – “the London lantern festival”

Today, January 5th, is the anniversary of the death of Amy Johnson, the greatest British woman aviator of them all. This Today in London History episode tells her story. And honours her. I hope you’ll think of it as a lantern festival dedicated to her memory. Why a lantern festival? All will be revealed over the course of the podcast.


London Calling.

By my lights – I’m choosing my words carefully here – by my lights it’s the most beautiful ceremony in the world.

It varies from country to country, culture to culture, people to people but in one form or another it takes place in many different places in Asia and southeast Asia. It’s in Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos and so on. I’m talking about the candle boat ceremony. Goes by different names. In Japan it’s the Lantern Festival. In India, the flower and candle ceremony. In Laos, they’re the floating boats of light. 

They’re not all working the exact same patch spiritually – but in both their essence and their outward form they’re all broadly similar. A little paper boat with a candle in it – a floating lantern – is lovingly made and lovingly placed on a stream or river. Set free, it floats away. It’s an act of remembering. Of celebration. Of paying homage.

I like to think of some of these podcasts as, in their own way, a candle in a boat, a mini-lantern festival. And if in the life or story or moment I’m honouring and remembering on this day a river – usually the Thames in our case – doesn’t figure, well, we can go with that Jewish act of putting a stone or a pebble on a grave. I very much like that explanation that flowers, though beautiful, will eventually die. Whereas a stone can symbolize the permanence of memory and will not die. So for terra firma London locations, each of these podcasts can be the placing of a pebble. Tricky of course in those instances when what I’ve selected to mark is an event that has villains as well as victims. I’m thinking of January 3rd, for example. The Sidney Street siege. We of course should remember and honour the three murdered policemen. But the bad guys, the perps, the criminals – the gang of Latvian anarchists? Honour them? No, certainly not. But I think we can remember them – maybe remember that once upon a time each of them was somebody’s baby son, somebody’s little boy. And that their life journey was a rocky road – bad things happened along the way. By way of example, I’m thinking of that one of their number who was tortured in Russia, had his fingernails pulled out. So our pebble placement is not honouring them but maybe it is, at least a little bit, an act of trying to understand, of remembering that each of them was once somebody’s baby’s boy. 

And that brings me to the matter at hand. Today’s – January 5th’s – act of remembrance. This one is a candle in a boat. A lantern of light set afloat on the Thames, on London’s river. Floating down toward the estuary.

Set afloat on this day because January 5th is the anniversary of the death of Amy Johnson, the greatest British woman aviator of them all. The pioneering English pilot who was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia, Amy was an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot in World War II.

On January 5th, 1941, flying an Airspeed Oxford for the ATA in appalling weather conditions she went off course, ran out of fuel, baled out over the Thames estuary. Her parachute was spotted coming down. She was seen alive in the water, calling for help. In the freezing conditions in those dark, storm-tossed waters she would have had only minutes to live. A passing ship, the HMS Haslemere, attempted a rescue. Amy went under. The consensus is she was dragged into the ship’s propeller. Her body was never found. 

The send-off her biographers, Robin Higham and Anne Locker, give her is beautifully judged. Here’s what they say.

“Amy Johnson was a heroine of the romantic age of aviation. Her image was one of a petite, photogenic pilot and mechanic, a pioneer feminist and sportswoman. She also made mistakes and took risks; she was not a technically perfect pilot or navigator. She was, however, recognised by her contemporaries as a courageous and determined flyer as well as a competent hands-on mechanic. According to a fellow ATA pilot, Lettice Curtis, Johnson was often insecure and unhappy, and she was certainly unlucky in many of her personal relationships. Nevertheless because of her indomitable record-breaking and the mystery surrounding her death she became and remains, a legendary figure.”

The next time you’re by the Thames or on the Thames, maybe spare a thought for Amy Johnson. Another good place to float a lantern in your mind is St Martin in the Fields, the old church in Trafalgar Square, where they held a memorial service for her a few days after her death. Or maybe make a small contribution to the Women’s Engineering Society scholarship for Women in Aeronautics that was established in her name.

Good night from London, good night from this London Lantern Festival. 

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