An International Sussex Woman

To commemorate International Women’s Day I thought I would tell you about an international shark-catching Sussex heroine!

Ethelwyn Wilkinson was born in Seaford in 1887, the daughter of William and Ada Wilkinson. Her father was a builder and they lived in the High Street.  Ethelwyn married a New Zealand adventurer at St Leonard’s Church, Seaford on 19th November 1909.

Joel Joseph Hammond had a most colourful life.  He was born at Wanganui, New Zealand and went to Wellington University. Joel was not an academic, so in 1906 at the age of 20 he decided to make his fortune and travel. First he went to Alaska to be a trapper but that didn’t work out, so he then travelled to the Klondike Goldfields in Canada to be a prospector.  He didn’t strike gold but was soon taken up by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus where he worked as a cowboy – his horsemanship bringing him considerable fame.   The Circus travelled throughout Europe and it was probably when it came to England that Joel met his wife to be, 20 year old Ethelwyn Wilkinson

Whilst travelling in France, the newly married Joel saw Louis Bleriot’s new aeroplane and being very much an ‘action man’ was soon flying them.  He learned to fly in Reims and on 4th  October 1910 Hammond was granted an Aviators Certificate by the Royal Aero Club (based at Piccadilly in London) He was only the 32nd person to be issued with a pilots licence in the UK.

Hammond Joel 1
Joel with ‘Britannia’

Ethelwyn and Joel took a Bleriot monoplane called Britannia back home to New Zealand. Joel was the first person to fly in that country and was employed by the Government as their first pilot.   He was also one of the first pilots in Australia and in February 1911 flew between Melbourne and Geelong and made the first cross-country flight in that country. He later flew from Perth to Sydney – a remarkable distance bearing in mind that manned flight was just six years old.  During this time Ethelwyn was carried as a passenger and became the first woman in Australia to fly. 

On 22nd April 1911 Ethelwyn was interviewed by the Australian press and said  I always feel quite comfy when I am in the bi-plane with my husband. When we start it is only like being in an ordinary passenger lift which has started a little bit quickly. It is a delightful experience. …I am especially fond of motoring, aviation and shark-catching!.”

Hammond Ethelwyn
Ethelwyn in Australia

The land that Joel and Ethelwyn flew onto is now on the site of Sydney Airport.

The following year Ethelwyn and Joel moved back to Sussex and Joel got a job with the Eastbourne Aviation Company.  He was a flying instructor and flew exhibition flights from their airfield which was situated off Lottbridge Drove (just opposite to where the Tesco Superstore is)  He soon became a popular man – Flight Magazine in October 1912 reported that “Mr Hammond has taken a holiday and so has disappointed many Eastbourne people anxious to see his wonderful exhibition flights”.  He obviously kept his impish streak as it is reported that he buzzed golfers by flying over Willingdon Golf Links. 


At the outbreak of the Great War, Hammond joined the Royal Flying Corps. Joel flew on many dangerous missions over battlefields for reconnaissance work. Because of his skills he was soon promoted to Captain. He was such a talented pilot that when the USA entered the war, he was asked to go to America to promote War Bonds – as a sort of official stunt pilot.

On 22nd September 1918 his Bristol F2B Fighter struck a tree close to the Indianapolis Speedway near Annapolis in Maryland and he was killed.  Thousands of people attended his funeral when the coffin was draped in the Union Jack and Stars & Stripes and a firing squad fired over the cortege

Hammond Joel
Joel Hammond

At the time of his death, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists Ethelwyn’s address as Airedale House, Seaford. This was in Cinque Ports Road (now Upper Broad Street) She had moved back home to live with her parents.  Ethelwyn did not remarry. Our very own aviator and shark-catcher died aged 64 in Hailsham in 1951.


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