Plane Crash on the Gairkhata Tea Estate by Joss O’Kelly

Plane Crash on the Gairkhata Tea Estate by Joss O’Kelly

When I was a child, I was told that this propeller, hanging on my grandmother’s wall, was from the plane in which her elder son had crashed and died.

Years later, when I was pursuing my interest in family history, I tried to find out as much as I could about my deceased uncle, the pilot. It turned out to be quite a story!

My father’s side of the family were Anglo-Indians, which in itself was something of a revelation, though not an unwelcome one.

Patrick Terence Michael O’Kelly was baptised at St Thomas RC Church, Middleton Row, Calcutta, on 3 Nov 1917. His parents were Thomas Henry O’Kelly, an Assistant Mercantile Officer, and his wife Joy, nee McCarthy. He was known to the family as Terence.

His first solo flight in England took place on 3 July 1935 and was reported as follows in The Cambridgeshire Times:  “Mr Barrington … one of the youngest qualified airmen in the country … arrived in England about 2 months ago after years abroad as a junior officer in the Merchant Navy. ...He has flown aircraft in various parts of the world including India, South and East Africa and America. He does not intend to go back to sea. It is very probable that he will later go on to the RAF as a commissioned officer. His skill at navigation, his knowledge of Oriental languages, particularly Hindustani, which he can speak fluently, and his remarkable ability as a pilot at such an early age will help to make him a very efficient officer in the RAF.”

But wait - who is this Mr Barrington? Well, by this time he was calling himself Patrick Barrington or Patrick Martyn-Barrington.

For the next 11 years of his life he travelled widely, claiming to have done any number of mostly unverifiable things. In England he married, fathered a son and promptly disappeared. He claimed to have been involved in the Finnish Winter War, the Battle of Britain and various other theatres of war but there is no evidence any of it - apart his time in China in 1939 where at least he took photographs!

Anyway, back in India after the war, he took up a job as an aviator at a tea plantation in the Dooars region, and it was here that he married an, as yet, unknown girl. And yes, he was still married to wife No 1! After the wedding he put on a display of his flying skills, crashed the plane and died. No death certificate or burial records are available but Eileen Hewson's Darjeeling & the Dooars, BACSA, 2006 has a record of his grave in Bhogotpore Cemetery, Nagrakata.



Family papers include three newspaper clippings:

“On the 21st April at 9.30am crashed in his own plane VT-AUK on Hindupara Airstrip, "Barry" my beloved husband, Terence my darling son. Deeply mourned by all his loved ones.”

“Mrs Barrington, Mrs Oakeshott and family offer sincere thanks to the Dooars Planters and other friends for their floral tributes and expressions of sympathy on the death of our "Barry".”

“Capt P R M Barrington, who was killed in an air accident in Hindupara (Dooars) on April 21 had served on the Battle of Britain as an RAF fighter pilot and was attached to the 2/5th Gurkha Rifles in the Burma Campaign. Later on he served as a naval navigation officer and subsequently rejoined the RAF. He placed his services and his plane at the disposal of the medical authorities in the Dooars. He was 28 at the time of death.”

Mrs Oakeshott was his mother, who by this time had remarried, but who was Mrs Barrington?  The girl he married in 1941 in Bedford was bringing up her son in England and I have a letter dated November 1946 from a solicitor acting on her behalf to my grandmother saying: “Within the last few days my client has heard indirectly, of which fact of course she has no verification, that her husband was killed in an air crash...” so clearly this was another girl entirely.

The obituaries quoted mention Hindupara and the Dooars so my next step was to look at the excellent Koi Hai site and to make further enquiries with them. Their website provides the following: “When you enter the Dooars area, Gairkhata tea estate is the first one that you come across. The garden is highly reputed for its superior quality CTC teas. Gairkhata and the adjoining out garden Hindupara produce several varieties of CTC teas”. It also says that the estate is now a part of Gillanders Arbuthnot and Co. Ltd.

I emailed the webmaster and he immediately contacted two other old Koi Hais who provided some very interesting information, along with a suggestion that I write to the tea estate to ask what records or photographs they may have.

This latter query was facilitated by the ever-helpful a friend who lives in Delhi and the reply was prompt though to little avail. The present bungalow on the estate was constructed in 1989-90, so there is no longer any physical record of the place where the tragic event unfolded. The only paper record still in existence is a list of condolences read out at the AGM in 1946, which includes: “One of our younger men, Mr P. M. Barrington, died as the result of a crash in his privately owned plane. It was a tragic end to a promising career”.

However, what I didn’t score on this front, was more than made up for by the following from retired tea planter Derek Perry:

“Last night I had a long telephone conversation with Gerry Halnan.  At 88 years his memory is as sharp as a pin.  As I surmised Gerry did not make the Dooars until 1948.  2 years after the incident it was still a fresh talking point in Binnaguri Club circles.  8 years later, 1954, when I arrived, the story was still circulating, but I give credit to Gerry's memory for refreshing my dormant memory cells.  Gerry also confirms that the Club and golf course was land leased by the Gairkhata estate and that the flat terrain of the golf course was used by successive ex RAF planters as a strip for keeping up their flying skills. There were often two to three aircraft parked there. 

 “Here is the story. This ex-RAF Flying Officer comes to Gairkhata with his light plane, after the war, presumably he is Patrick / Terence as in either one of his aliases.  However, there is nothing known about those alleged past names or activities.  He marries a young lady from country unknown, could be England or Calcutta, India.  There is celebration at the Gairkhata bungalow: either her parents or his parents are present.  Patrick on impulse, possibly after a few drinks, takes off in his aircraft to impress his wife and guests.  He flies over the bungalow, performing several low swooping circuits.  He then skims very low approaching the bungalow where there is a closed garden gate.  The undercarriage clips the gate with disastrous consequences.  The plane flips over, killing the pilot, tragically in the full view of his new bride and family. That really is all that is known of Patrick's tragic end.”