Eve Branson’s life reads like a fast-paced adventure novel.
A classically trained ballet dancer, she appeared in racy West End productions, disguised herself as a boy to take glider lessons, enlisted in the Women’s Royal Navy Service, and then embarked on a series of harrowing adventures as a “Star Girl” air hostess on the ill-fated British South American Airways. Though marrying the dashing ex-Cavalry officer, Edward “Ted” Branson, brought her down to earth to raise three children, Eve’s quest for adventure never faltered.
After running several businesses, traveling the world, and doing global charity work, Eve is preparing to launch the first commercial space travelers to the edge of space in a Virgin Galactic mother ship that bears her name.
In this lively, absorbing memoir – part diary, part adventure story, part family history – Eve Branson’s formidable energy propels the reader through an extraordinary life. Along the way, she divulges some of the unorthodox but effective trade secrets behind raising one of the world’s most colourful entrepreneurs.
After the war, Great Britain was a dreary place. Food rationing was strict; our meagre daily ration was a mouthful of butter, meat, cheese, and offal, with only one egg a week and no citrus fruit. We filled in with vegetables, which everyone grew in their back gardens as best they could. How we craved meat from the butcher, though!
Desperate to get out of England and see the world, what better, I thought, than to become an air hostess and travel to exotic countries? Little did I realise there was at least a year’s waiting list for young women anxious to trade post-war deprivation for glamour in the air.
Never daunted, I found the recruitment centre and chatted up the doorman, who told me about British South American Airways (BSAA), a new airline scheduled to fly between London and South America. It was privately owned by Wing Commander Don Bennett, an ex-RAF pathfinder and later founder and chairman of the United Nations Association.
The kindly, pot-bellied doorman, his eyes twinkling above his well-manicured moustache, told me that to qualify as an air hostess, one needed to be between 23 and 27 years old, under 6 feet 4 inches tall, and unmarried. Candidates would also need to have some nursing experience. After a pause, and with a wink, he added that it was necessary to be a virgin and speak at least two other languages. Well, at least I was 24 years old, of average height, and unmarried!
Terribly nervous, I arrived at the recruitment centre to join 30 other anxious young girls in the waiting room. Tentatively I peeked over my newspaper. They all looked so very much more beautiful and obviously much more efficient than I. One by one we were called until my turn finally came. May God forgive me for not answering their questions entirely truthfully. Yes, I could speak two languages and, yes, I had nurse’s training. They did seem to be quite impressed when I told them I had trained to be a glider pilot—I purposely left out the details! With questions over, they said they would let me know in a week or so. In my fluster I bowed out, only to take the wrong door and find myself in the broom cupboard—not a good start! So you can imagine my surprise and delight when the acceptance letter arrived.
How well I remember 16 February 1948, when I had to give up my last precious wartime clothes coupons for a saucy little cap and blue tailored uniform. It was meant to enhance the figure with a short, tight skirt and silk stockings with a seam down the back, all considered very sexy in those days. The shoes were flat and sturdy, designed to accommodate many hours of standing on the job.
Our various short training courses included a lesson on a grounded horse-glider (once used to fly paratroopers to Arnhem, Netherlands during the war) that had been converted to resemble the interior of a passenger plane. It was on this plane that we learned the ditching drill—how I enjoyed sliding down that shoot!
At the time, BSAA had two types of planes in operation: 13-passenger Lancastrians and four-engine Yorks that carried up to 21 passengers, with names like Star Stream and Star Dale. Thus we air hostesses were known as Star Girls. The flight crews consisted of a captain, first officer, navigator, and radio officer, all of who had recently retired from the Royal Air Force.
The day finally arrived when we had to report for duty. I was feeling fine until the day of my maiden flight on Star Stream, when my courage threatened to fail me. It was a cold January morning; nervous and shivering, I waited for the crew van to pick me up outside Kensington Underground Station and drive me to London Airport to meet the other Star Girls and crew.
In a small Nissen hut at Heathrow Airport we were given our pay packets (all of £5 and 10 shillings) and our itineraries for the flight route from London to Santiago, Chile. It would take 20 days and require six stopovers for refuelling and three crew changes. The experienced Star Girls told me our first priority was to get rid of the “No Tipping” notice in the cabin, so I learned that a screwdriver was to be an essential tool for this job!
In trepidation I boarded the York aircraft to meet my 18 passengers. First I collected the passenger list and then handed around chewing gum and barley sugar, which passengers would chew to stop their ears from bursting; cotton wool to drown out the loud engine noise; and Penguin books, to keep them occupied during the flight. I then explained delicately that all passengers should swallow and blow their noses in preparation for take-off and landing to avoid burst eardrums. I also told them about the emergency and ditching instructions and pointed out the sick bags in the pockets at the back of each passenger’s seat; these invariably proved an essential part of the flight. Finally I made sure they were strapped in and, if we were lucky, we Star Girls would find an empty seat for take-off.
If there were no seats available, we had to sit on “diplomatic bags,” large sacks carried on board by an embassy official. Secured by a lock and chain, I assumed these bags contained secret messages being ferried between the UK and South American embassies.
My first flight as a Star Girl left England on 26 March 1948 at 0905 hours. I was excited and afraid as our speed increased until we were racing at 100 miles per hour down the runway. We climbed into the air, jerking and bumping until we reached the cruising height of 10,000 feet, with an air speed of approximately 25 knots. We were on our way!
Meet Evette Huntley Branson, mother of Richard, Lindy, and Vanessa and wife of the late Major Edward “Ted” Branson. As a young woman raised in the English countryside and trained in classical ballet, Eve longed for excitement and adventure. Barely 20, she disguised herself as a boy and took glider lessons, enlisted in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Navy Service) to help the war effort, and danced in racy West End Theatre productions. At 24, she donned a red ‘Star Girl’ uniform and embarked on a series of harrowing adventures as an air hostess on the ill-fated British South American Airways. But within a few months, two of the airline’s fleet—bombers and military transport planes retired from recent combat—disappeared in the Caribbean. That was too close a call for her suitor, the handsome Cavalry officer Ted Branson, whose proposal lured Eve from the skies to safety and a marriage that would last 62 years.
As a young wife, Eve devoted most of her energy to raising three children but still found time to start several businesses, serve as a probation officer and JP, and volunteer her time to charity organizations. Over the years, she and Ted travelled the world to follow their son Richard’s highly publicized attempts to break world records in ballooning, sailing, and the like. They also followed their daughters’ exciting arts and business careers and delighted in the exploits of their 11 grandchildren.
In 2005, Eve founded the Eve Branson Foundation, a charity that provides income-producing projects for girls in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. In 2008, at 84, she became the first mother in history with a private space travel namesake, the Virgin Mother Ship – VMS EVE – that will launch the first Virgin Galactic astronauts to the edge of space. A prolific writer, Eve has published many travel articles and has written three novels and several children’s books including Sarky Puddleboat (AuthorHouse 2010).